Wherever you are reading this—on the beach, in a field of flowers, on the subway, sneaking it at the office—we hope that you have moments where time stops and art takes over.
Current Issue #60
Fiction:Jamie Quatro, Jess Row, Joan Silber, Manuel Gonzales, Jonathan Lee, Kenneth Calhoun, Adam Johnson, Antonio Tabucchi
When we realize we are broke, really and truly broke, we band together, my wife and I. Not immediately, of course. We have a good row at each other, first off, and rave about the little money we did have or thought we had—what had happened to it, etc.—which was never as much as my wife thought it was, or, rather, as I had led my wife to think it was.
Furthermore, and here is a problem, my wife doesn’t know the extent of how bad it is. She knows about the year that we have spent avoiding our electric bill, and she knows about the cable being shut off, as, clearly, the cable has been shut off. She knows about these things but does not know about the rent check, which will not clear, or about the unpaid school tuition, our daughter’s and our son’s, and I’m hoping against hope that something will shift, that our situation will change in enough time that she won’t need to know, which is a dumb wish, dumb and dangerous, but it’s not yet the dumbest thing I’ve done and so I keep waiting for everything to fall apart or to settle back into place, certain only that any minute now one or the other will happen.
Right now, anyway, with the impression that she knows all there is to know, she has buckled down. We both have, but she has buckled down better than me. Books, DVDs, toys, clothes. Anything we can sell, including the bike I gave her for her birthday two years ago, she gathers up.
“I don’t even know how to ride it,” she says as she takes a picture of the bike—light blue, white-walled wheels, wide-set handlebars—and posts it on Craigslist.
For my part, I hide the notice from Honda’s financing about our car. It’s a formality, anyhow, that notice. The pink slip has already been handed over to a collection agency, and if I’m not mistaken, that collection agency has already handed it over to collectors.
We used to rent a house from a guy in Houston who used to find work as a repo man, telling us—ominously, it seemed to me, since we were signing our lease at the time—how he once repossessed an airplane off a runway, flew it right out from under the owner’s nose, the owner running behind the Cessna until he, apparently misunderstanding his own speed and balance when not flying a plane, fell face-first onto the tarmac. When I drive through our neighborhood at night, driving slow because I’ve got the headlights shut off because I hope that this will make it so no one sees me or where I put the car for the night because I know that any moment now someone will be coming for the last thing we own, and when I park it in someone else’s driveway or the one night I popped it over the curb and parked it in some brush—tree branches scratching the shit out of the roof, I’m sure—and when I hoof it back to our house to go back to sleep, having done this night after night for almost two weeks now, heading out each night long after my wife has gone to sleep, knowing that in just a couple of hours I’ll have to find my way back to it and drive it back to the house and park it back in our own driveway so no one is the wiser, I think of my old landlord sneaking into our driveway, driving off with our car.
When my wife gets $100 for her bike, which I paid $600 for, she’s excited about it enough to grab a mason jar and place it on the counter in the kitchen and put the twenties inside it. She smiles at me and I smile at her, and the kids, who aren’t old enough to understand really what we’re smiling about, smile, too.
“It’ll get better,” she says, and she takes the envelope she was using to keep the other money she’d earned by selling off our things and pulls the ones and tens and twenties out of that and puts all of that into the jar, too. “It’ll get better,” she says again. “I know it will.”
She says this because she’s spoken to a woman at City Electric and has set us up on a payment plan, has gotten reassurances that our power won’t be shut off. She says this because she has earned almost two hundred dollars in cash by selling off crap we didn’t need or use anymore. She says this because she doesn’t realize that her two hundred dollars is still over a thousand dollars short of last month’s rent, and I try to perform the arithmetic in my head to figure out how short her jar of cash is from paying this month’s rent as well, not to mention tuition last month and this month for our daughter, and last month for our son’s day care, but then I get tired of thinking about the numbers and instead, I say, “Also, it’s like we could add another $400 to that jar since I took that freelance job.” And she smiles her sweet smile at me because she doesn’t know that I asked to be paid up front for that job, since it was a friend who hired me for it and mostly because she was worried about me, or us, and that most of that money has already been spent.
And then our daughter tells us, “I have money. I have money in my piggy bank.”
My wife smiles at her and then at our son, who says, almost angrily, “I have money, too,” angry because he’s at that age when he feels he cannot afford to be left out of anything.
But her smile fades a little when I say, “Let’s go get it, then.”
She starts to say, “No, guys, we don’t need—” but the kids put up such an enthusiastic fight to get their money and put it with our money that she shrugs and says, “Okay, fine, but let’s count it all so we know how much is in there so we make sure you guys get it all back, okay?”
They are fine with this and I am fine with this as I am the one who pulls the money out of the piggy banks and hands it to them, counting with them as I do, and no one notices the five-dollar bill or the ten-dollar bill or the six ones I palm and slip into my pocket.
Later, I count the money I smuggled out of the piggy banks—twenty-three dollars in all—and see that it’s enough, just enough, to pay the gas bill, which my wife also doesn’t know is overdue. But the gas bill is small. Small enough that the money I palmed from my kids can cover it for the month, but then again, the gas bill is so small that I think to myself, What is the worst that can happen if it isn’t covered this month? This month and next month’s gas bills wouldn’t even add up to a tenth of our electric bill. So I keep the cash in my pocket instead and by the end of the next day, when I go to look for it to buy some ice cream for the freezer, I realize it’s gone, replaced by a number of receipts, two dollars for a Coke here and there, sixty-five cents for a donut, three dollars for the sandwich I had for lunch and another five dollars when I decided to get a beer, too, and so on and so forth, and now I find myself looking at the jar, the money jar, wondering how accurate the count of what’s inside is, wondering what exactly my wife has planned for these funds.
The good thing about our money situation is that we’ve had to cancel my wife’s phone, so when our landlady calls about our rent, she calls me, not my wife. We’re eating pizza when she calls. My wife, who has managed to raise nearly $800 so far, more, even, if you count the money I have been sneaking out of the jar, has decided we’re making good enough headway that we can afford a night of pizza. It’s a frozen pizza, sure, but until now we have been subsisting on ramen packs, beans, rice, lunch meats and loaves of bread that are one or two days past their expiration dates. Also, my wife landed a seasonal job at a toy store, so when our landlady calls, we are neck-deep in a celebratory mood, and since I know why she is calling, I quickly turn my phone off and slip it back into my pocket before anyone can see.
Later in the bathroom, I listen to her message—our second check has bounced now, and she sounds much less sweet and accommodating than she did when our first check bounced—and I decide I’ll call her tomorrow, either make up some new bullshit story about our bank, which was how I got her to be lenient about our first bounced check, or come clean and lay myself at her mercy—we don’t have the money and I don’t know when we will—but the next week comes and goes and I still haven’t called her back, and now she is calling so often—her or one of her grandsons—that I will turn off my phone for stretches of the day.
But one morning, I leave the house to sneak out for a donut before everyone else wakes up, a donut and maybe a kolache and a cup of coffee better than the Folgers knockoff we have at the house, and realize only on my way home that I left my phone by the bed, and since the morning is when I go through all my messages to delete them—mostly creditors or collection agencies now, and rarely our landlady anymore, since she’s given up on the idea that I might call her back and has resorted to calling some ten, fifteen, twenty times a day—I not only left my phone behind but probably left it on as well.
Sure enough, when I get home, my wife, bleary-eyed, wondering where I have been, is waiting for me on the couch.
“Hey,” I say. Then, waving out to the car, I tell her, “Sorry, couldn’t sleep, so I went out for a drive.”
“Ms. Cotright called while you were gone,” she says.
“She did?” I say as innocently as I can, wondering if I’ll have time to make it to the bathroom before throwing up my donut, and then wondering what will happen after that, and after that. “Did you talk to her?”
My wife shakes her head. “She hung up before I got to the phone.” She looks at me, and I wonder what she sees in my face, if anything at all. She sighs. “Is there something you haven’t told me yet?”
“Well,” I say. “You’re pretty stressed these days.”
“We’re both stressed,” she says.
“Right.” I pause. “I just didn’t want to add to it, but . . .” I take a deep breath and then, in a rush, I tell her, “She’s selling the house. We’re going to have to move.”
“I know,” I say, my voice thick with exasperation. “Perfect timing, right?”
“Has she sold it yet?”
“Not yet,” I say, “but she seemed pretty determined. No one in her family wants it. She’s going to be ninety next year. You know how she is.”
“But, then, this is great, right? This is perfect.”
“We should buy this house. We’ve talked about it a hundred times,” she says.
“I mean, think of how many times we’ve thought about the kitchen and how we could fix it, or the backyard, or this shitty carpet.”
“We can’t,” I start to say, but she’s on a roll now and rolls right over me.
“Not right away, of course, but we could make this house so much better,” she says. “And this neighborhood, this whole area is only getting nicer.” She is pacing the room now. “The new theater just down the street, and I think they’re going to open a children’s museum next summer.”
“But that’s ridiculous,” I say, picking up the jar of twenties and tens and ones, which looks suddenly too empty, which means I need to slow down how much I sneak out of it. “We keep our money in a jar. You don’t buy a house when you keep your money in a jar. I think that’s a rule.”
“We can ask my parents for help,” she says.
“Your parents?” I say, forgetting for the moment that none of this will matter, that all of it is a fiction. “I’ve been trying to get you to ask your parents to help us with bills for the past month.”
“This is different,” she says. “This is an investment.” She smiles. “I knew there was good news coming, I could just feel it.” And she says, “Let me have the phone. I’ll call my dad, figure out a good plan, and then you can call Ms. Cotright back and tell her we want to make an offer.”
I see a look in her eyes that I know means there’s nothing else for me to do or say, and so I hand her the phone and watch her dial and wonder how to break it all down for her, how to tell her the truth, and, not coming up with any good way to lead into the fact that all of what we talked about I just made up and that if we have to move—which we undoubtedly will—it will be for decidedly different reasons than what I just outlined, I don’t say anything. She’s well into her conversation with her dad, anyway, so I start out of the room, and my wife says to her father, “Just a second, Pops,” and then covers the receiver with her hand and whispers, “Next time you can’t sleep, try going for a walk instead, okay?” and she scrunches up her nose and says, “You know, to save on gas.”
