The Birdcage Archives

Wednesday 17 May 2017

On Literary Suicides

Hello Gentle Reader

In the end of April and the beginning of May, two writers—worlds apart—committed suicide. Both writers as well, were not what most would be considered the prime targets, or characters who would commit suicide. When we think of literary suicides, we think of them young, talented and prodigious; such as: the American poet, who single handedly reshaped poetry in the twentieth century, with her intensely personal and confessional style of poetry: Sylvia Plath (30); the Russian futurist and innovative poet: Vladimir Mayakovsky (36); the Japanese father of the modern day and contemporary short story: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (35); the Argentinean poet who opened her world of shadows, torture, intense personal pain and suffering to the masses: Alejandra Pizarnik (36); the influential and young dramatist and playwright, who would go on and move the theatre away from the naturalist traditions, it found itself stagnating it: Sarah Kane (28).  There are many more that could salt and pepper the list, such as: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Primo Levi, David Foster Wallace, Yukio Mishima and Stefan Zweig. If the list could go on endlessly, it would give the impression that writing Gentle Reader, is by all accounts not a [mentally] healthy task or job at hand, and it would be wise to avoid giving off such impressions, as writing cannot be the blame for the unfortunate personal hell which most certainly afflict many great writers. For example, Stefan Zweig (who is finding greater popularity once again), committed suicide with his wife in Rio de Janeiro, after he escaped the Nazis in Europe, but suffered a great deal from depression and continual disappointment at the affairs taking place in Europe at the time. All the while, others suffer from severe mental health issues as in the case of Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, or David Foster Wallace. Then of course is the death by ego; in other words to make ones death as theatrical and a piece of legend, to accompany one’s life, such is the case of Yukio Mishima, and his own suicide by ritualist cultural means (seppuku).

Jean Stein and Karel Schoeman, could not be any different in their respective decisions, or their literary output and lives. Yet both committed suicide within days of each other.

Part I: Jean Stein,

Jean Stein was as much an icon and figure of the New York literary, an arts and culture scene, as much as she was an institution in her own right. Much like Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, to landmark establishments like Broadway or the Statue of Liberty or Time Square; to the acerbic and sarcastic wisecracker, and famously slothful and sulking writer who does not write: Fran Leibowitz. Jein Stein, came from a wealthy family—her father Jules C. Stein, was an optometrist, musician and a businessman; and one of the founders of the Music Corporation of America Inc. Because of her illustrious and well off background, it should come to no surprise Stein was well educated from a boarding school in California to a boarding school to Switzerland, to studying at the University of Paris (Sorbonne). Despite her background with its education, and seemingly envious ideas of wealth; Jean Stein was not some rich heiress creature, who was found fame simply because she had fame like many nameless pop culture monstrosities, who are seen in tabloid stories and paparazzi photos, in compromising and attention grabbing positions. No; Jean Stein was something else entirely; she became a legend in her own right, and happens to deal with William Faulkner.

As the legend goes, while Jean Stein was studying in Paris, she had an affair with William Faulkner, and interviewed him. To solidify the story, it is propagated that Stein took the interview to The Paris Review, and offered to sell it to the magazine, on the condition they made her an editor.

Jean Stein met her early legendary status, and her own well off past, and created her own identity for herself, as she would go on to become a patron of the arts, editor, publisher, and author of three books of oral histories/biographies/personal anthropology studies, based off interviews she conducted and the stories of the people who were in the peripheral of the documented events. 

Stein’s apartment on Central Park West was a literary saloon of sorts. In it, Stein would host some of the most interesting and famous people within the New York scene, from writers, to show-businesses executives and managers, to artists and politicians. It is in her apartment that Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would exchange barbs; but it also included the Leonard Bernstein and members of the Black Panthers group, who would go on to influence Tom Wolfe as he developed the concept of “Radical Chic.”

