January 3, 2010

The Sven Effect


Grinch and I were juniors at the University of Wisconsin. Maybe sophomores, I’m not sure. No—we were definitely sophomores because that was the year I was living in a short hallway.

            We didn’t know each other very well at that point, but being philosophy majors with shared interests, we’d ended up in a number of classes together. One of these was a Dostoevsky course taught by a short and annoying fellow who had very firm and very wrong ideas about what Fyodor Dostoevsky was up to in his novels. (We would take our revenge on his wrong-headedness later, but that’s another story).

            There was another kid in the class with us. A soft, baby-faced guy. He always shuffled in late, and always sat two seats away from me. He always wore the same thing—black leather jacket zipped up to the top, crusty black watch cap, black jeans—and he always carried a battered briefcase held together with two yellow bungee cords. There was something about his face, too. One half seemed to sag a bit, pulling the corner of his mouth down toward his chin as if he’d suffered some kind of mild stroke. He also wore tinted glasses, looked like he cut his own hair, and always reeked of stale cigarettes. At some point, we learned his name was “Sven.”

            This was all we knew. We didn’t pay that much attention to him to be honest, but he was a bit of a curiosity. There wasn’t that much to think about him apart from his appearance, given that he never spoke. Not a word.

            Until the third week of class, that is.

            We were reading Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s agonizingly dull proto-communist novel, What is to be Done? (The professor’s central thesis for the course was that everything Dostoevsky wrote had been written in reaction to that dreadful little book). Nobody was really paying much attention, but then, in the middle of the professor’s dronings on the nobility of the peasantry, Sven slowly raised his hand. The professor stopped talking, apparently as surprised as we were by this unexpected interruption.

            “Yes?” he asked.

            Sven tapped the cover of the book on his desk with two fingers, and said, ”If I ever met any of these people on the street . . . I would want to KILL them.”

            And that was it—the only words he spoke in class all semester. He never raised his hand again, but it was enough.

            See, it wasn’t just what he said—which pretty much mirrored what I was thinking when I read Chernyshevsky’s book—it was how he said it. Maybe part of it was the result of that suspected stroke, but the words came out nasal and whining and slow, sounding as if it took a Herculean effort to force them out, squeezing them up through a deep, black, and narrow chasm.

            I glanced at Grinch, he glanced at me, and we both knew immediately that we had just found our new lord and savior. We’d both been heavily involved in radical campus politics up to that point, hitting all the protests and what not, but we’d also become disillusioned with the self-righteous stench that permeated so much of the movement. Then along came Sven, who with that one sentence cemented our nihilism in place for good. Everything just clicked at that point.

It wasn’t the sentence itself, necessarily—we’ve all thought something along those lines at some point (and some of us on a daily basis)—it was the idea of speaking that sentence aloud in the middle of a heavily leftist university in reaction to a proto communist novel about noble peasants. That’s what made it the big Fuck You it was. That it was said in that tortured and whining voice was just the cherry on top.

            After the course ended, I got to know Sven a bit. He was an odd and funny man who moved with a quick, shuffling half-limp and always spoke in that same strained, nasal voice. He was as nihilistic as they come on the surface, a punk rock kid who had no interest in protest marches or saving the world or political correctness. He didn’t seem to give a damn about school. He had no apparent hopes or plans for the future. He really didn’t seem to care about anything at all except music and movies and beer. (He was terribly girl hungry, but that was just pointless.) He had a taste for the most patently offensive punk, and introduced me to the sleazy joys of The Mentors and GG Allin. He also knew a hell of a lot more about movies than I did, which shocked me at the time—his impromptu lecture on Ida Lupino really put me in my place. Yet for all his slow, slothful ways and his not caring about shit, the house he shared with a couple of other students was immaculate, with nice furniture, a polished wooden floor and throw rugs.

            Best of all, he never, ever smiled. Except one time. The one time, Grinch noted later, that Sven actually seemed to be having something you might call “fun.”

Nose-to-nose confrontations between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups on campus were fairly commonplace at the time. Stumbling upon one such scene while walking with Sven one day, Grinch and I shifted into automatic mode and launched into a third party protest. We took no sides in the eternal Middle East debate— our only goal was to escalate the present situation in the hopes a little violence might break out.

            Sven took the cue and joined in, which I guess gave us a legitimate quorum. Before long, an eager young reporter from the student paper was trying to get an interview with us about our beliefs and purpose. And that was the only time we ever saw Sven sort of smile with that half mouth of his. Grinch and I both felt good about that.

            It’s funny now in retrospect that for as deep and profound an influence as he had on us, Sven— always in that zipped up black leather jacket and watch cap on the hottest of days, that old briefcase tightly gripped in one hand—always seemed to hold us slightly in contempt. Oh, he thought Grinch and I were okay, maybe, except for the fact that we believed too much, and that was our shortcoming.

Every once in a while in the long years since then, I’ve tried to look him up, just to see what became of him. Never found him, apart from a few brief and possibly apocryphal mentions in the music press. Part of me, I admit, didn’t really want to find out that he’d become rich and successful, or was now living a happy and healthy life with his wife and three kids in West Palm Beach. Better to remember him as he was—a shuffling fuck-up with no hope and no aspirations, but a very clean house.

So I gave up the search. And in purely philosophical terms given what he taught me, I think he’d agree that giving up was the best possible course of action.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.