While she’s still on the phone with her dad—who seems into the idea even if he is making her work to sell him on it—I get our daughter ready for school. It’s Monday, and our son doesn’t go to school on Mondays, and according to the notice I received on Thursday, technically he doesn’t go to school at all, not to that school at least, not anymore. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the same can be said for our daughter and her school, too. She came home last week with something official-looking in an envelope that I saw and snagged and secreted away before my wife could see it, but I haven’t opened it yet because I’ve found recently that not opening things makes me feel, if not better, then at least not worse. Still. She didn’t come home with any homework either, which seems like a pretty big red flag, and she wasn’t quite sure why because it seemed like the other kids had homework folders to take home, and so I told my wife I’d find out from her teacher this morning when I drop our daughter off.
Our son is eating his breakfast, and our daughter is dressed for school, and my wife is still on the phone with her dad, walking from room to room and talking out the future of this house and us in it, and so, quietly, I load our daughter into the car and drive her to school, where I park and walk her to the front sliding door because I have a feeling that something regrettable will happen if I try to take her through the car drop-off line.
I kiss her on the top of her head before we get to the door and say, “Okay, sweet pea, Daddy has to go back home and help Mommy with your brother,” and then I give her a good long hug as I wait for a huddle of kids and their parents to walk by and I shuffle her through the door among them, hoping she’ll go unnoticed.
Then I sit in my car in the parking lot, unable to drive away even though the ignition is turned, the car is in reverse, feeling uncertain as to what I could possibly do next, though an idea has been forming in the back of my mind for the past couple of days now, but it isn’t until I see one of my daughter’s teachers walk up to the front desk with my daughter that I make up my mind.
I see the teacher and the receptionist talking somewhat heatedly, and then the receptionist points her finger out to the parking lot—and I don’t know if she is pointing to show the teacher where my daughter came in from or if she has seen me in my car and is pointing at me—but before my daughter’s teacher can even turn around, I pull out of my space and out of the lot and onto the highway, and for a minute, I see the exit to get back to the house and I think about driving on by, as if that exit were someone else’s, that house, those problems, that wife, those kids. But, against my better judgment, I shift lanes, and two minutes later I’m pulling into the driveway.
Sometimes in the middle of the night I will wake with a start, short of breath, disoriented by a recurring nightmare, the contents of which I can never remember. I suppose I can’t say for certain the nightmare is recurring but the blankness of the fear that greets me when I wake feels familiar and uncanny and I’ve decided it can’t be caused by anything else but the same dream. Lately, I have been working hard to populate this empty space where my fear resides with some tangible horror show. A masked and hook-wielding madman on the loose, trying to break into my home. My son or daughter gone missing. The plane I am sitting in plummeting to the earth. And one time I imagined our lives as we are living them now, of Ms. Cotright barging into our home, of her frail form hefting our possessions up and throwing them to the curb, of men in blue overalls waiting to catch them and load them onto their repo trucks, of my wife and children led away to some dark, uncertain future, of me left behind, nothing more sinister than that, than being left behind, and still the tightness that grips my chest grips me so tight I feel certain I’ve stumbled upon the nightmare itself and then I work as hard as I might to forget it again, and this is what I worry I will run into when I open the door.
But that’s not what I run into at all. What I run into when I open the door is our son screaming because he has climbed up on something high and fallen off. I hear my wife tell her father, “Let me call you back later, Dad.” Then she hangs up the phone and picks our son up and holds him close, shushing him and patting him on the back with her free hand and handing me the phone with her other hand. I look at the phone, which we bought only months ago because we decided we needed a new one and I lied to my wife when I told her we could definitely afford it, and I see two calls were missed, one from Ms. Cotright, the other from our daughter’s school.
“Someone called while I was on the phone with my dad,” my wife tells me in between her shushing and her You’re going to be okay, baby, and I look at her and she makes a pouting face at me over our son’s heaving shoulder and rests her head gently against his and then she smiles at me, and suddenly the thought of losing this, of losing any of this, of losing her and our son and our daughter, and of losing the sound of her voice as she soothes our children, the warm touch of her hand against my head as she soothes me when I wake violently from any number of unknown nightmares, feels so inevitable and fills me with a regret so deep that when the phone vibrates in my hand and Ms. Cotright’s name appears across the screen, I answer it without thinking and say the first thing that comes to me.
What I say is: It’s a lie, it’s all been nothing but a lie.
And before she or anyone else can say anything to that, I hang up.
Poetry:Morgan Parker, Matthew Rohrer, Monica McClure, Rebecca Wadlinger, Nick Flynn, Meg Freitag, Francesca Chabrier, Michael McGriff, Will Butler NEW VOICE, Jen Levitt
WHITE GIRL WASTED
WHAT SMAL DEATH SHINES UP FROM THE DIRT
I AM AN OX IN THE YEAR OF THE HORSE
Features:Kent Russell, Wayne Koestenbaum
What it was I felt was the fist of my heart in my chest. I felt this every night, unless I happened to be spectacularly drunk. The feeling gripped me at least forty-five minutes after I’d fallen asleep but never more than sixty. It jolted me awake with the full understanding that some thing was in the room with me.
The feeling often coincided with noiselessness: the thermostat shut off, or the traffic vanished, and I was roused by the scream of the silence. Sometimes I’d come to but wouldn’t move. I’d think, I’ll be okay, so long as I don’t budge. Sometimes I threw the cover two feet above me, where it briefly caught air, me-shaped, like skin jumped out of. I’d be down the hall by the time it came to rest.
Usually, though, I sat up and just stared at what I took to be a person. He smeared the air around him, made it go viscid like heat haze, so it was hard to tell. I wished he’d have the decency to announce his coming, maybe groan a little outside my locked bedroom door. At least then I could’ve girded myself. That was the worst part—not knowing how long he’d been in there with me, with nothing between us.
This particular time, I was in a hotel room in Pittsburgh. I stared and stared at a sort of mirage with a face. My heart clenched, but the rest of me shook at an awful frequency. The only thing I can think to liken it to is the wobbly singe you feel when you make bad contact with a baseball bat. The man or his ghost evanesced eventually. But I did not get back to sleep, and I lurched through the next day, my first at the program.
I was eight the last time I slept soundly, and for this I thank one man: Tom Savini.
Tom Savini is a sixty-seven-year-old special-effects artist, a sometimes-director, and an actor on the up-and-up. Distinct geeks revere him for his effects work in horror films from the 1970s and ’80s, stuff like Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. But it’s not like he was the best effects guy back then. Back then, Rick Baker was winning the first of his seven special-effects Oscars. Tom Savini was never so much as nominated.
What he was, though, was the pioneer of hyperrealistic blood and guts, what the film historians call “splatter.” “The Sultan of Splatter,” they christened him. “The Godfather of Gore.” He was the first and best at making bodies reveal themselves on-screen. His work also happened to be the literal embodiment of the shift in horror movies from fright to terror, from beatable alien monsters (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) to the abominations within (practically every serious horror film since Night of the Living Dead). Film Comment wrote of him, “It can be argued that Savini, through his effects work, offers us a distinctly modern view of an alienated human existence. The assaulted bodies he creates are all flesh, and no spirit.” His death scenes are glorious, and his creatures dense and unctuous. His stuff cuts deep.
When I caught my first glimpse of it, eight-year-old me inched as near as possible to the screen, the better to gawk at the fonts of blood and stomachs pulled agape. I laughed; I was enlivened by it. How’d they manage to do this, I wondered, make it seem so real? I couldn’t look away from the man’s handiwork then—and I still can’t. Neither can a lot of maladjusted dudes come of age: Quentin Tarantino recently put Savini in Django Unchained. He was just in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete 2. J. J. Abrams loves him, as do Matt Groening, Oliver Stone, and Stephen King, whose head Savini has exploded on camera. Darren Aronofsky wants him for his upcoming Noah’s Ark project. He’s been on Letterman five times. Less famous devotees have hand carved or tattooed countless homages to his creations: Jason, Lizzie, Fluffy, Bub, Dr. Tongue, Helicopter Zombie—the whole silicone gang poured directly from the dark matter of childhood subconsciousness. His engagements at horror conventions are rumored to earn him as much as $10,000 a pop.
During one of my interrupted nights the other summer, with nothing else to do but futz around online, I discovered that Savini has an academy. An atelier, more like. Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program, in Monessen, Pennsylvania. It’s the first of its kind, a sixteen-month curriculum in which students learn sculpture, makeup, molding, and casting from guys (and it’s all guys) who’re either done with Hollywood or taking a break from it. The instructors have each worked with Savini, apprenticed under him, or been inspired into the craft by the man. I signed up for the summer session and flew to Pittsburgh. The idea, I suppose, was to learn how to reverse engineer the things that haunted me.
Monessen was a corpse of a place. Steel supports jutted at fractured angles from abandoned buildings downtown. Ribby grills were pulled across spiderwebbed shop windows displaying dusty nothing. I counted a dozen houses of worship, about ten more than I did pedestrians. The Savini School was the only thing astir. It’s a four-story, blood red brick building backed up against a Catholic church. It used to be a nunnery. Across the street was the decommissioned steel mill where they shot part of Robocop, the scene where a bad guy gets melted by toxic waste.
Inside was a narrow honeycomb of workshops, makeup stations, sculpture banks, and coves of power tools. Some rooms were done up to look like reanimation laboratories; others, torture chambers. Along the walls were old murder implements, monsters under glass, the severed heads of celebrities. Altogether, the place was like some imaginarium of the id.
My first class was Beginning Animatronics. The assignment: vampire fangs. My dozen classmates in the chalky workshop were the same energetic young people you can find in community colleges across the country, just more heavily tatted with pop iconography and attired almost exclusively in the grays, blacks, and blues of floater bloat.
Our teacher was a serene hulk of a man in a too-small baseball cap, a Savini alum and, prior to computers, the best tooth-and-claw guy in Hollywood. He had shown us how to create casts of our mouths; now we were working to roll our fangs out of clay before painting them with acrylic and buffing them to a sheen. I tried to use a wood-handled dentist’s hook to detail my tooth, but I succeeded only in shaping it into a scale-model Uluru.