I personally think of Jean Stein, as someone of a privileged background, who was afforded the luxury, in which she could patron the arts, host her cultural saloons and conversations, as well as edit and publish the numerous magazines she would work for, and herself start up. Though, her life was privileged and Stein certainly recognized this financial security and independence, as being a great asset to her cultural activities, she also took aim and shot at this world. Her final oral history: “West of Eden: An American Place,”—Stein recounts the five larger than life families and characters of Los Angeles, would who go on to succeed and gather fame; but not everything is rosy at dawn and sunset; as much as these individuals are perceived as having life by the balls, lacking a care in the world—Stein shows that even they suffer the human frailties of every other common human being, with everyday mishaps, crisis, and griefs—in which case not even fame or financial success can fill the void of such suffering.

Despite her own success and cultural patronage and good will, Jean Stein also suffered at the cost of being human. On April 30th, it was reported: Jean Stein had tossed herself—at the age of 83—from her fifteenth floor high rise apartment balcony, and fell to her death. It is stated, Jean Stein was suffering from depression and other personal issues. It has now also just been disclosed that upon her death, Jean Stein was worth an estimated $38.5 million dollars. As her will is becoming public knowledge with her contents and estate divvied up and sorted out, numerous institutions and individuals are expected to receive a gift from their patron, friend, muse, publisher and editor.

Part II: Karl Schoeman,

Jean Stein’s suicide was rarely mentioned in some obituaries. Many literary publications and cultural magazines had expressed their grief through the loss of a dear friend, but rarely was her death associated with the tragic turn, in which the individual herself committed the act. Perhaps it was out of respect; or perhaps it was to resist appearing sensationalistic or indignant in mentioning her death was a suicide. These very well maybe very true statements as to why they avoided to publicly acknowledge her death as being a self-inflicted act. Though I strongly believe, it was more out respect to Stein’s life—in which they celebrated, in their mourning essays, eulogies and obituaries; then it was shame or self-restraint to completely focus on her death. On the contrary though, Karl Schoeman’s death has been more public then his life.

Karl Schoeman, was often referred to as: hermetic, reclusive, withdrawn, secluded, and closed off from public life—and in all fairness, he was. Schoeman swatted invitations and request for interviews, down like flies. The moment they arrived in his inbox, mailbox, or answering machine, they were deleted, burned, or ignored. It’s not because he was a antisocial being, but rather he had no interest in partaking in the cult of celebrity, and any answer journalists or inquiring readers, wished to ask him, they would only need to read his books more carefully. Schoeman, after all, was not a public spokesman or writer of publicity means. He did not stand on soap boxes or milk crates, pontificating from the heavens above, trumpeting with the horn of Gabriel, promising the rapture to rupture that would cause a revelation of morality and revolution for the human race. No, Schoeman wrote historically poignant novels, of immaculate detail and scathing lyricism.

Karl Schoeman was more than just a writer; he was a historian, with a day job of course, where he worked in the South African National Library as a Archivist; and before that worked as a Librarian in Amsterdam and then as a nurse in the Glasgow, Scotland.  Though most well known as a prose writer, Schoeman is equally well known for his historical non-fiction, biographies, essays, travel reportage and autobiographies. During his quiet job in the South African National Library, surrounded by history recorded to Cleo’s detailed directions, numerous characters, personalities, thoughts, and writing material would populate his mind and thoughts as he woud walk amongst the records of a nation.

Despite working and producing a extraordinary bibliography of fiction and non-fiction, and being considered one of the most remarkable writers in South Africa, Karl Schoeman evaded the lime light, avoided publicity, and for the most part exemplified the traits of the brown recluse spider—a small threatening creature, which for the most art was better left to itself the being disturbed. His works always dealt with the past, as the precedence they created for both the present and the future.

Schoeman’s life was deeply protected in secrecy as he avoided interviews, never returned calls for requests of his opinion, nor did he engage in public forums. Now though, on the contrary, Schoeman’s death has become a public and political statement in his native land of South Africa. There is no hiding the cause of Schoeman’s death; not out of respect for the reserved author, nor to avoid indignation or sensationalism, or to further celebrate his grand career—Schoeman committed suicide, and had made it public knowledge, as well as public and political protest, with a letter her wrote to his attorney.

