What we do when nobody’s watching and the things that go unsaid in the minds of men and women — these are the obsessions pulsing through Many People Die Like You, a newly translated collection of witty, acerbic short stories by Swedish writer Lina Wolff.
A new mother whose husband works away from home sits “glued to soap operas” for days, sticking her chewing gum in the flower pot. A dejected housewife routinely hires private detectives to spy on her unfaithful husband, tempts the investigators upstairs, ties them up with a hose pipe and leaves them to suffocate. A thirtysomething pianist starts giving lessons to his elderly neighbour, before sensing that he could use her to “remedy his inexperience” with women and begins sleeping with her in secret, “once a week, one hour”.
Wolff’s clever and sardonic stories — in a slick translation by Saskia Vogel — expose our cruelest thought processes, exploring the often savage consequences for both men and women of life under the patriarchy.
In Wolff’s previous book, her first novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, two sex workers named their brothel’s collection of stray dogs after venerated male writers — “Chaucer”, “Dante”. That same caustic mockery of male egotism is here in full force and, for the most part, it’s wickedly thrilling.
In the title story a literature professor feels “asphyxiated” by boredom with his wife and the affairs he has with young female students. In his ennui, he is “struck by the thought that everything he’d read in his life he’d read so he could recount it in female company”. As consolation, he turns to Tolstoy and Borges, but “when none of these authors worked, he tried Dan Brown and at least managed to concentrate”.
This mundane surrealism is best in one of the collection’s standout stories, which follows a life-drawing model called Jazmina. She dreams one night that “parts of her body were laid before her on a table, awaiting burial”. Her husband places the parts into a coffin and she helps him. The next morning, one of the art students, Joan, cajoles her into spending the day with him. She’s silent; he asks her what she’s thinking. “I always think about what happened with my mother when the light is like this,” she replies, explaining that when she was a child, her mother told her stepfather that he wasn’t her real father. He was so distraught he “grabbed [her] mother by the hair and dragged her” to the top of a cliff, where he threw her off.
Amid this darkly gruesome parable about the psychological and physical effects of male control over female bodies, Wolff leaves space for humour. “All OK, Joan?” she asks lightly, in the stunned silence that follows the story. “All OK, Jazmina,” he replies. She falls asleep, and when she awakes, he’s nowhere to be seen.
Many People Die Like You, by Lina Wolff, translated by Saskia Vogel, And Other Stories, RRP£10, 208 pages
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