The following is from Lina Wolff's novel The Polyglot Lovers. Elinor, 36, smart, and unsentimental, is stranded by a snowstorm with a literary critic. Max Lamas, an author who dreams of a polyglot lover, befriends a marchesa whose Roman family is on the brink of ruin. Lina Wolff’s debut novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, was awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the Vi Magazine Literature Prize. The Polyglot Lovers won the August Prize and the Svenska Dagbladet Prize, and has been translated into 17 languages.
Borges writes that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both cause the population to multiply. That assertion probably shows a comprehensive goodwill toward nature, because humankind as a creature, at least as seen from above, seems by and large destructive, craven, and detestable. In this it most resembles, at least according to the author Roberto Bolaño, a rat. But contrary to Borges’s view, mirrors were, for Marco Devoti and I, the summer he and Max Lamas visited us, more than a way to multiply ourselves—which we thought formidable in and of itself—but also a way to multiply the pleasure of what we eventually undertook in my little bedroom.
Ostensibly, Max Lamas’ assignment was to write a piece of reportage for La Stampa about my grandmother, portraying her as “the last true marchesa in Italy.” In this portrayal, Grandmother would figure as a sort of relic from a time gone by. Even if she was now irrelevant, appearing as she did in her true guise, she still symbolized something real and authentic from Italian history, and the past was something to look back on and rally around at a time like this, characterized, not for the first time in Italy, by deep chaos. That’s what the conservative editorial staff at La Stampa had thought, Max Lamas said when he called Grandmother for the first time. And it was decided that, in order to really get to know Grandmother, he would spend an entire week with us at our summer house.
It was the end of July that year, and Max Lamas was to fly to Rome, take a bus over the Apennines, and then be picked up by the waiters in Mogliano. His arrival was preceded by detailed preparations carried out by the waiters. Among other things, old family portraits were fetched from the apartment in Rome and hung in the living room in Le Marche. The windows were cleaned and the furniture was moved around over the course of a few days so that the waiters could clean every corner. Once the house had been cleaned, Grandmother’s waiters, who were almost never in agreement and whose constant bickering faded into background noise after a few days, traveled down to the market in Mogliano and bought large bouquets of white and orange lilies, which they placed throughout the house.
After a day or so, the scent of flowers weighed on every room. Everything was now dust-free, shiny, and heavily perfumed. Grandmother slumbered in her rocking chair, presumably already dreaming of how Max Lamas’ pen would portray her in La Stampa, and of course picturing something grand. Mother was at the rest home in Mondragón and wasn’t expected for a few weeks, if she came down at all that summer. The waiters sat on their sofas. One of them was playing solitaire while the other two discussed something that needed doing at the bottom of the garden and how this might be pointed out to the gardener without insulting him. Then they started to talk about other things—South American things—and suddenly I heard one of them saying the only calm that can arise under certain circumstances is the calm that follows a shipwreck. In retrospect I’ve wondered why—of all the things the waiters said during those days—this sentence stood out from all the rest.
When Max Lamas finally arrived, he had an assistant with him. Grandmother and the waiters stood on the ground floor exchanging confused looks as the pair climbed out of the car. Then Grandmother said:
“No one mentioned an assistant.”
When she understood that the assistant would also need to be accommodated, a confusion arose that, combined with the heat, must have made both Grandmother and the waiters momentarily forget how the rooms in the house were arranged. This is how Marco Devoti ended up in the room next to mine.
“You’ll have to sleep in the light blue room,” Grandmother determined.
We all stood in the hall feeling awkward. Max Lamas with his camera hung by a strap over his shoulder, and a bag with notebooks and pens sticking out which, combined with the blazer, gave him the air of an intellectual from Rome. Marco stood next to him. Tall and still, with a bit of youthful acne, even though he, like I, was surely over twenty. I remember his hands were large and clumsy at his sides.
During the first days with us, Marco Devoti hardly said a word. He walked around with a dark mien and lingered in front of various objects in the house. With his arms crossed over his chest and an expression of restrained distaste, he looked at one family portrait after another. It was hard to understand how Lamas had come to choose him as an assistant when he so clearly despised everything we stood for.