Most of the students here had enrolled with a high school diploma and no background in art. For them, an $80,000 degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh or some digital-animation lab was out of the question. I took my stumpy cuspid and followed them into a studio where the more competent were using rotary tools to file the efficacy of their effects to an edge.
At the station next to mine was a dude with muscles in a beater. He was especially capable. I asked what brought him to the program. “Heard about it from an ad in the back of Fangoria magazine,” he said.
This, I’d discover, was how many first heard about the school. If forced to sketch a brief ethnographic portrait, I’d say this institution attracts mostly white males who dislike any reliance other than self-, who hate crowds, waiting, and the feeling of being a small piece of something greater, and who would refuse the steep and perpetuating cost of modern convenience if they could. Oh, and who still read print media. Simpatico, to say the least.
My neighbor’s own teeth were brown and furrowed and pushed this way and that, like old crowded headstones. His name was Andrew. He fought mixed martial arts on the side. “I didn’t know there was a home for what I always wanted to do,” he said, polishing his fang into a pearlescent scimitar.
There hadn’t been one for Tom Savini, the only boy who shined shoes around ’60s Pittsburgh for makeup money. Coming of age, for him, had been about fashioning disguises and inventing monsters. He spent his days sculpting in the garage and curing wounds in the kitchen. By his late adolescence, Savini knew effects were what he most wanted to create. He practiced on himself.
Savini joined the Army rather than wait to get drafted because enlisted men got to pick their jobs. He served as a combat photographer in Vietnam. After the war, he moved to North Carolina and started acting in a repertory theater. He was still playing around with makeups, still using them to scare the holy shit out of people. (In Vietnam, he had been all, “Mama-san, take . . . a . . . look . . . at . . . THIS!”) In fact, that’s what earned him his early notoriety, the verisimilitude of his wounds. “There’s something about seeing the real thing that sets me apart from, let’s say, some other makeup artists who have never experienced that,” he said in a post-Vietnam interview. “When I’m creating an effect, if it doesn’t look good to me—real—doesn’t give me that feeling I used to get when I’d see the real stuff, then it’s just not real enough for me.”
In North Carolina, he received a telegram from George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead Savini had been set to do effects for when he got called overseas. The telegram read: “Start thinking of new ways to kill people, we’ve got a new gig —George.” That new gig—the zombie magnum opus Dawn of the Dead—Roger Ebert would call “one of the best horror films ever made.”
Dawn of the Dead didn’t aim to scare audiences, not explicitly. The film is a biting satire of consumer culture as told through scene after scene of hashed gore. In place of Night’s black-and-white slow burn, Dawn has Technicolor brain splurk, and human skin rent by zippy teeth like the thin offal prophylactic that it is. Romero would go on to say that “if it wasn’t for Tom, we wouldn’t have been able to do 90 percent of what we did.”
What they did was beget the germ of our current zombiepocalypse. The film’s critical and commercial success ensured that decayed but insatiable automatons would become the monsters for a postindustrial, postrational America. And it was Tom Savini who created them, with his bare hands.
In Savini’s studio, Andrew explained to me that three-quarters of the students who come to Savini’s school come as fanboys. They account for most of the washouts, too. “They think it’s play, then they come and see it’s real-ass work,” Andrew said. “That this takes art and manual labor and makes a dirty baby.”
Off my other shoulder, a bovine young man in a sleeveless red tank top leaned over a buffing wheel. He was watching his fang intently, right up close, curly blond hair a-dangle.
“The problem is that the fans can sometimes see Savini as almost like a living comic book character,” Andrew continued. “Fans think he’s going to ride off with them on zombie-killing adventures. When he doesn’t, they get resentful.”
With one false twitch of my wrist, the rotary tool wore my tooth to a nub and ruined hours of work. “What I want to know,” I said, thrusting the butt of my tooth at Andrew as if it was his cigarette I’d been holding, “is, like, can you really master fears here?”
He laughed. “Bro, you know where most of us go on to work? It isn’t Hollywood. They’ve outsourced that to computer nerds. For us, now it’s dental labs, the haunted house industry, sex toys. Prosthetics for vets. They’ve got four or five of us making Real Dolls.”
The high whine to my right stopped. There was an affectless, “Ooch. Please help.” I turned and saw the buffer had shimmied up the bovine guy’s forelock and blown a fuse.
Andrew slipped his finished fang over his left canine. In his best Count von Count voice, he went, “One! Tooth! Ah ha ha!”
In subsequent classes, they showed us how castor oil keeps a demon from chapping. How syringes and condoms and squeeze balls combine for the most realistic panting apparatus for your yeti. How, if you want to sell a wicked bite, you have to paint red liquid latex on a flat surface, dry it with a hair blower, powder it, then do X and Y and Z until it bunches into a weblike structure that will stretch and tear like tissue.
Most of the time, though, our instructors stressed the many variations of one theme: This ain’t about just flesh and blood.
The Savini School’s core curriculum centers on anatomy and abnormal psychology, art history and technique. The thinking is that, first, an apprentice has to know his own self. His bone structure, his theory of mind, his being a really shitty craftsman. He has to know what is human before he can put it through its about-face. Which is what we were really apprenticed to: the convincing transformation. Man to wolf, young actor to old, mossy bones brought back to life—we were working toward the effect that looked so believable it might just step out of the frame with a life of its own.
This was also, I realized, what about Tom Savini’s movies filled me with such delicious anxiety when I was younger.
Though later it would become more of a nuisance, the nighttime was something I dreaded very much as a kid. As soon as I saw the sun start dropping down the sky like a dynamite plunger, I raced to screw shut the bedroom windows, turn the deadbolt on my closet door, and remove all mirrored surfaces. Chance—or anything else—was not getting invited in. I double-checked all drapery and crannies before I laid me down.
Then, when it was just me and my brain in the dark, I’d begin to consider the creeping horror that lurked everywhere under everything. The great disparity between what I beheld and what was potentially visible. The monsters were real, I knew, and they were coming. Sure as a clock ticks.
Night terror has no verb form, but I can assure you it’s a transitive activity, something that involves kicking holes into the drywall or alligator-death-rolling off the top bunk. (I demanded bunk beds for myself, because only a fool would sleep that near to what lies beneath.) Many mornings I came to on the tile, pedaling against nonexistent covers, hearing the magnetic resonance of thirty TVs on but muted, and tasting a sharpness like green pennies. My dad’s voice would reach me through thickness. No words, but I could make out the amplitude and the frequency, a short-long-short-short that I’d heard enough to know was, “For Christ’s sake, son.”
So, so often did I hit my head on the nightstand or the floor on my way down. Consciousness then felt like knee-walking on gravel. And burned into my mind’s eye were the afterimages of horrible dreams. They came in many flavors, but vanilla was zombies pouring in, and there’s me, a decent caliber deep-throated, waiting ’til the last possible moment to pull the trigger.
I took enough of these night-terror-induced gainers (and resultant CAT scans) that the Florida Department of Children and Families felt it necessary to have a sit-down with my father. He was the one who’d bring me to the hospital; he was the one who’d find me.
My father took it upon himself to wake me each morning. Gently, usually. But every now and again he’d kick open the door, and if I wasn’t concussed on the ground, he’d clutch at his chest and scream, “Heart attack! Embolism, right this minute!” I’d ratchet upright, hyperventilating. Then he’d ask, casually, “Did you say good morning to the adversary?”
My old man had lost both his brothers at tragic ages in separate, horrific accidents. Then he’d served in Vietnam. He thought it was important that I greet Death as part of my morning routine.
Our sculpture teacher carried himself with the quiet easiness borne of manual competence, but his reedy voice splintered when he yelled at a student—“Donald, Jesus, that looks tremendously unsound!”—as Donnie took practice cuts with a baseball bat he’d sawed off and glued a sledgehammer head to.
“Did you hear about the guy they claimed was on bath salts when he ate his dog?” Donnie wanted to know, pivoting, following through. “I think he was a carrier! I think it’s about to go down!” Donnie, unable to modulate his pitch or volume, talked as though he was impersonating a poststroke Edward G. Robinson.
The sculpture room was narrow, with stools pulled up to a ledge that ran around its perimeter. On the wall above each was a fiendish head sculpted and painted by a student. I picked a stool near Donnie; the head canted down at me was a mean ape in a Brodie helmet. Today I would start work on a self-portrait formed out of umber Chavant.
Unfortunately, I had joined the school a couple of weeks into the summer semester and missed the lesson about what makes a face. So, rather than make one of those, I spent the morning forcing crests of clay around a hydrocephalic head. Donnie glanced my way with increasing regularity, and concern, until he scraped back his stool, stepped over, and pointed out where my replica came to a point. “See this?” he asked. Then he slapped his palm onto the crown of my actual head, drawing out one long Booooop! I looked at him, and he looked at me, and still he Booooop!’ed like a quiz-show buzzer. We were maintaining eye contact when he did likewise to my clay dome. I added my own plaintive Booooop! Finally Donnie unhanded me, and then the little me, and I saw he’d made him better.
After that, Donnie let on and on about the time he’d spent in psychiatric care, all while thumbing a better-than-faithful bust of Robin Williams. His own face, acne-knurled, was curtained behind black hair. This made his hands appear to be working of their own accord. They scrambled around the ledge, one of them crumbling a brick of clay while the other pinched Robin’s earlobe lovingly. Their capacity for both power and dexterity had me thinking of sea creatures evolved to eat soft things hidden in shells.
Donnie got close and told me he wanted to make toys, figurines. “An indie like me would get the Stephen King licenses, see?
“It started when I met Tom Savini at my mall in south Pennsyltucky.” He stopped sculpting to pick up his hammer bat. “Now, where I’m from, by now I should’ve been killed three times over. But here I am standing before you today.” He hinted at some kind of boonie meth predicament, choked up on the hammer bat. “Because I’m from a lower-middle-class family, see, I believe meeting him was an act of God.”
When I checked the clock, the six hours of class had flown by. It was pretty remarkable. The inside of my own head had fallen eerily still while I shaped its doppelganger. Laying hands on clay—who knew?
But things about my analogue were off. Cheeks sagged. Lids drooped. Skin flaked. It didn’t seem at rest, but rather ill at ease, its grimace curling inward. Frankly, it looked like a poorly embalmed face halfway awake in the grave. So much work remained to be done.