In this letter Karl Schoeman confessed, he had aged enough and had very well had enough of it; and had attempted two years earlier to commit suicide, though he was hindered by circumstances at the time, and now at the age of seventy-seven, he succeeded in killing himself. He described his decision, not as a reaction or response of emotional distresses or crisis, but rather cold, clinical, detached and logically planned, deprived of any emotional thought processes whatsoever. He described how his literary inclinations and historical research and interests had become more a burden then they had become enjoyment, and was happy to have done away with them. Despite this, he admitted and confessed his refusal to become a burden on anyone or any system, as his spiritual and physical degradation by time, had slowly begun to whiter him away to a husk of his former self, and so Schoeman had resigned and resolved himself to his end by his own hands, leaving as one would put it with dignity rather than any further humiliation perpetrated by time, administered in punitive fashion.  The decision was not made lightly, and he could not profess that enough.

Karl Schoeman’s death has reignited the debate in South Africa about assisted suicide and dying with dignity—one of those social issues, which appear to be taken to the courts on grounds of appeal, because the legislative and executive branches of government, avoid at all cost, unless they are to fall upon their political swords, and die a politicians death, by attempting reform a social issue, or stand behind already set moral ideals of life over death.

Despite his intensely private life, in which he was renowned and recognized for his prose and historical research, Schoeman has left the world in a bang, and with a startlingly revelation which most certainly has ruptured the moral stagnation of: preservation versus termination. In his last hours, and now after his death, Schoeman has left a social activist mark on South Africa, as it coincides and stands in as much admiration as his life’s work and literary output.

There is no other way to describe Karl Schoeman other then: he certainly belonged on this world; though he was not entirely of it. His reclusive nature made him legend and all that more esoteric and precious; like a rare jewel, was one of a kind, and radiated solely on its own, in its own way.

Two very different writers, who were physically speaking: worlds apart; their literary outputs were vastly different; from Jean Stein’s oral histories of American culture through the ages; to Karl Schoeman’s vast personal library of literary works which stretched from fiction to historical non-fiction to biography and autobiography. Their deaths could not be any more different, nor similar. They both committed suicide, but on one account: Jean Stein’s was hushed when mentioned, in order to avoid offense; while on the other, Karl Schoeman’s was in complete contrast to his life: public and actively willing to begin debate and conversations on the right to die with dignity.

The truth is Gentle Reader, writers are human beings. Though in many minds eyes, they are next to Gods. If of course I am to quote Fran Lebowitz:

“When I was very little, say fix or six, I became aware of the fact that people wrote books. Before that, I thought that God wrote books. I thought a book was a manifestation of nature, like a tree. When my mother explained it, I kept after her: What are you saying? What do you mean? I couldn’t believe it. It was astonishing. It was like—here’s the man who makes all the trees. Then I wanted to be a writer, because, I suppose it seemed the closest thing to being God.”

Much like the Greek Gods and their pantheon of jealousy, envy, lust, rage, love, war, and hate—even these mortal gods, of imagined universes must suffer the human faults of existence. It is with great sadness the world would lose both writers, for very different reasons.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Saturday 13 May 2017

On The Unique Culture of Sports

Hello Gentle Reader,

Working night’s dictates you walk home in the dark, which always allows plenty of time for reflection and speculation. Tonight there was a slight drizzle in the air – a delayed April shower, but how everything is radiating and come alive with the fresh green appearance of spring, who has bud and leafed.

On this particular walk home, I was able to reflect on a rather peculiar shift. I make no qualm or secret about the fact, I work part time at two jobs, while at a snail’s pace I complete my university studies. One of my part time jobs is a live theatre (on an extreme part time basis), where I handle front of house matters, i.e. tickets, customer service et cetera; while the other job I work in three different hockey rinks dealing with Zamboni, customer service and janitorial duties. I was a never a sport minded child, or took any interest in it. Of course in my childhood I played poorly organized and coached soccer (for European readers: Football), before I left it behind at the age of seven. I never learned to swim – now much to my more mature self’s dismay and disappointment (hindsight is always twenty/twenty). To be honest, as a child I was imaginative, shy and reserved. I lurked, slinked, and sleuthed about, always avoiding the company of other children; preferring the company of myself, and the imaginative worlds I would craft; which had yet to find a more literary output for, in which case I resigned myself to tell my own stories, scoffing at the books presented to me (reading for me Gentle Reader, was a late love affair).

