PRINT May 2019


Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from Boston. Her most recent novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Penguin, 2018), is about a woman who tries to hibernate. She also writes essays and screenplays. She lives in Los Angeles.


    Learning Bach was always a bit maddening when I studied piano, especially his inventions, miracles of tension and synchronicity in which each hand plays against the other in distinct but harmonious melodies. I quit piano about twenty years ago, and it’s taken me this long to have the courage to return to the power of this music, this time as a listener. When I surrender to it now, I realize how profoundly spiritual these works are. Bach’s suites for cello, in particular No. 2 in D Minor, are also completely transportive.


    I recently got married. While I was engaged, I accepted an assignment to write about Bergman for the centennial of his birthday, and so I spent about a month watching all of his films. The five-hour miniseries Scenes from a Marriage (1973) drove me the most insane. Because I was completely in love with my then fiancé, it was torture to watch the stupidity and selfishness of these characters who love and cheat and lie and, worst of all, condescend to one another. Adultery is a theme I prefer to keep in the realm of cinematic fiction. Bergman’s fascination with the subject functions like an artistic discipline. It’s in all of his work as a medium for the exploration of desire, love, sacrifice, God, death, identity—everything.

    *Ingmar Bergman, _Scenes from a Marriage_, 1973,* still from TV show on SVT. Episode 4, “Târedalan” (The Vale of Tears). Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson). Ingmar Bergman, Scenes from a Marriage, 1973, still from TV show on SVT. Episode 4, “Târedalan” (The Vale of Tears). Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson).

    I discovered this music a few years ago at a low point in my life, and it gave me strength and energy. It is magical, at once powerful and gentle, funny and nostalgic, sad and exuberant. I find it very profound, and it resonates within me more than any other ancient form of music. The combination of percussive and melodic instruments—metallophones, hand drums, xylophones—produces ethereal sounds. I particularly like the bamboo flute. I got one for myself, and I try to play a few notes whenever I am sad. One group, Gamelan Degung, has a piece called “Mojang Sumedang” that I return to again and again.


    No relation to Ingmar (I don’t think). This is a young artist whom I discovered on the internet and have been corresponding with for years. He works exclusively in crayons, and each of his drawings is incredibly textured, spiritual, and funny, like a page out of a waxy illuminated manuscript. He sent me an email the other day with his latest images and a story about how Alexander Scriabin was killed by a zit. I didn’t know acne could be lethal!

    *Atticus Bergman, _Several variations on the death of Judas Iscariot,_ 2019,* crayon on paper, 22 × 30". Atticus Bergman, Several variations on the death of Judas Iscariot, 2019, crayon on paper, 22 × 30".

    I’m a big fan of true crime, even the worst-quality docudramas. But The Staircase is spectacular. I’ve watched this series four times, and I still don’t know if the guy is guilty or not. When a suspected killer has a persona so pretentious, so performative, sincerity and insincerity begin to blur. I thought a lot about my first book, McGlue (2014), as I studied this documentary, and about how the violence toward homosexuality, or any sexuality that deviates from the so-called norm, forces people to live covertly, behind curtains of deception. Dishonesty about one thing can obfuscate other truths.

    *_The Staircase_, 2018,* still from a TV show on Netflix. Season 1, episode 13, “Flawed Justice.” Kathleen Peterson and Michael Peterson. The Staircase, 2018, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season 1, episode 13, “Flawed Justice.” Kathleen Peterson and Michael Peterson.

    This was the first movie that blew me away as a work of narrative art. I saw it with my big sister in the theater when I was four years old. We drank piña colada slushies using Twizzlers as straws. I’ve probably seen it a hundred times since then, and each time I’m astonished at the near perfection of its story structure and how it wrangles enormous existential questions. In addition to its reanimating of the year 1955, the film’s two versions of 1985—the first, an unhappy lower-class household; the second, a cheerful rich one—really captured what excites me most about writing fiction: Worlds are built out of the imagination, and infinite worlds are possible.




    Gräns, by Iranian-Swedish director Abbasi, was the surprise best film of the past year for me. The main characters are a pair of trolls, one of whom (a female) has been living as a human. The film’s use of folklore stimulated in me essential questions about the behavior of my own species. After I watched this movie, it took me an entire day to stop feeling like a chump for being so civilized. And it has the best sex scene of any movie I’ve seen—the female troll grows a penis. Its brutal ecstasy was shocking and beautiful and truly weird.

    *Ali Abbasi, _Gräns_ (Border), 2018,* HD video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Vore (Eero Milonoff) and Tina (Eva Melander). Ali Abbasi, Gräns (Border), 2018, HD video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Vore (Eero Milonoff) and Tina (Eva Melander).

    Billie Holiday first recorded this song in 1939, but the performance that really moves me is one with Lester Young on tenor sax that was broadcast in 1957 as part of a TV series called The Seven Lively Arts. Holiday and Young had had a tremendous love affair, but they hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Her voice has the perfect grit and strangeness for this song, which is about loving a man who treats you like shit. When she’s not singing, she sort of shakes her head with a possessed smile on her face. She looks insane. And Young’s solo is unearthly, just pure spirit and heart, haunting and startlingly tender. After the recording, they never saw each other again. They both died two years later.

    *Video capture from Billie Holiday’s performance of “Fine and Mellow,” 1939, on the CBS TV series _Seven Lively Arts,_ 1957.* Video capture from Billie Holiday’s performance of “Fine and Mellow,” 1939, on the CBS TV series Seven Lively Arts, 1957.

    I’m a bit obsessed with the quality of the voices in Chinese opera: the soft, bombastic bass, the nasal, precise soprano. The percussion. My first exposure to its sounds was Chen Kaige’s 1993 movie, Farewell My Concubine. When I lived in Wuhan, China, in the early 2000s, older people would gather in little outdoor areas for casual opera performances. It was stunning to come upon something like that happening on the street between a vendor slinging barbecue and a stationery store.


    Jarrett is one of my favorite pianists. This particular live recording feels like a direct transmission from heaven. It is pure improvisation, sometimes moody, sometimes tortured, sometimes hilarious, sometimes so sweet and light and heartbreaking that you can hear Jarrett moan “wow” as he plays, just as I want to as I listen. I saw him perform some years ago at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. I went alone and cried the entire time. For his encore he played “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It was a spiritual experience.

    *Cover of Keith Jarrett’s _The Köln Concert_* (ECM Records, 1975). Cover of Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert (ECM Records, 1975).