In my hotel room that evening, after having taken my fright, I nodded off in the small hours. I dreamt of something I’ve been dreaming of since:
My dad’s in a cramped bathysphere, dropping gently into perpetual night. Deeper and deeper he goes, the pressure mounting, the warm side of the spectrum squeezed out until all that’s left is blue-black water and the white of his craft’s spotlight. Through the one porthole he sees nightmare creatures, wraiths with shiny lures built in. Leaks are springing, the hull crumpling, but he’s plugging holes and digging in his heels, pushing back. I don’t know that there’s a bottom, but whatever he’s on his way to, he won’t reach it alive. He’s holding out for as long as he can, even though—in spite of the fact that—he knows his vessel will be crushed like a beer can between invisible hands.
At the start of my penultimate day, we few students placed our sculpted heads on the chest-high workbench in the animatronics shop. It was almost time to plant servos, animate them. My hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) of careful handling had yielded an inhuman likeness, this rictus-faced gremlin that belonged floating in a jar. I’d had it with the thing.
To ward off classmates who might try to help, I’d taken to raising my notebook and flipping through it as if searching for the protective spell. Still, a classmate named David started speaking at me and would not stop. “I can talk to people, is what this made me realize,” he said as I nodded hollowly. He was putting the finishing touches on his rendition of Two-Face. “This is me,” he said, pointing to the human side of the monster.
David had muttonchops and a pushy chin. He was a veteran of the 82nd Airborne. How he got into this was he would scare his squadmates by faking razor-blade suicide. “I made those bitches believe that shit,” he said.
The sclerotic, tendon-y half of his sculpture was intricate, the focal point being a lidless eyeball mapped with veins. David crosshatched the clay flesh with a dog brush and rubbed baby powder into the corrugations. “This is the thing that keeps you up at night,” he said. “And it’s never going to go away.”
The power tools in the shop screeched to life. David said that when his face was operational, “the eye will wink, the head will turn forty-five degrees to obscure the fucked-up side, and the smile will peel back.” It took hundreds of hours for him to achieve this.
As he worked, I noticed that his hands had the same expression as his face. They held out his nature like an offering, and they added themselves to what they touched. “There’s never been a time when I haven’t been trying—avidly trying—to figure. Out. How. That. Worked,” he said. “I watched horror movies still by still to see how they accomplished the effect. You got scared? Break down why.” I looked at my own small and soft hands and thought of benthic mollusks.
“Isn’t that what gets us in trouble in horror movies to begin with?” I asked. “Isn’t presumption what gets us overrun by dead things when the end comes?”
“You talking about The Shit?” he asked. “The Shit shit? Because when that Shit goes down, I’m going to be, fucking . . .” David made an A-OK sign, and then he took off his shirt to point to a tattoo over his heart, his name formatted into a UPC bar code. “I’ve got my bug-out bag ready. How about you?”
Even after all my friends got girlfriends and grew out of the habit, I would stay in weekends and watch horror movies. Zombie flicks mostly, D-grade, and these with my father. We’d sit staring out of our faces and judge the characters’ awareness, discuss what we’d do differently. Foremost: We’d never open the door to our boarded-up farmhouse/fortress/keep. Not a goddamned crack. All that work at becoming impregnable, undone.
Though not quite on the level of bug-out bags, my dad and I did have a pseudo-serious Z-Day Plan. (It just also happened to be his Impending Race War Plan, his Aftermath of a Mondo Hurricane Plan, his North Korean Invasion Plan, etc.) First, we’d grab his service weapon from the crawlspace, along with the hundreds of rounds of surplus Chinese ammunition he kept therein. Then we’d take stock of the canned goods in the pantry, supplementing these when necessary with fish caught from the bay down the street. Onto our flat rooftop would go plastic buckets, for the constant South Florida rain. Onto our many windows would go plywood from storm seasons past. Our doors we’d reinforce; behind them, we’d make nary a peep. Hell, we couldn’t wait! The dead would punish the living for us, and we’d be left alone at the center of creation. There, within the structure we’d built to keep out what terrorized us, we’d defend ourselves unto death.
What’s interesting is my sisters had them, too. The night terrors. I know because some nights, when we were young, I’d jog awake, and from the bedroom next to mine would come the sound of two feet slapping tile, concurrently—a sister having gone from supine to athletic crouch—and then a pause for bearings, and then the Bronx applause of those same feet booking it down our tile hallway.
And of course we knew our old man had them. Were we to hear some bump in the night and then go to get him to investigate, we’d often find him wandering in a fugue, opening closet doors with one hand, stabbing into the void with a fillet knife in the other.
Again, my dad was like a secular Puritan vis-à-vis his devotion to vigilance. A man who was troubled by nothing so much as peace of mind. Who believed above all in Death’s acquisitiveness, and that the surest sign his cold hand had caged your heart was if you felt no danger. Does that make sense? Who believed that safety was found in the very dread of ever feeling safe enough to rest your eyes.
Parentally, he practiced admonitory judo. A black belt, that guy. He would intercept the force of your amenability and joie de vivre, and he’d flip and twist it until you, too, were immobilized by fear. Going for a walk in the woods, eldest daughter? The horned deer are in rut, extra stampy, plus there’s rapists. You would like to earn a few more dollars working the graveyard shift at the all-night pizzeria, son of mine? You’ll get shot in the face with the quickness. In all his ponds were alligators, and only psychos rang his bell. The first thing he made my mother do on their honeymoon cruise? Crawl the route to the lifeboats, blindfolded.
Any attempts we made at psychic intervention were met with a shrug and the phrase “I’d be scared of nothing if I was alone.” The implication here was that we, his family, had summoned all these demons simply by existing as objects to be loved and protected. His empathic wall had expanded to accommodate us, but all that meant was he had more to lose. As long as either he or we were alive, the best he could hope for was a kind of padded equanimity.
Ergo, when any one of us knocked on his bedroom door and tried that old chestnut, “I’m a little scared,” the response from inside was always, “You damn well should be!”
I met Tom Savini in a conference room full of filing cabinets and blank diplomas. He was about five foot eight, knottily muscled, and dark like stained wood. His partially-unbuttoned linen shirt, midthigh blue shorts, bushy beard, and grayly threaded ponytail had him looking not like a dad but like a man who could beat up a dad; a lion tamer, maybe.
He spoke to me for four hours about horror and his place in its history, and it was pure romance. We ordered in—minestrone—and talked shop re: how he managed to dredge fear from me, and people like me, and shape it into golems, and breathe life into them. We lamented computer graphics, the tools become our masters. We agreed that, when watching all these modern blockbusting CGI fests, we felt as though we were the only ones left who still preferred the squish and crunch of a real, live monster up there on the screen.
Eventually, though, we got down to existential tacks.
“People think I’m this goremonger,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s the writers who write the stuff into the script. The last thing I’m trying to do is desensitize people. Me, I cry when I see someone being indiscriminately, unnecessarily good.” With age, his sharp Mediterranean features have spiked downwards, as if from the steady drip of something erosive.
“I’m done with effects, for the most part. I give what work there is to the students. Now it’s about becoming someone else.” He put his hands to his temples, tinkling them with his middle and ring fingers.
Across the table, I beckoned strangely with both hands, an unconvincing coax. How could he abandon horror? Horror, I pleaded, is about the perception of the truth of our condition. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? “It means to know that you’re fucking food for worms!” I clawed at the space between us. “Your work, zombies, all of it—it’s the ruthless chaos of existence made flesh.”
He parachuted his thick eyebrows. “It took me sixty-five years and a few amateurish, embarrassingly bad movies to get here, but now I understand that it’s about us. Us as in the audience, us as in you and me. Fears and projections. All that. The monster . . .”—here he grimaced and held out a palsied, pointing finger—“is YOUUUUU!”
Taken aback, I fumbled through my notebook. To give myself time, I asked which of his effects was his favorite.
He spidered a hand inside his beard and said picking a favorite was like choosing among his kids, but that he was partial to one from a movie called Maniac. He called it “the closest I’ve ever come to the feeling of having committed cold-blooded murder.”
What he did was make a cast of his head and shoulders, and from that a thin latex mask of himself with a plaster lining on the inside. He filled the cast with apple cores, corn chips, ten blood-filled condoms, and calf brains from a slaughterhouse. This he placed on a urethane-foam-and-chicken-wire chest. Then, with the film rolling and him dressed up as the Maniac, he emptied both barrels of a shotgun into his material counterpart.
It was at this moment that I had an idea. “Mr. Savini?” I asked. “Tom? Could you shoot me in the head? Like a zombie in Dawn? Doesn’t have to be a blowout. Just a nice pop shot. A blurty little coup de grâce.”
He said in a soft voice that skipped along in dactyls: “Okay. That’s called a squib. A squib is simply a detonator. I’d place the detonator in a tube that’s filled with gunpowder. And that would be placed inside a prophylactic which’s filled with blood, so when the blast goes off the concussion blows the prophylactic and the blood from beneath you.”
But then he shook his head. “I’m not licensed for that anymore.”
He watched my enthusiasm deflate. Then he said, “It still amazes me, the zombie thing. I never would have guessed they’d strike this chord.”
Tom Savini walked me out, wished me well, and got into a blue BMW with the vanity plate “SHAZAMM.” And that night, locked into a hotel room with my clay self gaping on the nightstand, I considered why horror in general and zombies in particular should be striking this chord.
We—or at least I—love horror and zombies and gore because it’s all apocalyptic, necessarily so. I mean this in the original sense of the word, of the nature of a revelation or disclosure. This stuff effects a revelation, but it’s not the revelation I used to think it was. It’s not that when we feel in our bones how contingent we are, we become afraid. That watching a horror flick is a reality check, an affirmation that my sight still clearly registers the universe.
What resonates, I think, is the suggestion that I’m haunted by a force majeure. The idea that there’s this entity—be it collective like zombies or individual like Jason or even insubstantial like a damn ghost—and this entity is relentlessly after me. Besieging. It resonates because it’s homologous with this other gut feeling. And that’s that, whatever it is that’s out there—it’s going to get in. No matter what. It’s going to get me, in the end. Relieve me of my life.
Contemplating this, I fell through to a sound sleep.