Now though Gentle Reader, I have the unique position, to be a complete alien in a world of team sports and competitive spirit, and sportsmanship – a real sense of camaraderie and connection though the act of physical action, sport and competitive drive; all in good nature and enjoyment it appears. I watch how hockey players work to pass the puck to score; defend the net from the opponent, through measures such as checking. I observe figure skaters twirl, fly, do an axel, and dance with their partners. Yet, most of the time I do not admire these acts of technical physical skill or the pure athleticism in which they are displayed. Rather my time is further spent, hollering at them to get out of the dressing rooms, or not to shoot pucks in the dressing rooms, or down the halls, or in the lobby. More often than not, my role is both patrolling police officer of the rink, and then the poor unfortunate cleaner, who  is left to deal with the mess in which they leave in their wake: chew on the floor (or on the ceiling), spit on the floor, tape balls, spilled bear, tipped over garbage cans; the list is endless. With the infuriated patience of the unappreciated mother, I clean it up regardless; although cussing the entire time.

Through, what is called: “The Season,” which starts from the end of August and ends at either the beginning of March or end of March; I see nothing but hockey, figure skating and ringette – predominately hockey. Yet now as the season has ended the players and athletes, now move on to either enjoy their new found freedom or to other sports; while the dedicated few stay for what is called ‘Spring Hockey,’ – which are camps, which focus on refining or developing skills. It is now, that I am readily acquainted with the other sports which take place within the recreation complex.

The field houses were packed with lacrosse players, the basketball courts filled with a hodge podge of amateur players, playing just a good old game of basketball, the pool was packed with swimmers either in a practice or a meet, and the rinks filled with spring hockey camps.

Parking is not in a surplus, because parking lots do not make money, and are considered on most accounts, a waste of space. So different athletes park behind the rinks. For the most part I can tell who goes where. Lacrosse players and hockey players are interchangeable, only specifically identifiable by their different sticks; basketball players come as any other patron, and as far as I could tell, I wouldn’t be able to pin point or identify any swimmer if I tried.

The night progressed as usual. Flood rooms flood. I had to tell a few lacrosse players to leave the rink, as it’s not appreciated when they shoot their balls against the walls or the rink glass. As the night progresses, the groups get older, and the older they get, the longer they take to get out of the rooms. As I wait for the final groups to leave the rooms, I resign myself to the lobby where it’s at least warmer to wait. A few basketball players or gym patrons walk by as they go to head out to the parking lot. Now and then a lacrosse player strolls by with his bag over his shoulder; but for the most part the building seems to be quieting down. I hear more footsteps approach. The clink of dress shoes, and flip flop sandals, swatting at the heels of someone else. I at the moment pay no mind, as I sit on a bench waiting patiently with my eyes closed. Then I hear the footsteps stop, and two people sit down across from me, and open my eyes. In front of me sits a father and son. The father a lithe man in dress pants, dress shirt and the dress shoes, which I hear moments before. The son at least seventeen or eighteen, hair wet, dressed in a t-shirt, but at first glance appeared naked. The son keen to see my surprised face, and burning face, lifted his t-shirt to reveal he was wearing a speedo. His father noticed his son lifting his shirt to reveal his attire quickly commented:

“Why don’t you put on some shorts or something? You gave him a heart attack.”

His son replied: “Because my suit is still wet. Besides it’s just a swim suit.”

To which his father replied: “Well, why didn’t you bring a change of clothes.”

The son responded with the facts: “Because [the other brother’s name] was going to be late for hockey practice, if I didn’t hurry up. So I just put on my suit and put some shorts over top. I usually don’t bring clothes to change in. I’ve come home, just in a shirt and swim briefs before and you don’t say anything. But right now my car is pooched, so I had to get a ride with you [and the other brother’s name].”

The father of course could only respond with a sigh of slight irritation, and the son stood up and began to pace. At least though while he stood, it could be seen he was wearing something. Which only appeared to provoke his father to comment further.

“Why don’t you just sit down or wrap a towel around yourself.”

Which the song replied: “Dad it’s just a swim suit, I wear them to practice and compete in. You’ve seen me wear them before.”

To which his father replied: “we’re in public.”

