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: RyĆ«nosuke 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

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