Interview:Karl Ove Knausgaard
The author and poet Paul Zweig once wrote that “it is possible to think of language as the most versatile, and maybe the original, form of deception, a sort of fortunate fail; I lie and am lied to, but the result of my lie is mental leaps, memory, knowledge. . . . I become human, and increasingly more human, because the acrobatic gift of my lie tears into a truth of another sort.” It is precisely this manner of truth that the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard aspires to in his autobiographical meganovel, My Struggle. Originally published in Norway in six volumes between 2009 and 2011, the book’s 3,600 pages created a sensation like little else in recent European literature. This was partly a result of the sextet’s undeniably provocative title—Min kamp, the same as the Norwegian editions of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is still banned in many parts of Europe and taboo everywhere—and partly because of Knausgaard’s staggering ambitions: to discover the contents of his own mind, to explain his world, and, ultimately, to cease to be an author.
Perhaps most of all, the books have been noted for their uncanny pursuit of the most banal parts of life. In Knausgaard’s hands this becomes an entry point into some of the most difficult questions: the place of death in our world, the complex legacy left by one’s parents, alcohol and addiction, the struggle to be moral, and what men are to make of masculinity in the modern world. Unflinchingly honest—even perhaps at times masochistic—the books are Knausgaard’s utterly compelling, authentic portrait of himself, not as seen by his mirror, but as seen in his mind’s eye.
The project’s third book was just published in English in May, following the considerable acclaim that the first two received with their English-language publication in 2012 and 2013. Now that he is well on his way to becoming as much a sensation in America as in Europe, I interviewed Knausgaard about the genesis of the project, his experiences with Hitler’s book, his radical method of composition, the media frenzy that greeted him as the books began to appear in print, the aesthetics of shitting, and why he aspired to complete his magnum opus in order to quit writing.
Scott Esposito: Let’s start with the origins of My Struggle. In Book Two you talk about how the idea for the series came to you during a very difficult period as a writer. You’d written two previous books, with a long dry spell between them, and the same thing seemed to be happening again. You were making a lot of false starts, but nothing stuck. One thing that really comes across in Book Two is the desperation you were beginning to feel. And then there was My Struggle. At what point did you start to think that this wasn’t just another false start?
Karl Ove Knausgaard: Not being able to write is indeed an important part of my writing. After my first novel, I spent five years unable to write, and when the second, A Time for Everything, finally arrived, written in a kind of whirlwind-state-of-mind, another desert-like period appeared, this time lasting four years. That’s nine years of writing every day with no result. So, what happens when you go from nonwriting to writing, what’s the difference? For me, the act of writing is all about getting rid of self-criticism, and at the same time I have an almost religious belief in literature. These two kingdoms are impossible to unite. So what I do, apparently, is try to write great literature for four or five years, until the level of frustration becomes so high that it starts to tear down the wall between me and my text, or, differently put: I start not to care. All this pain, all these problems, just to write plain, simple prose!
SE: So when My Struggle started to develop, it all came very rapidly?
KOK: When I started on My Struggle, I decided that I had to write five pages a day, no matter what. This was a kind of relief. Quantity instead of quality. (This worked as a formal constraint, like the rhymes in a sonnet, form being what sets the writer free.) But what happens in the text when you’re able to write, compared to when you fail to write? For me the answer is simple to understand but difficult to put into practice: I write for that moment when the focus shifts from the important things in the text toward the unimportant things. I have to write down all those details that stand in the way of the story before I can write about the important things. So really, all the in-between things, all the digressions, these turn out to be the novel itself. A friend of mine used to quote Lawrence Durrell: somewhere in his Alexandria Quartet he says that to make a piece of art, you need to set yourself a goal and then go there in your sleep. That sleepwalking, that’s what writing a novel is for me.
SE: So this sleepwalking was a sort of way of allowing yourself to get at what you really want to be writing about?
KOK: In the first book of My Struggle, my intention was to write about my father’s fall and his death. For four years I tried to do that, and failed. I failed because I knew the subject, knew the character, knew the story, and so I approached everything directly. Everything had to be so loaded with meaning and importance, because that was what I had felt when I experienced it. And loaded it was, but with pretension. I needed a pretext, a situation that my father could fall from, so I started to write about him and me living together in our house. I tried to capture that atmosphere of being seventeen—and then that setting and that atmosphere started to expand. I remembered a party I once went to with a friend, and I started to write about that, but before I could do that, I needed to explain a few things, and then some more, and then, all of a sudden, I realized that I had written a hundred pages about basically nothing. That “nothing” is the novel, but I didn’t know it, I didn’t plan it that way. It’s probably rather boring for a novelist to explain how his novels are, and there’s a certain glorification of the writer’s self involved in that, and a notion of his book being really important—and it’s not—so maybe I can discuss the process in another way, maybe in the light of a novel not written? Say you’re a novelist, and you are very interested in the notion of identity—national identity, sexual identity, male identity—based upon a feeling that these notions are changing, but in ways that are hard to detect, because you are yourself a part of these changes. It’s hard to write a novel about a concept (or maybe that’s what you really should do, just ignore narration and go for the thrill of pure abstraction), so you read a lot of philosophy, psychology, and history about nationalism, gender, biology, et cetera. From all of this reading, nothing sticks except one thing: you read somewhere about a plan at the beginning of the last century to dig out a crypt under the castle in Oslo, Norway, where they planned to exhibit Viking ships. Why did that image, a crypt with ships, stick? Impossible to say. But it’s an image, and an image is a starting point for a novel. It’s a goal to which you can go in your sleep. But to go from where? Then you maybe remember something you read in a newspaper a few years ago, about some scientists who in the late 1960s wired an ox so that they could send electrical impulses through his brain, and so be able to control him in a very rough way. These images are completely unconnected—Viking ships and electrified oxen—the only thing they have in common is being in the author’s mind. Could this be a novel? Maybe, but it probably needs something else. A family, maybe. A family of five moving out to the countryside, preferably in Sweden, since this novelist lives there (by coincidence also in the countryside)—maybe there’s some hostility, or suspicion, a kind of darkness in the air, it doesn’t really matter, for now this is all it takes to start to write, to move from the family toward the ox and the crypt. If you think this sounds like a really, really bad plot, I can assure you that you are right, but that doesn’t matter either, all that matters is whether these images move something inside of you and generate something else when you write about them, because it’s the offspring, the in-between thing, the arrow that misses its target, that is the real thing. To write, you have to fool yourself, believe that you are doing something else than you really are, that this is just a parenthesis. At least, that’s what I have to do.
SE: These remarks will ring true to anyone who reads My Struggle—the books are stuffed with very detailed descriptions of the quotidian, for instance, cooking dinner or walking around the streets of a city, the sorts of things any writing instructor would tell a student to leave out (at one point you even have one character ask another to “pass the salt”). I can’t help but notice that this is a great contrast to the title, which sounds epic and promises the exact opposite of the quotidian. And of course the title is also incredibly provocative, even more so in Europe than in America. So I wanted to discuss the title a bit and how it fits in with the rest of the work. To start, what were the circumstances of you first encountering Hitler’s Mein Kampf?
KOK: The first time I saw an actual copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was in my grandparents’ house after their death, where I found it hidden in the living room. It was kind of shocking, but also puzzling. That book was more or less common in Norway during the war, but it certainly wasn’t afterward.
SE: Did you know from the start you wanted to title your book My Struggle?
KOK: The working title of my novel was at first “Argentina” (don’t ask me why). But one day I was talking about Mein Kampf with a friend, and he told me, “There’s your title.” I instantly knew he was right. My novel deals with the struggle of everyday life, so the title is correct; it really is my struggle. And it is of course related to Hitler’s struggle in an ironic way, counterpointing his grand, ideological worldview with the reality of the individual, which is full of stuttering, stumbling, blushing, misunderstandings, and wrongdoings, in other words, as incomplete as it gets. The title was of course a provocation as well, a way of saying “fuck you” to the reader. All my life I’ve tried to please other people, saying what I believed they wanted to hear, always afraid of conflict. The writer’s equivalent of this is to be clever, so what I wanted to do was to write myself free from both other people’s opinions and the literary demand of quality. The title was a constant reminder of this for me.
SE: And so then you read the book as part of the project?
KOK: Right. Having called my book My Struggle, I understood that I had to read the original. At that time, the first two novels of My Struggle had been published, and my name appeared almost every day in the Norwegian tabloids, so I didn’t dare order the book myself. Having become paranoid, I envisioned headlines like “Knausgaard Turned Nazi” or something like that, so a friend bought it for me. Being busy writing the third book, I decided to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf on a two-day trip to Iceland. I put it in my bag, but when I reached for it on the plane I realized that it was impossible to read Mein Kampf on an airplane. People would have been very uncomfortable, seeing someone on their plane reading that book. It’s the only book I can think of that is impossible to read in public. It really is forbidden, taboo. But it’s still literature, a book, letters on a page. And for someone interested in the zone between literature and reality, this book is, in the end, impossible to avoid. What I did—after reading it safely in my office—was to write about it. My intention was to write just a few pages, but I ended up with a small, three-hundred-page novel, in which the subject eventually is Hitler as a man. I think I tried to rehumanize him in a way, tried to be true to what I imagined he was. The novel is an intimate genre, the opposite of ideology, and I was tempted to include even Hitler in that fumbling intimacy.
SE: That’s interesting, that simply buying and reading Mein Kampf made you feel so paranoid. I felt a weird sense of paranoia just e-mailing you about it, since of course now it’s well known that the US government monitors our e-mail, and who knows what sorts of red flags it might trigger. After reading the book, did you feel that the level of anxiety it can arouse even today, so long after the Second World War, is justified?