“Oh no, he doesn’t despise anyone,” Max Lamas assured us. “He just has a hard time expressing himself.”
My mother, it has been said, has an excellent nose for wounds, and like a predatory fish she can catch the scent of blood from incredible distances. I don’t want to say that I’ve inherited this ability, but this matter of his speech impediment interested me. I tried talking to him to gain clarity, but he withdrew as soon as I approached him. He, however, occasionally went into the kitchen to talk to the waiters in Spanish. My own Spanish is far from perfect, but if I stopped outside I could hear that Marco Devoti’s Spanish, in contrast to Max Lamas’ hard continental Spanish, was soft and yielding, as though he had learned it in Mexico or Argentina. And indeed, there was something in the diction—when he said certain words or too many words at once—that seemed to compress entire sentences into a muddle of unintelligible syllables. I laughed to myself. The odd intelligible sentence came out of his mouth. I once heard him say to the waiters why do you stay, don’t you notice how they push you around? And the waiters answered, talking over each other, Pero adónde vamos señor, díganos usted adónde vamos, y ella sin nosotros qué hará? (It was as though they’d gone through this possibility countless times, but every time they’d been forced to dismiss it.) They resumed their conversation, and once again Marco Devoti’s words tangled themselves into incredible harangues.
“Grandmother can’t manage without them,” I informed him before I went to bed that same night.
“You’re so fine and noble,” he replied, without a trace of the speech impediment. “But you are also a little witch. There’s something ugly inside you. It sits at the bottom of you like sediment or slime, because you think you all own the world. You have some sort of entitlement. But things are going to change.”
“What have the waiters put in your head?” I asked.
He replied that when my grandmother died, the end would come for me and my mother. Everything would come crumbling down, and we would be left without a palazzo, waiters, or property in Le Marche.
“You do know you’re living on borrowed money?” he said. “And when Matilde dies, that’s the end of the loan. You’ll have to sell everything you own and have. The waiters say she’s like paint on a piece of rotten wood. And some paint can keep an entire house together, but when the paint finally wears away, everything collapses.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I said. “It’s as though you aren’t quite articulating your words.”
Marco Devoti leaned toward me.
“And before your fall becomes a fact,” he whispered, “I’d very much like to be with you. Alone. You and me, in your room, in front of your mirror.”
“You’ll have to try harder than that,” I replied.
“Don’t make anyone try too long,” Marco Devoti answered. “When you’re in the shit with the rest of humanity it’s not going to be the same as it is now. Do you understand? Come on now.”
“You’re joking,” I said. “Do you really think this is how things are done?”
“Come on,” he said.
I got up slowly and took his hand, because the proposal was nonetheless enticing. Perhaps my curiosity was related to the speech impediment. How sure of himself can a man with such a blatant lack be? But Marco was full of self-belief as we walked up the stairs to my room. (I think it’s related to mothers. They make their sons feel like kings, however they’re endowed.) Marco Devoti locked the door behind us and left me standing in the middle of the room while he took a seat in one of the chairs. But now everything was different, because his self-assurance had vanished. So, this was as far as his self-esteem had taken him, and now it was at its end.
This was also where my own assuredness disappeared, and I felt a knot in my stomach when I saw his shaking hands fumbling to light a cigarette. It was clear that he was not a smoker, because he coughed after he inhaled the smoke, and the cigarette fell to the floor.
“I think I shall rejoin the others,” I said.
“Wait,” he said and picked up the cigarette. “Wait.”
“Just wait a minute,” he repeated.
When he’d finished smoking and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray, he stood up and began methodically unbuttoning my blouse. He was so focused that pearls of sweat formed on his brow. His pedantry in unbuttoning, removing, and folding might have seemed normal for a very old man, or someone who had spent his entire life collecting stamps or cataloging butterfly wings. But not someone like Marco Devoti, not a self-professed rebel who tried to stir the waiters to mutiny against Grandmother.
“This feels ridiculous,” I said.
