Zugzwang

Zsa Zsa Gabor was a mystery to me when I was young. I didn’t know what she did, or who she was, other than hers was a starry name. She was frequently in the headlines – a Zsa here, a Zsa there – but she remained an unknown constellation in the dot-the-dot firmament of human fame.

Frequently described as a “blonde bombshell”, she struck me as gaudy and generic compared with the languorous beauty of Jacqueline Bisset (whose zephyr-like voice awoke amorous impulses still tormenting me to this day). Zsa Zsa Gabor prefigured the sort of fame that is commonplace today but was relatively rare in her time: she was famous for no good reason. Zsa Zsa Gabor (/ˈʒɑːʒɑː ˈɡɑːbɔːr, -ɡəˈbɔːr/): an onomatopoeia signifying a voluptuous blonde woman with a faux-sophisticated European drawl who makes risqué quips about love and marriage (“I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back”). Zsa Zsa Gabor was born into a family of Jewish descent in Budapest, 1917. She was Miss Hungary 1936, a “credible” actress according to John Huston (she rarely played the lead), a socialite, a “glamorous personality”, a wife to 9 husbands (“I am a marvellous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man I keep his house.”). As this book draws to an end, I find myself wondering: who was Zsa Zsa Gabor? I get obsessed, methodical, zetetic. I zealously read, jealously concede (everything).

In 2011, The Huffington Post ran a Zsa-struck salute to the shameless fame-monger: “Once upon a time there were three beautiful sisters with little discernible talent… We’re talking Zsa Zsa, Eva and Magda Gabor. The original famous-for-being-famous celebrities of their day. And they played it to the hilt… The zaftig Zsa Zsa flaunted her big bottom long before the Kardashian sisters married for mere hours.”

I am gratuitously including this excerpt because I want to seize on the word ‘zaftig’. Zaftig means “having a full rounded figure, pleasingly plump” (Merriam-Webster). Describing a spat with Elke Sommer (a “gorgeous Teutonic temptress” in the words of her IMDB profile), in which Elke expressed concern for the well-being of a horse that Zsa Zsa was riding, Zsa Zsa’s friend and former publicist, Edward Lozzi, explained Sommer’s barbed remarks: “Everybody knew what that meant, because Zsa Zsa was very zaftig, and so the saddle was very full.”

Zaftig comes from the German word saftig, which means ‘juicy’ or ‘succulent’. With regards to women, zaftig can mean voluptuous in a sexually enticing way or it can mean overweight in the negative sense (“She’s a bit on the heavy side”). Either way, this Yiddish word, which has travelled a bewilderingly long way from the ghettos of Vilnius and Warsaw, has become saddled with an ambiguity it probably lacked when female sexuality was not austerely measured by the kilogram.

As Lori Lefkovitz, professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University, explains: “Once upon a time, plumpness or curviness and all of those luscious sexual descriptors were associated with health and wealth, and as health and wealth got increasingly thin, zaftig became a euphemism for overweight.”

This reflects our outsized idiocy in being seduced by profit-inspired representations of beauty (a corporeal conversion of sin into guilt, inadequacy and shame). Personally speaking, I think that passwords should contain between 12–14 characters, should include both lower and uppercase letters, and should throw some numbers and symbols into the mix. That is to say, who really knows what Zsa Zsa thought of it all.

Lefkovitz goes on to suggest that there is also an element of nostalgia in the enduring, if leaner, meaning of zaftig: “It’s a word where we hold both the past and the present, where there was a kind of valorization even for our zaftig grandmothers.”

It is a charming conjuring trick although I never had a rotund grandmother who cooked cabbage soup and lovingly ladled it up for me.

Instead, I regurgitate the same noxious despair. I bring it up like vomit, a bilious broth of bubbling vowels, in a sound I have never heard before but which impresses me with its tonal integrity (it is 01:13: I always make a note of the time; it could be safely said of me he knew what time it was).

My zip is often open. It is not intentional. Perhaps it is just a cry for help.

I haven’t much in the world. My (temporary) zip code is LT08112.

I was 7 when I first saw naked breasts. I was watching the 1964 film Zulu with my parents. My father was in his usual chair in the corner of the room, feet smugly crossed on his pouffe, while my mother and I sat at either end of the bamboo-framed sofa. A large group of African women were participating in a ceremonial dance while the priggish (some might say evil) English looked on. I had never seen anything so exciting before but was terrified my parents could hear me gulping through the hypnotic percussion and chanting.

“They’re just mammary glands,” B says dismissively of the male obsession with breasts.

B does not know the tragic idiocy of being a (reluctantly) virile man.

Zaftig is one of many Yiddish words commonly used in English (chutzpah, glitch, golem, shmuck, etc.). I would like to volunteer a (very loosely) Jewish-influenced neologism for future use: Weinsteinian. Definition: behaving towards women in a boorish, manipulative and abusive way. (This is in no way to suggest that Weinstein’s behaviour is a result of his Jewish origins; male disgustingness is universal.)

By writing what I am about to write, I am probably signing my own death warrant.

Flustered, I stutter: Zsa Zsa?

I have behaved shamefully towards a number of women. Once, drunk (in every case), I angrily told a woman to leave my apartment after it became clear that she felt no sexual attraction towards me (I was excited by something she had just revealed). I have sulked and brooded over many a rejection. I have used flattery as a means of ingratiation (though always meaning what I said). I have mildly misused a position of low-level authority to reach out to females who would never normally have felt the least interest towards me. I have invited several bemused (and possibly horrified) women back to my place after completely misreading the situation or else resigning to despair.

In my defence, I am avowedly not Weinstenian in the worst sense of the word. I have never consciously manipulated a woman into liking or wanting me. I have never forced myself on anyone. I have never harassed anyone. I carry a deep sense of shame for my behaviour and clearly remember each occasion despite being drunk (the shame would shadow me for days). Tired of feeling shame and rejection, I eventually quarantined myself from the world. As a man, all I ever wanted was to feel attractive. I was repeatedly told how ugly I was growing up. It must have left me utterly complex-ridden because I have obsessively been seeking affirmation ever since.

There is nothing worse than being unwanted. Let’s not beat around the bush, being desired is pretty much the crux of why we’re alive (forget the industrial-scale pursuit of happiness and quaint cottage industry of self-fulfilment). To be unwanted is akin to being starved or parched; an integral part of your reason for living is being stymied. Your language, constantly seeking its affirmative echo, shrivels into self-parody. You come up with reasons for living but are excruciatingly aware they are fearfully kowtowing to the biological imperative to live on at all cost. You start to become aware of the sadness of prepositions and see cobwebs in places you hadn’t noticed before.

I will not neatly, thematically tie this text up with a Zsa-Zsa-shaped bow. I will make no more mention of zaftig women or swinish Weinsteinian behaviour. Instead, I will repeat an idea that has been obsessing me of late: art is a poor substitute for life.

I believe that ketchup should be kept in the fridge.

I believe that grass is green.

I believe that dreams are dreams.

I believe that is the zenith of what I know.

 

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