KOK: No, not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact; I think everybody should read Mein Kampf. It’s hard to imagine anyone becoming a Nazi or an anti-Semite after reading that book. It got really bad reviews in Germany when it was published—Frankfurter Allgemeine had the headline “The End of Hitler,” and another newspaper said “Sein Krampf.” Hitler’s writing is self-indulgent, self-pitying, pompous, and unpleasant; he’s lousy at it and a bad thinker. The book is too full of self-righteous rage, and there is no sensibility present anywhere, maybe with the exception of the sole sentence he writes about his mother. He knows that he is a bad writer, though, and in an interesting section he writes about the differences between speaking and writing, how speech is directed toward feelings. He also discusses how the setting and time of day can make a difference, in terms of overcoming an audience’s resistance, how the speaker can most effectively drill down into their feelings and win them over. In a book you can’t do that. There’s no mass audience, just one writer and one reader. Hitler was charismatic, and he had an ear for the ways people talk. He used that in his speeches, said what people deep down wanted to hear, and when they heard it through him they heard and felt reason and truth. “They” became “we,” and that’s something that’s very hard to resist, because it’s such a good feeling, belonging to a “we.” Nothing in Hitler’s writing evokes that feeling: the arguments are naked, unprotected, and their stupidity and horror are revealed.
SE: How did your publisher feel about the title?
KOK: My editor, Geir Gulliksen, whom I have worked closely with on all my books, a man I trust blindly, said no to the title when I first suggested it. (Or rather, in his nonauthoritarian way, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”) Then he changed his mind a few weeks later. I think he said no initially because he wanted to protect the novel from accusations of sensationalism; he didn’t think it deserved that kind of reaction. But this of course could also be a cover for a more basic moral reaction: don’t do it, it’s not good, it’s evil. I surely felt that way myself. The title is of course sensationalistic, and it’s part of the reason for all the money the books have earned me. So I used Hitler and everything he is associated with for my own purposes.
SE: Why did you choose to deal directly with Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Book Six?
KOK: One of the main reasons for writing about Hitler and the rise of Nazism in Book Six was to make up for this, I think, to justify the title, not only aesthetically but also morally. This wasn’t something I was thinking about at all at that time—I almost never let thinking interfere with writing, or at least, I try to avoid it—so if these moral issues motivated me, it all happened on a subconscious level. But then again, where else does the moral exist?
SE: Did you have particular reasons for holding it until the very end?
KOK: I didn’t plan these books; I just started to write, and then, when I had written twelve hundred pages [the first two books of My Struggle], I gave them to my editor and asked what we should do with it. Was it possible to publish it as one book (if at all), or did we have to make it into two parts? If so, could we publish them simultaneously? The main publisher, Geir Berdahl, came up with the rather radical idea to publish it in twelve parts, one each month for a year, and have people subscribe to it. I absolutely loved the idea. This is what the band The Wedding Present did, for instance, releasing one single each month for a year, and then the whole album. And the idea of a subscription, that brought Dickens’s and Dostoyevsky’s novels to mind. In the end, they decided that twelve books were too risky, economically, but that six would be possible: three published in the autumn, three in the spring. Then I had to decide how to split it; should I just divide the existing manuscript into six parts of two hundred pages each? Or should I try to make each book a novel in its own right? That’s what I did. The existing manuscript became the first two novels, so then I had to write four more that year, and at the same time edit, publish, and promote the first two. I did an extremely rough sketch—Book Three childhood, Book Four youth, Book Five the twenties, until the funeral of the father—so that those five books became a kind of circle. And then Book Six should be about the consequences of it all.
SE: What was the feeling as you began to let these books loose in the world?
KOK: I wrote about real people and real events, so, for me, this was an experiment about the relationship between literature and life—life becoming literature, which is then sent back out into life, which it influences, and then this life that has been influenced by literature is turned back into literature again. That was the plan. I had no idea of what was awaiting me, that these books would become a mass-media phenomenon in Norway, so that the story would also turn into one about a writer, sitting alone by himself, writing about his inner life, who is then all of a sudden turned into a kind of celebrity, that is, reduced to an image. Journalists contacted every person I had ever known, even friends I had when I was a kid, even my mother-in-law’s ex-husband, who is in his late seventies and lives by himself deep in the woods. It was absurd, but certainly good material for the sixth book: one of the subjects of these books is the feeling of losing the world, that the world has changed into images of the world, which is what we relate to, so for me, as a novelist, to see myself turned into an image was deeply ironic, but at the same time too good to be true.
SE: And all this media frenzy comes out in Book Six?
KOK: My plan was that Book Six would be all about consequences. I wanted the effect that you see in the second part of Don Quixote, when they read about their own adventures in the first part. For me, the main consequence of My Struggle had to do with moral questions—there was so much indignation and anger going around when the first two books were published (which resulted in me taking a much kinder, or at least more careful, attitude toward other people in Books Three, Four, and Five, which were written amid a kind of tabloid storm)—and that was the starting point of Book Six. My family, who felt both deeply hurt and incriminated, refused to let me use my father’s real name. I didn’t want to invent a substitute, so I simply called him “Father” or “Dad.” All that made me reflect upon names; I wrote about fictitious names, for instance, names in Faulkner, Joyce, and Kafka, and then, through an essay by Ingeborg Bachmann, I stumbled upon Paul Celan’s poetry, in which naming in general is deeply problematic. Then I wrote fifty pages about one of his poems, realizing that this ruined world he describes, where the language lies scattered like stones on a field, was the direct consequence of another book, also in German, namely, Mein Kampf. I started to write about that, reading each sentence carefully, as I did with Celan’s poem, and then I wrote about the writer himself, Adolf Hitler, and his world—Vienna, Flanders, Munich, the Weimar Republic. I read Victor Klemperer’s diary, in which he describes the Third Reich from the inside, how the language itself changed. All of this writing became a novel inside Book Six, which ended up in the Holocaust—the thing that Celan wrote about without naming, because it is impossible even to name it without lying about it or making it into something it wasn’t.
SE: The idea of things that can’t be named, or things that can’t be said, is a fascinating theme throughout the series. As you said before, writing these books was in part a way to overcome that internal censor, that tendency to please others. I feel like this links up with the amazing productivity that came as you wrote this book—thousands of pages written in a very short span. Do you feel that the two of them related on some level?
KOK: Yes, I do. I managed to escape almost all self-imposed restrictions during the writing, and this kind of freedom was what I was really looking for. The problem, of course, is that you maybe gain a certain energy, and a certain closeness to yourself, but it’s also easy to lose quality—for instance, Book Three rips off the form of the childhood memoir, and Book Five is a very straight student-novel. The first three pages of Book One took me eight weeks to complete. That’s the same amount of time I spent on all of Book Five, which is five hundred pages or so. So of course the quality of the language is poorer. I can’t read Book Five myself, that’s impossible, but those first three pages, I can still read and enjoy.
SE: When you talk about literature influencing life, which influences the literature, and so on, it reminds me of that great quote from Tristram Shandy, where Sterne’s saying it’s already taken him a year to write up to Book Four, and everything he’s written so far narrates only the first day of his life, and so now he has 364 more days to narrate on top of everything else. As the enormity of his task dawns on him, he despairs, “I shall never overtake myself.” I love that section for how it’s kind of ironic, philosophical, absurd, and deadly serious all at once. So, I guess, with all that in mind, I’m curious to know about your reaction to all of this material piling up as the project really began to take off.
KOK: I never had the feeling that this was out of control. Maybe that was because the six parts of the novel all are different; they are novels in their own right, with their own style, subject, and form. It was like writing six different novels in a row. The thing a novelist should fear is that nothing is coming, that the page remains blank. That a scene or a description is so hard to create that it’s like pulling something out from the brain through the nose. I’m there myself almost all of the time. In this project, unpleasant in many ways as it was, I always felt good about the fact that the words just kept coming. I wrote about everything, no matter what, in a constant flow that lasted for three years. I hated it, but it still was a kind of blessing, or relief, just being able to write and write and write . . . That was how I wrote when I started out as an eighteen-year-old wannabe novelist; I just did it, without any concerns. What I wrote then was extremely juvenile—and I think this project is too—maybe that’s the prize for the uncritical flow, being juvenile? But anyhow: it’s better to write a lot immaturely than write a little cleverly. Don’t you agree?
SE: To me, it’s a little ironic that this flow was such a blessing for you, since Book Six ends with you writing, “And I’m so happy I’m no longer an author.” In other words, the point of all this writing was to end yourself as a writer. Was this always a goal of the project? With all the momentum you’d accumulated, were you tempted to continue? Sterne and Proust (to name a couple of authors spoken of as role models for My Struggle), after all, quit only because they died . . .
KOK: But I died as well! That end is a kind of literary suicide (inspired by David Bowie’s little monologue at the end of his last Ziggy Stardust concert, I have to say). The only thing I knew before I started this project was that that sentence would end it. That the novel should end there, with me no longer an author. That was an exit, for me, a way out. It was also a motivation: I wanted (or needed) that sentence to be true. So I tried to write myself to the point where it was true. The book is about ambition, and about escape from the world. All my life I have turned away from life and faced literature instead. The escapism through literature in my youth was massive. I loved being away from everything; I loved entering all those different worlds.
SE: This escapism comes through a lot in Book Three, in which there are lists and lists of all the books you read to escape your childhood. It felt to me as though in the series you’re tracing a lot of your struggles as an adult to the terror you felt for your father, who, admittedly, did plenty of traumatizing things to you as a child. Do you feel that your desire to cease to be a writer is rooted in some way in these young experiences, which, you often note, you escaped from through literature?
KOK: To write is to escape. But it’s also to create. So it’s not like you’re running away when you’re writing; it’s kind of the opposite, a definitive confrontation with who you are and what limits you have, in the open and limitless world of fiction. Reading was good for me when I was a child because I could go to other places without leaving my room. For a long time I thought that childhood was a kind of prison, and that the adults or parents were like guards. Nowadays I think it’s the other way around. The intensity of your experiences is so strong when you’re a child, the world is so insanely alive to you, that the fact that you’re quite helplessly in your parents’ hands is of lesser importance. As an adult, you can do what you want, but mostly you do it without that intensity; you look at the world with a distance, you can’t enter it, it’s out of reach, except when you are in love, of course. Or when you are disappearing into some kind of entertainment, which is, we have to admit, childish.
SE: And so literature was a way to escape from the intensity of that childhood world?
