Stuart Walton reviews the new translation of Lina Wolff’s debut short story collection.
Lina Wolff, Many People Die Like You translated by Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories, 2020), 201pp
One of Lina Wolff’s narrators in this short story collection from 2009, her first published work in her native Swedish, is a schoolgirl, Encarna, who has no idea what she is going to do with her life. It hasn’t helped matters that she has told the careers advisor at school that she would like a job that has something to do with sex. She and her sister sometimes take a bus in their lunch-break to see a gipsy fortune-teller who has eight children and a crystal ball. Here she receives the kind of advice that isn’t guaranteed to raise the spirits:
…once she said that life always ends in tears, so you had to get some laughs in before you die, because then you’ve won. Once she said we were dumb for thinking we were going to be happy. You can’t choose what kind of happy you’re going to be, only the kind of unhappy, and that’s good enough.
Choosing what kind of unhappy they are going to be is an aptitude in which Wolff’s characters are all too well-versed. The diverse female and male narrators in these fourteen tales are acutely aware of, if not always reconciled to, the frustrations and blockages life allots them. They are dogged by a gnawing sense of having missed the mark, arrived too late, failed to communicate what they wanted or communicated it only too well. Failure sticks to them like the mud through which Encarna and her sister traipse on the way to see the fortune-teller.
Nothing thwarts quite as excruciatingly as thwarted desire. Wanting what they can’t have is a speciality of many of these characters, and the different ways of not having it proliferate eloquently. Unreciprocated longing is one way, and so too are the gaping chasms between women and men, with their entirely incompatible sets of emotional aptitudes and attitudes to sex. In ‘Nothing Has Changed’, two flatmates become aware that a young man in the building opposite is spying on them when they undress for bed, but since they are both in the habit of undressing before their uncurtained windows, it isn’t clear which of them he is interested in. Eventually, he makes himself known to them and begins a liaison with the narrator’s flatmate, Klara, who is already in a relationship with her psychologist. Ania, the narrator, also has a boyfriend, a fellow law student, and the story drifts towards a final scene in which all four of them have dinner together in the women’s apartment. The soft light and the wine make everybody look very becoming, and Ania suddenly declares that being in couples is so boring, proposing that perhaps they could all have sex together. None of the others finds the suggestion at all appropriate, and an embarrassed silence descends.
The failures of sex can always become its overt subject-matter, however, and in ‘Misery Porn’, a part-time chef finds himself drawn into a sado-masochistic affair with Aniara, a woman in a neighbouring apartment who has her own online porn channel. This consists mostly, for the time being, of prolonged footage of her crying bitterly to herself, which, as she explains to the chef, is poignantly arousing to her subscribers. What could be almost a comic set-up rapidly becomes much darker, as Aniara induces him to carry out a violent assault on her, the evidence of which sends the number of followers on the channel soaring. Telling this story from the man’s viewpoint renders its troubling nature all the more palpable. His confrontation with female masochism is a world away from the sanitised raciness of Fifty Shades of Grey. He is repelled by what his own reaction to it says about him, torn between the cowardice of refusing to play along and his horrified complicity in doing so.
There are, in any case, more conventional ways to be cruel. Clemente, in ‘When She Talks About the Patriarchy’, an unconscionable philanderer, remarks to himself of his long-suffering wife, Jessica, at one point that ‘[s]he is, in spite of her venom, pretty when she’s sad. The sadness refines her angular beauty. He feels like telling her she should be sad more often, genuinely sad’. His need to believe in his own existential freedom within the context of their marriage leads him to tellingly poor metaphors, as when his licence to escape from his wife means evading from ‘those enhanced lips and pointy breasts pointing at you, like the masses pointing at the guilty party’. What he prefers to see as his inalienable right is a world where reliable abstract principles – specifically ‘ugliness and masculinity and femininity’ – have an eternal quality, against which the contortions of momentary desire can be allowed free play. ‘Diffuse, unfixed longing’ is how he characterises his own state of being. ‘Like a cat who has spent his whole life in a green room, dreaming of blue’. The apposite precision of the image makes him chuckle to himself. He is secure in his own self-possession and yet, moments earlier, a fisherman he speaks to on the quayside recognises him for a man of disturbing inclinations and promptly closes down the pleasantry of their initial chitchat.
Wolff’s locations are her native southern Sweden and Spain, where she lived for several years in Madrid and on the Mediterranean coast. Something about the axiomatic cultural standoff between chilly northern fastidiousness and the suppressed passionate brooding of the southern soul animates many of these stories, but in perceptive ways rather than with the peremptory rigidities of stereotype. The prevailing tone is a deadpan matter-of-factness, reminiscent sometimes of Raymond Carver, alternating with a garrulous narrative animation in the first-person stories that will be familiar to a British audience from Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues. In this latter idiom, a longer item, ‘Maurice Echegaray’, about the workplace machinations and rivalries of an international trading company in Madrid, run by a slippery French entrepreneur, takes a lighter tone than many of the other pieces. It suggests, through its narrator’s own self-development in her job, that there is a path through the banalities and injustices of the administered world that consists in not taking them entirely seriously, or at least not according to the traditional protocols under which they operate.
Sometimes what sounds like an ancient ordinary wisdom, the Golden Rule in one story, can strike a character as a decent yardstick. ‘Treat people the way you’d want them to treat you,’ says the male narrator whose girlfriend is about to introduce him to the man with whom she briefly cheated on him. ‘That might sound like a dumb rule, but I’ve always thought it was a good one.’ The narrator puts his maxim into practice. As the other man Lukas moves in with them, he befriends the intruder. In a reassuring exercise of male bonding, they go tree-felling together, seeming to indicate that difficult situations can restore themselves when approached with cool emotional detachment. But then Lukas, a philosophy student, spoils things by explaining Schopenhauer’s view that the world is one big torture-chamber, an intricately meshed system of obscene suffering. It’s one thing to enjoy the graphically violent crudity of a film on TV – evidently David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990) – but quite another to believe that life really is as grotesque as Lynch’s Laura Dern discovers.
Another peculiar film, seen in a Madrid cinema on return from a long, sickly day-trip to Granada on a stifling crowded coach, leaves the story’s narrator irritated and baffled. It’s Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place (2011) with Sean Penn, whom she wrongly identifies as the film’s director. Penn’s character too, a clapped-out rock star with a wheelie-bag, is on a hopeless odyssey to find a man responsible for his late father’s sufferings in a Nazi concentration camp. The film seems to its viewer a clueless mess, akin to the home life she is putting off returning to at the end of her trying and distressing day. All she can do is plan tomorrow’s dinner, cook her man something he likes. ‘Then I thought what difference did it make; nothing really mattered.’
It is Lina Wolff’s elusive gift to make the reader feel that the failure of things to matter is what matters most of all. The scenarios in which she imprisons her unfulfilled characters have the uneasy fascination that unsparing realism often carries, but they are also implicitly articulate of the empathy for which emotional damage appeals. These are not overtly angry stories, although many of them could be. She has been called a feminist writer, and certainly the hiatuses and alienation of relations between the sexes is a consistent topic. It is a world in which the notion of compromise connotes more the jeopardising of one’s principles than the conciliatory impulse to meet the other halfway. A man who treats his girlfriend to ringside seats at a bullfight, where he intends to propose to her, and then becomes incensed when she connives later with the unsubtle erotic advances of a Peruvian migrant in a Mickey Mouse costume, has failed several important tests, but finds himself ambiguously rewarded by her anyway. Nobody here has quite got what they wanted. ‘But it was what it was,’ he reflects prosaically, ‘as it always had been.’
Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, Introducing Theodor Adorno, a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England.