At which point I interjected to inform both father and son, it was quite alright with what he was wearing at least he was dressed; besides I said the hockey players have walked around without their jerseys or pads on; in this place no one is shy of showing flesh.

A few hockey players began to leave and saw the swimmer and chuckled, after which a few lacrosse players passed by and said not a word but smiled and kept turning around to look and nudge each other, until one father or coach told them to knock it off and be respectful. Then silence once again. The swimmer sat down on the bench, pulled his shirt up to once again reveal his speedo, and sighed with irritation at being forced to wait; while his father began to vigorously tap his foot in impatience. The irritation between the two was static in the air, and attempting to quell the situation, I told the father I gave the players a warning to hurry up a few minutes ago, and that they shouldn’t be much longer. He only nodded his head in thanks.  Silence then fell once again again, as each of us waited for the same thing. After a while footsteps could be heard coming down the hall from the pool and field houses; the familiar sound of flip flops and the squeak of sneakers. A herd of lacrosse players walked by, without saying a word, followed by a small group of male swimmers, each simply dressed in either a track jacket or a t-shirt and their individual speedos. Noticing a fellow swimmer, they stopped and talked in a group, while the dad just looked and shook his head before stating:

“Don’t any of you wear shorts or something?” To which one of them replied, much like earlier, “it’s just a swim suit.” and they we’re all on their way to the cars anyway. At last more hockey players left, some whistled at the guys and giggled amongst themselves, while the swimmers ignored them. A few more minutes passed, and the swimmers chatted amongst themselves, when finally the coaches and the final hockey players left the room and the rink into the lobby, which included the other or rather younger brother of the swimmer, who was embarrassed by his brother wearing only a speedo, before shrugging it off in front of his friends. At this point swimmers and hockey players intermingled for just a few moments, before I politely told them it was time for me to lock up.

I watched the group leave through the door, and could only think what a strange universe this is to me. How the lacrosse players and hockey players arrive in their street clothes and change into their sweat saturated hockey gear; after their practice they shower and change once again, before packing up their gear in their bags which are slung over their shoulders. While on the contrary, the swimmers arrive in street clothes, with their backpacks, but leave in their small little speedos, which they appear to proudly claim is just a swim suit, and head out for the night, backpack slung over their shoulders, flip flops smacking at their heels.

Despite their shared commonality of completive spirit, sportsmanship, goodwill through competition, athleticism and the shared unity of team work and camaraderie; different sports are filled with their own unique cultures and idiosyncrasies. Hockey players trash, smell, spit, and cuss. Lacrosse players it appears are no different. The basketball players come and go without much notice. While the swimmers appear confident or at least slightly exhibitionist.

Though I’ve been in the rinks for many years now, I am still alien and out of place within it. Though I do the job, the culture – or rather the subcultures of recreation and sports. I view myself as some form of anthropologist or objective academic or scientist, observing the cultural discrepancies and intercultural exchange, with boy a curious eye and with great confusion, in an attempt to understand this foreign world.

I have viewed for a long time that sports and athletic pursuits, where inclined to those of higher energy people, who lacked intellectual curiosities (though this has been proven to be wrong), but also people who lack creativity or cultured pursuits (also proven wrong).  This being said: though I have painted with a broad brush prior, and have been proven wrong to my early adjudication and convictions, they have also been proven right as well.

As I finish my university work and continue to supplement my income between the two jobs, I gaze with unique fasciation at the world I am now becoming privy to. It’s strange and baffling, yet unique and odd at the same time. I often think of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Sports Play,” while observing it, in which she discusses sports and competition, as akin to fasciat ideology to a degree, and human cultures or individual desires, to be a part of a herd, a group, a sports team and a nation – in other words it’s the human desire to be a part of a larger collective. The play also focuses on today’s culture which is obsessed with the human body, the ideal concept of beauty, and fitness. Perhaps Jelinek has some merit in her critical social observations.