KOK: I borrowed tons of books every week from the local library. And I read everything. Books for boys, books for girls, books for grown-ups. I remember that I read a two-volume biography of Tolstoy at the age of twelve, not because I was advanced or sophisticated—I read it like I read The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers or Tarzan, or the book of books back then, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. It really didn’t matter what these books were about, or what I could learn from them; it was all a matter of being in a world other than my own. It was the same when I started to write novels myself: I first became a novelist at that exact moment when writing was like reading—disappearing completely into something else, where no thoughts exist. Not dealing with the world is okay when you are young, and when you are a single writer. But it’s not okay when you have children. And that’s one of the starting points for this book. Who is this person who gets tears in his eyes when he looks at a painting, but not when looking at his children? Or who prefers reading Dostoyevsky to feeding his daughter? Why do I need to escape in the first place? It’s a kind of dysfunction, and I knew that I had to deal with it, to face the world. The solution? To write about it. To turn away from the world. But in the end, I realized I should turn away from literature and face the world. I wanted to use up everything I had. I remember being told as a young writer that you should never go to the source itself, you should use only what that source could create—but I wanted to empty it totally, to leave the table empty. I even gave away some of my ideas for future novels, just to kill them off. And there really is nothing left; I’m really no longer an author.
SE: I’m curious, as someone who’s interviewing you, how do you feel about the whole idea of an interview? I’m asking in part because there are two really interesting interviews that occur in Books One and Two. In the first, you are the interviewer: you’re a young man and you and your brother, Yngve, are interviewing Kjartan Fløgstad, a hugely respected, successful Norwegian author. To make a long story short, you and Yngve don’t have an audio recorder, nor do you take notes. When the interview is over, the two of you try to reconstruct it after the fact, but you make all sorts of fabrications, and Fløgstad flatly prohibits you from ever publishing it. It’s a devastating, shameful moment. Then in Book Two, it’s you who is being interviewed, as an author. And you say that this is something you hate because you always come out all wrong. So why do you still give interviews?
KOK: Another part of the no-longer-author-thing was that I never again should give any interviews. That I should be free also in that sense. I have said a lot of times in interviews, “This is my last interview.” But it isn’t. They keep coming. Why? I never give interviews in Scandinavia anymore, mostly because I’m embarrassed over how much has been written about me in the media these last years, and I do not want to force myself on anyone. So all requests I turn down. But then, when I’m doing a reading or a speech on this or that occasion, there will be journalists present, and face-to-face it’s impossible for me to say no. I can write no, and I can have other people say no for me, but I can’t say no to anyone myself, not without feeling terrible afterward. In this case, with you, it’s different. The publishing houses in the UK and the US have invested time and money and a lot of other things in my books, and I’m grateful for that, and want to give all I can back to them. Interviews are really the only thing I can do to help.
SE: It’s a little unbelievable to me that in this day and age a literary author can reach that realm of celebrity, to the extent that he’s afraid of forcing himself on people. It doesn’t happen very often.
KOK: The first thing I understood when this book took off in Norway was that suddenly there were two Karl Oves, one that was me, and one that was a kind of cartoon that was only slightly related to me (the beard and the long hair). But the good thing with a lot of publicity is that everything bad or stupid kind of drowns. Today, for instance, there was a strange story in some of the Swedish and Norwegian newspapers. Just last Friday, a man, apparently drunk, tried to burn Book Four of Min kamp, a pocket edition, in a bookstore in Malmö. The police came and took him away, and his motive was that I was the worst writer of all time. I mean, in the history of mankind. What do you make out of that, when you sit at your home, eating breakfast, receiving this link? It’s a sad and beautiful world!
SE: What about your hair. It’s a bit of a trademark, is it not?
KOK: I started to wear it long and with a beard more or less at the same time I started to write My Struggle. For me, it felt like it became a part of the cartoon-thing in the media, easily identifiable, a kind of trademark, all things I dislike strongly, so when I finished the novel and published the last part, I cut it off. But it didn’t help. All of a sudden I looked just like an ordinary idiot, and not like an idiot with the credibility of an author. I felt naked, and I realized that there was a certain safety in looking that way, it kind of protected me, like a mask. And my kids screamed with laughter when they saw me without the hair and the beard; they said that I looked like a hairless dog and demanded that I grow them back. Which I did. So I’m going to look like a heavy-metal musician in decline for the rest of my life.
SE: Whenever I read reviews of these books, nobody really knows how to categorize them. It’s clearly autobiography of sorts, but then you do things like re-create a lot of very long conversations from memory, so obviously there’s some invention. There’s a quote from Book Three that speaks to this: “Memory is not a reliable quantity in life. And it isn’t for the simple reason that memory doesn’t prioritize the truth. It is never the demand for truth that determines whether memory recalls an action accurately or not. It is self-interest that does. Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied. Something pushes a memory into the great void of oblivion, something distorts it beyond recognition, something misunderstands it totally, something, and this something is as good as nothing, recalls it with sharpness, clarity, and accuracy. That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine.” Did you feel as though you were at the mercy of your memory as you wrote?
KOK: The only thing I wanted to be truthful to when I wrote this was my memory. I’m not interested in the past, but rather the past of the mind, not interested in relations, but relations in the head, in other words, the world distorted by the self—which in the end is the world. So I never did any research, never interviewed anyone, and never corrected obvious mistakes when made aware of them. The interesting thing is how related memory and fiction are in the process of writing, and how difficult it is to tell the difference between them in the end. It’s like we’re all writing our lives, creating an identity, even if for the most part this is an unconscious process. It’s not that different from creating a literary self. This is both the enigma in the novel and its main subject: the self. I’m not interested in representing my life as in a memoir—what I wanted to do was to explore the self.
SE: There’s an awful lot about shitting in Book Three. You describe in great detail many occasions when you and a close friend of yours shit out in the middle of nature and the immense pleasure it gave you. Or rather, it was kind of this pleasure/pain thing—probably one of my favorite quotes from Book Three is “I could spend the whole day dreading one of those big shits.” Why so much about shitting?
KOK: I could say something along the lines of shitting is of major importance in childhood, it has to do with self-control and identity, abjection, and socialization. And it probably does. But that was not the reason for writing about it. I once saw a stand-up comedy show on TV, I think it was Eddie Murphy, and he was going on about his very first stand-up routine, when he was young and so inexperienced, not knowing anything, basically, that he had no idea what to talk about. Then he realized that he in fact knew a lot about one thing: shitting. He was very experienced when it came to that, he could go into all the details. I laughed my head off. Why did I laugh? I remembered how it was, being a kid, thinking and feeling all these things, all by myself, with no perspective whatsoever. The fear when you have used too much toilet paper and the pipes momentarily seem to be clogged, or the detailed observations of the different colors, sizes, and smells, some of them filled you with another kind of fear, I mean over serious illness or death. The point is that you experience this alone, and you do not have a language for it. When I started to write about childhood, I was looking for exactly these areas, places where the strange logic of a child appears, and the intensity of the thoughts, where something of absolutely no consequence or value might occupy your mind for days or weeks. Shitting has all that, and it is also centered on the body, which also was important to me; childhood is so different because of the way we use the body in the world as children. Running all the time, falling, bumping into things, getting small wounds, screaming, singing, swimming, jumping from small mountains and down into snow or water, skiing, skating, biking, climbing . . . The way into childhood goes through your body.
SE: Did you have trouble developing the language to talk about your own shit?
KOK: I actually wrote a long essay on this recently called “The Brown Tail.” It appeared in a collection of essays published this autumn in Norwegian. I think the attraction of writing about it has to do with it being a phenomenon so common, but still extremely private, the most private of all (it’s unthinkable to sit and shit in public, or in pairs, but why?), and because of that it’s something that’s almost without a language. If you compare this, for instance, with rotten grapes, you will see that we have the most sophisticated and detailed language for those tastes and smells, but no such thing when it comes to shit. Imagine a guest returning to the table at a dinner party: Oh, you should have seen it! It was so dark brown! Darker than dark chocolate! Almost black like the night. But at the end—and it was perfectly tube-formed, by the way—at the end, it was light brown. And the other guests say, Yeah, I had a similar one once. But nowadays, it’s so soft, almost like cream. And brown in a yellow way, if you know what I mean? And so on. That’s rather unthinkable. Remember the controversial passage in Joyce’s Ulysses, at the beginning of the Bloom part? It was unheard of, and still is, in a way. You could say it’s hidden or not talked or written about for a reason. It’s trivial, it’s banal, it’s shitting, for god’s sake! Keep us out of it! The interesting part now is of course not the thing itself, but what it can tell about us. We are animals, and we are not.
SE: That is an utterly delightful meditation on shit, and it reminds me in a way of one of David Foster Wallace’s last stories, “The Suffering Channel,” which involves, among other things, a man who makes art by shitting. I feel like that story is evoking some of the same things: Why does shit bother us? What if it could be art? Why does it bother us to observe it and be observed? But to sort of change gears, one of the things about Book Three is that it combines these whimsical things like extended descriptions of you shitting with these incredibly bleak sections in which you detail how your father terrorized you. At one point you even say that it was so bad that you believe you might have killed yourself as a child. You go on to say, “I am alive, I have my own children and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.” Do you feel that you’ve achieved this goal?
KOK: Oh. This makes me embarrassed. Did I really write that? About suicide, I mean? I know that I have said it from time to time, regarding different periods of my life, and if you put them together, the conclusion is simple: I’m a self-pitying bastard. Why do I keep saying that I could have killed myself on this or that occasion? Is my life really so miserable?
SE: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s such an uncommon sentiment. There’s that section in Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse where he talks about how lovers tend to threaten to kill themselves, almost like a tactic that gets used in arguments . . . I think it’s a thing people tend to say, for better or worse.
KOK: There are two ways to consider this. From the outside, someone who keeps saying he could have killed himself, but never does, seeks attention at any cost, not unlike a child who keeps behaving badly, addicted to the negative attention it gives him or her. But from the inside that perspective simply isn’t relevant, it can’t be, no one wants to admit that they’re willing to nurture their misery and brag about it because it makes them feel good. I tried to write about different periods of my life with as little distance as possible, to make it present, to create the feeling of being there. (A lot of those novels that I admire the most have that quality, for instance, Hunger by Knut Hamsun.) What I’m interested in are the feelings. Not the thoughts or the reflections; they are wildly overrated. But the complexity of feelings. Everything we see, everything we think, everything we hear, all our experiences, are filtered through our feelings. Things like “I was really miserable as a teenager” are just too general—they’re untrue—so what I tried to do was to get into the situations, into their concreteness and idiosyncrasy, and try to evoke the feelings from them, that slow storm that blows through our lives.