Marco Devoti ignored this sentence and began unbuckling his shoes, which he placed neatly against the wall, still avoiding my eyes.
“You’re shy,” I said.
Still no reply came, but he undid my bra and put everything over the back of the chair.
“You’re handling me like a piece of dead meat,” I said.
“Right now I’m handling you like a porcelain vase,” he replied.
“You’re never going to be able to see this through,” I said. “You’re terrified. It’s obvious.”
I didn’t admit that I too was terrified. Marco sat behind me and unzipped my skirt. And then it was hung neatly on the back of the chair. I was now standing naked before him, and he turned me slowly toward the mirror. I’ve never liked my own image, so I looked down at the floor. But Marco Devoti got up, put his finger under my chin, and made me face the image. I saw the angular shoulders, the uneasy skin on my body, and the unruly hair. Marco Devoti put his hands on my shoulders and allowed them to glide along my arms, over my hips, and down my thighs. He kneeled behind me. Then he did things you wouldn’t imagine someone who’d shaken as he had was capable of. To begin with it was nice—perfectly fine, at least—but when he got going, the encounter escalated. I’ve tried to write about what happened on more than one occasion, but it’s nothing that can be recounted in a calm and collected tone. It demands a sort of irrational state of emergency, or in any case a shut and sealed door. I enjoy offering myself up, because that’s part of writing, but I cannot suddenly invite even the most revered reader into my bedroom. (But I can say that he, with his pimples and his freckled back, whispered puta puta puta, te voy a partir en dos, and I said I wished I didn’t understand and he whispered that of course I did, everyone did, even those who didn’t speak Spanish, because it belonged to a filthy ur-language of sexuality.)
Regardless. Minutes later I got up and faced him. Marco Devoti had sunk down in the armchair, his legs crossed. I stared at him and he stared back at me. The room was hot and the air thick with the smell of sex. I opened the window. Marco Devoti fetched paper from the bathroom.
“Don’t tell Lamas,” he said. “He’ll send me away.”
He gently dried me off and led me into the shower. He showered me slowly and carefully, as though I were in fact the porcelain vase he had mentioned at the start. He carried over the clothes from the chair and dressed me, item by item. Finally, I stood before him again, dressed just as if the clothes had never been removed. Marco took a seat in the armchair and lit a cigarette, which he smoked without his hands shaking one bit.
“I’ve always dreamed of having someone of your class in that way,” he said, without any speech impediment. “And I must say that it exceeded my every expectation.”
We continued to see each other in my room for several days, and always in front of that large mirror. We’d enter a sort of trance lasting as long as several hours, always with our gazes fixed on ourselves. It was rare that we looked each other in the eye. Both of us might have our eyes shut for minutes at a time, as if the other person or the room itself were of no importance. Thinking back, I wonder if those were not the most intense and memorable moments of that summer.
One morning at breakfast Max Lamas gave us a disapproving look, and the same afternoon he announced he no longer needed an assistant. Marco Devoti could go home now. And it was as though Devoti had been waiting for that moment, as though he knew it was coming, because the next day he packed his bag without protest, and one of the waiters pulled up the car. We all watched from the door. As he was about to get into the car, he turned around. He raised his hand at me, and I noticed his pinky was more bent than his other fingers, as though he had a hard time straightening it. When our eyes met I understood something about Marco Devoti. I understood, in spite of my youth and my flagrant inexperience with men, that Marco Devoti was a person who, if you will, cannot make love without love. Standing there, I understood that in the days he’d spent with us I had become a wound in him. The thought was uplifting. At least until I saw the car disappear in a cloud of dust. As the dust settled on the road, I was consumed by a gnawing worry that Marco Devoti was the sort of man a woman could never really be with. One of those men who was perfectly fluent in body language, but who could never stand speaking it with only one other person. One of those who is both a hostage and a gift to femininity. And when I went to bed that night I knew this: Marco Devoti would become a deeper wound in me than I could ever hope to be in him.
–Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel
From The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff. Used with permission of And Other Stories. Translation copyright © 2019 by Saskia Vogel.