For the time being I cannot comment, as I am just beginning to find myself more aware and open to view the different cultures orbit each other, within the space of the recreation center, from the sweat saturated and destructive hockey players, to the arrogant lacrosse players, to the speedo clad exhibitionist swimmers. If at the end of today – after my walk home and reflection – that I learned anything from today: it’s just a swimsuit – and confidence  is something which must be radiated with a great deal of apathy and understatement.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary 

Thursday 4 May 2017

Best Translated Book Award 2017, Winners

Hello Gentle Reader,

This year’s Best Translated Book Award seemed like a wildcard year on the shortlist. Heavy hitters and internationally renowned writers where quickly done away with, when the shortlist was revealed; leaving behind a shortlist, which was open to any writer to win the award. This year’s shortlist for fiction included, books ranging from the family plots of treason and treachery; to the complicated and personal histories of one middle class woman, who despises her working class mothers life, in contrast to her own, but finds erotic and sensual pleasure in sleeping with a rugged and blue collar working man; to the personal history of one man overlooked by history and time, only to gain recognition with his life being narrated and documented by his grandson, who showcases the hopes and dreams of an artist, destroyed by the duty one feels to their country and devotion to patriotic pride; to a novel of seven notebooks of a one sided conversation a man has with his grandson in preparation for his death. The shortlist was varied in themes, styles and geography; but in all it was a great shortlist which showcased the overlooked talent and the exciting translations currently being produced today and sold.

This year’s fiction winner is the giant of Brazilian literature, Lúcio Cardoso and his recently translated novel “Chronicle of the Murdered House.” Cardoso began writing, in a time where Brazilian literature was more regionalist, rural, and political (often left leaning); Lúcio Cardoso went in the complete opposite direction, than his more established colleagues; Cardoso would bring more modernist ideas to the Brazilian novel and prose, instead favouring introspection, the inner experience of characters, subjective perceptions of reality, and personal stories of tragedy and redemption. It should come to no surprise; Lúcio Cardoso was a mentor to famous Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who as a young woman was infatuated and in love with him. However, the love she felt towards him was not reciprocated, as Lúcio Cardoso was a homosexual, but the two retained close friends throughout their lives. “Chronicle of the Murdered House,” is considered his masterpiece, published at the peak of his creative output, the novel is described as a Faulknerian family saga, which precedes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred years of Solitude.” Alcoholism and an addiction to prescription drugs would end this giant of Brazilian literatures life prematurely. After suffering a stroke, Lúcio Cardoso was left partially paralyzed, and was inscape of regaining his speech and writing abilities. Six years after suffering the first debilitating stroke, Cardoso would suffer another stroke, and die at the tender age of fifty six. Clarice Lispector, ever the close friend would die nine years later also at the tender age of fifty-six, from ovarian cancer. Now with the publication of “Chronicles of the Murdered House,” Lúcio Cardoso is marveling English readers for the first time, who are left to appreciate the modernist masterpiece from South America.

The Poetry portion of this year’s prize has gone to the Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik for her collection “Extracting the Stone of Madness.” Alejandra Pizarnik is a tragic literary figure as well; much like Sylvia Plath; Pizarnik committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. The poetry, however, which she produced in her short career and life time, is considered well formed and beautiful, in the brief strike of a match and the intensity in which it burned, before being snuffed out. “Extracting the Stone of Madness,” could not be a more fitting title for this collection of poetry, which screams of the personal exorcism Alejandra Pizarnik attempted, in which to cleanse her mind and life, through poetry. It did not work, and at the age of thirty-six, Pizarnik committed suicide by overdosing on a barbiturate: Secobarbital; the most frequently used drug, in doctor assisted suicides (or doctor sanctioned deaths) in the United States. Alejandra Pizarnik’s life, mimics those of the American poet Sylvia Plath and Japanese short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. All three writers found great success early in their writing careers, but would all succumb to personal demons and private hells, in which case they would each take their lives in their thirties: Sylvia Plath (thirty), Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (thirty-five) and Alejandra Pizarnik (thirty-six). The poetry judges for this year’s award, praised the translation of “Extracting the Stone of Madness,” for being able to relay in a new language the personal suffering of the poet, as she depicts her solitary world in jagged and beautiful compositions, which display the beautiful pain she experienced and found a literary output for.

Congratulations to both writers and translators—though sadly, both writers are now deceased; but this only reaffirms their literary talents, which is finding new barriers to cross and new readers to enjoy and empathize with. Another stunning year for the Best Translated Book Award.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary