Many People Die Like You is Lina Wolff’s first collection of short stories, originally published in 2009 and made available in English by And Other Stories in 2020. The English language edition has two additional stories. All are translated by Saskia Vogel, who also translated The Polyglot Lovers.
I love Wolff’s writing in both of the novels I have read. I especially love the way she revels in people’s strangeness, and this collection didn’t disappoint. It takes us into Wolff’s odd but compelling world of unconventional women and the men they are bemused and offended by, and sometimes attracted to. In these brutal and funny stories, Wolff has things to say about loneliness and questions the absolute necessity of belonging.
There are precocious teens, working out their futures. One, reminiscent of Araceli from Wolff’s Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, steps over the border into adulthood and talks her way into a job with a Frenchman in the import-export business. Her ballsy candour impresses him, but his attention is taken by an office rival in a tale that captures the mundanity of office life and the frustration of not being taken seriously. Another, laconically disinterested in the formulaic strictures of school, is asked by her careers advisor what she finds fun. Remembering that her older sister told her that sex is fun, her answer gets her sent to the school principal, a recently divorced man who gazes wistfully out of the window when the girl doubles down and says that sex work might be the job for her.
There are middle aged women and middle aged men trying to regain a sense of who they are. A female sculptor, mistaken for just another wronged housewife by the private investigator she employs to trail her architect husband, turns out to be playing a deadly game in a dark comedy about recognition and presumption. In the title story, a literature professor is cast aside by his student lover, only to be rejuvenated by an affair organised for him by a colleague, who turns out to have an ulterior motive. A woman turns 39 years old and sees herself differently, has a fling with a much younger man, in a story told from the perspective of her husband that examines why people have affairs and why they forgive. Another man, unable to stop pursuing extramarital affairs in an attempt to drown out his feminist wife, chooses to pursue the live-in cleaner in a satirical tale of class and gender difference. Wolff’s disdain for people like the main character drips from the page.
Imagine being allowed to believe you’re something. Being allowed to believe that in spite of everything you aren’t half bad. Being allowed to withdraw from your wife, from those enhanced lips and pointy breasts pointing at you, like the masses pointing at the guilty party. Being allowed to partake in the good life, rise up from your early grave, reach out and steal an ounce of sweetness from life’s grapes, or perhaps, for a moment, do without life’s fecal stink.
There are older characters, too, some lonely and seeking companionship, like the woman who moves to a Swedish town and quietly seduces her piano teacher, others more than ready for some solitude and willing to move their life partner into a nursing home to achieve it.
But most of all there are people in their twenties and thirties muddling through life, trying to decide whether commitment is a garment they need to wear, feeling in no hurry, now that adolescence has worn off and the slow stifling of dreams that comes in middle age hasn’t yet arrived. Women who flirt with Mickey Mouse performers and want to be proposed to when their blood is hot. Women who make misery porn that is broadcast onto their neghbours’ TVs. Women who miss their younger selves and wish for rebellion and adventure.
The two stories added to this English language edition of the collection concern Swedish women adrift in Spain, speaking Spanish inadequately, feeling like aliens. One is a mother with a young child, married to a Spaniard who encourages her to join a coach trip organised by people she meets at a party. At a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, she sees a figure dressed in black who pierces her with a stare, causing her to faint, with the consequence that she is isolated from her new found companions once again. The woman in the other story is single and attempts to find friends at a Chinese New Year party. Somehow she ends up living temporarily in Chinatown, offering a psychological service that brings deep peace to her customers. In a beautifully enigmatic ending to her final encounter with a man who weeps deeply and offers her the same service in return, Wolff touches on the unknowability of the human spirit and how it might persist.
My favourite story in the collection is ‘A Chronicle of Fidelity Unforetold’. Jazmina is a life model who thinks about the shoes she wants to buy with the money from her fee during the art class where she sits. On a day when she has dreamt about her husband cutting parts from her body and laying them on the table before her before the pair of them put them into a coffin, she is pursued by a painter who attends the art class. He is intrigued by her simplicity, the way she reveals nothing of herself, making her the perfect blank canvas. He takes her to lunch, tells her all about himself with the arrogance of a man used to getting what he wants, and shares with her a dream he has had in which he watched a man cut up his wife and stuff her body parts into a coffin. Jazmina notes to herself the similarities between her dream and that of the painter. She considers the possibility of having an affair with him. Later, he takes her to Retiro Park after the afternoon class and tries to find out more about her. Jazmina tells him about her mother, stepfather and absent biological father and the tragedy that unfolded when her mother told her stepfather that Jazmina wasn’t his daughter. This story has an unexpected effect on the painter that Jazmina doesn’t seem to understand but the reader does. I love the way this story builds, the ambiguities in it, and the completeness of it. Wolff perfectly captures the lives of its two characters within its fourteen pages.
This is my fourth read from my 10 Books of Summer list and was the perfect companion for the heatwave week we’ve just had in Manchester.
Rating 5 stars
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