SE: And all this comes out in those really tense scenes with your father . . .
KOK: The relationship to my father was essential in my childhood, and when I tried to dive into it, I understood something that I didn’t know at the time, namely, that there was a certain dynamic between us: he wasn’t that static, statue-like figure I imagined him to be. To the contrary, all the time he was responding to me, and I to him. It’s a kind of dance, the movements between father and son, adult and child. I know that now, having my own children. I do treat them each differently (but equally!), I do think differently about them, because they are so different, and they evoke different things in me. Knowing that, I see my father’s behavior with new eyes. He was a tyrant, but so were a lot of other fathers at that time. Maybe I would have experienced the same terror in any household? A friend of mine, Geir Angell, used to quote Sven Stolpe (a Swedish translator) when we discussed these things; Stolpe was talking about Ingmar Bergman, whose family was perfectly normal. Bergman’s father was a good man, his mother a good woman, but if you read what Bergman wrote about them, they are child-demolishing monsters. Maybe Bergman would have been Bergman no matter how good of parents he had?
SE: Did you begin to discover another side to your father because of the project?
KOK: After the publication of My Struggle I got a letter from one of my father’s colleagues, they worked as teachers in the same school. He said that my father was a good man, and a good friend. Trustworthy. Caring. A brilliant teacher. “I wanted you to know this,” he wrote, rather laconically. Later I met another colleague of his, and he said the same thing. He couldn’t praise him enough. In my books, he’s like the devil—and he was for me, I was so afraid of him, his unpredictability and fits of rage. But a more robust child probably wouldn’t have been damaged by it. I was, and when I wrote Book Three, I remembered in what ways. One of the things that got me writing about him in the first place was an experience I had as a father: all of a sudden I found myself screaming at my daughter, full of rage, and she was only one and a half, two years old. How was that possible? What was going on? Who on earth was I? So, to answer your question, yes, that has been part of the struggle, and no, my children are not afraid of me, not a bit.
SE: Maybe just one more question: One of the things that came home to me in Book Three is precisely how devastating you are on yourself in your honesty. There’s a lot in there that’s frankly embarrassing, borderline criminal, or that just puts you in a very bad light. If I do say, you’re very hard on yourself. Is there an aspect of masochism to this project?
KOK: I have been accused of that—there was actually a book published by an academic, called “The Knausgaard Code” (yes, it’s ridiculous, I know). I haven’t read it, but as far as I know, the masochist thing is part of the (deadly) criticism against my books. (I wrote two novels before My Struggle, and the one thing they have in common is overreflective, self-punishing main characters.) But for me, it has nothing to do with masochism. It has to do with the thrill of the forbidden, crossing that line between what you are and are not supposed to do. But I would say that it also has a comic element to it. Writing involves irony, no matter what kind of writing—and by irony I mean basically the differences between the author, the writer, and the protagonist. In this case, the difference is huge in Book Three, when the protagonist is seven or eight, lesser in Book Two, but still present and providing a certain dynamic. Something’s comic when it’s seen differently from the outside and inside at the same time. And I do find this “I” in these books comic—it wasn’t funny when it happened in real life, but the text gives everything a certain perspective, and that irony, that gap, that double self, it isn’t masochistic but deeply and fundamentally literary.
Lost & Found:Aaron Hamburger, Mesha Maren, Shawn Vandor, Heather Hartley, Katie Arnold-Ratliff
In between traveling, filming, recipe testing, and raising her son, Sophia Loren penned In the Kitchen with Love from the penthouse of the Hotel Intercontinental in Geneva. By the time that her cookbook-cum-memoir and etiquette manual was published in 1971 Loren was already an international superstar with more than fifty films to her credit and the 1962 Academy Award for Best Actress. Peter O’Toole, who co-starred with her in the 1972 film Man of La Mancha, once declared: “The more I was with Sophia, the more edible she looked.”
Before coming across her first cookbook, I’d seen a few of Loren’s films and I knew that she had grown up around Naples, not far from where my boyfriend’s family has lived for generations. I didn’t think of her as a cook, but as someone who had embodied all sorts of sensual, robust women who love cooking, eating, and feeding people. In Lady Liberty, she plays a feisty northern Italian small-town girl who has come to America to join her fiancé and gets caught in customs at JFK trying to carry a huge mortadella sausage into the country. Nor was she limited to playing mortals: in 1971 she appeared on a commemorative coin as Ceres, the goddess of grain. But clearly I had been wrong to think of her as someone who only pretends to love food. With over three hundred family and personal recipes, anecdotes, and asides, In the Kitchen with Love is a solid demonstration of her passion for cooking.
“Three things are essential in writing a cookbook,” she writes in the preface. “Time and a love of food and talent for cooking.” Her recipes range from traditional to original: from Filet alla Loren (beef with crumbled Parmesan and truffle shavings) to Vermicelli with Sauce alla Sophia (a sort of personal pesto recipe swapping out basil for parsley) to the lesser-known Emilian Grass Pie in which the “grass” is minced Swiss chard. As for Loren’s actual kitchen skills, we’ll have to take her word for it or refer to the snazzy color photos of her as a peasant, a housewife, or a sophisticate, and sometimes a combination of all three.
Chapter by chapter, Loren guides the reader through the traditional Italian meal with practical and fairly uncomplicated recipes for antipasti, pasta, rice, soups, pizza, fish, meats, poultry, vegetables, and sweets. The recipes are chatty and informal and you get the feeling that you’re in the 1960s mod kitchen at her hunting lodge by the Po River, where Sophia—all beehive, pumps, and voluptuousness—cooks, bakes, and chooses between roast pheasant or river eel for dinner.
The book is also a peek into social mores and manners at a time when the role of women was shifting in the patriarchal matriarchy known as Italy. Throughout the seventies, the country was juggling older, traditional ways of life (a very strong, pervasive casalinga culture with only slightly more than twenty percent of the female population gainfully employed in certain sectors) with new and, for Italy, extremely polemic ideas (divorce was legalized in 1970 and abortion in 1978). In what could be an unofficial kitchen manifesto, Loren writes, “There was a time not so long ago when women regarded the kitchen stove as a form of slavery. Today the slavery is over. So why not transform the chains into an instrument of delight?” Many chapters also touch on the discrepancies between men and women in terms of dinner party manners and dining etiquette, though her passionate plea not to smoke at the dinner table is aimed at both sexes.
From the stove to the stage, Loren has it covered: if you’re wondering what to eat after winning an Oscar, she shares her recipe for spaghetti with bay leaves with the surprise ingredient of cinnamon. And for those impromptu dinners when movie stars show up for a casual cookout, she suggests lobster cocktail as Cary Grant liked it (he still showed up for hors d’oeuvres after Loren turned down his marriage proposal?), spicy avocado for Hungarian film director Charles Vidor, and beans with cotiche (pork skin) to woo and wow Marcello Mastroianni. As Loren says, “If you find your idol is inapproachable, or if he is avoiding you or really is too busy to see you, send him by fair means or foul an invitation for a big feed of beans and cotiche.” For the film set of Fellini’s Boccaccio ’70, she offers a recipe for pasta passatelli, with lots of Parmesan, grated lemon rind, and a pinch of nutmeg. The chapter on sweets has recipes for candied almonds, ricotta pie, and, among other things, a surprising Renaissance recipe for fried magnolia petals that are, according to Loren, sublime.
Each chapter ends with a different “Digression” that, in the experienced voice of an Italian Emily Post, often addresses larger dining, etiquette, and philosophical questions like “Table manners, forks and fingers,” “The eye wants its satisfaction,” or “Husbands slaving over a hot stove.” Of husbands, she writes, “Until a few years ago, every good mother of a family who gave her daughter advice on her wedding night never failed to make a point of urging her to ‘take her husband by the throat,’ that is to spoil him with threats, tidbits, and special dishes.” In the section “On Wines,” she muses over cozy lunches spent with President Josip Broz Tito at his villa on Brioni, an island in the Adriatic Sea, his impeccable manners, and the inner workings of his vineyard: “In late summer every year he invites a great number of his ministers and friends and puts them all to work, under the orders of the expert peasant farmer. It is a gay and extraordinarily rapid harvest, which of course is exactly what Tito intends it to be.”
For all her worldly experience, in her recipes Loren often returns to her Neapolitan origins. In the pizza chapter, she names the world’s supreme pizza as Neapolitan but also mentions her favorite versions in New York, Nice, and Paris. (Paris, really? The pizzas I’ve eaten there are often topped with a watery egg.) In the “Poultry and Game” chapter, she shares her maternal grandmother’s recipe for rabbit with a sauce of garlic, dry white wine, tomatoes, pitted black olives, and a pinch of paprika or chili pepper. When homesick, Loren consoles herself with napoletanine, fritters stuffed with mozzarella or, even better, fior di latte and served with a sauce of tomato purée, garlic, and olive oil. For dessert—if you’ve made it this far in the meal—from the “inexhaustible treasure house of my own Naples,” comes the recipe for bocconotti, a pastry filled with black cherry jam or a mix of half jam and half custard.
She also admits to indulging in the Neapolitan practice of nicknaming, in her case applying monikers based on food to family and friends. She confesses that it is “an old and harmless mania of mine: of giving all the people I love or who interest me a nickname . . . For many years now I have been calling my husband, Carlo Ponti, involtino.” (She offers no explanation as to why the famed producer of films like Doctor Zhivago and Two Women has been christened as an antipasto.) She continues, “As it invariably happens with people I like, [I can call] them fettucine or zeppole or frittata [and it] has a positive meaning. . . . If one day you meet me, . . . and . . . I suddenly call you ‘potato chip’ or ‘stuffed turkey’ or any dish at all, remember what I have written in these pages and you will realize I have taken an immediate fancy to you.”
No one I know in Naples goes by a food nickname, but much of what Loren says of her region is true. When my boyfriend and I visit his family, their goodwill and effort to make me feel at home is ever present. We don’t share the same language when we talk, but we do at the table, where I’m always welcome to seconds (and thirds) of dish after divine dish. In the Kitchen with Love offers that same comfort—generous, delectable, and abundant.