NOTE this post deals with the subject of suicide, if you need someone to talk to, I urge you to call your local support networks.
Close to one year ago I published a post “Seven writers who took their own lives and who you may not have read” and it remains, to this day, one of the most popular posts on this blog. The popularity of the post reinforces Simon Critchley’s thoughts in his book length essay “Notes on Suicide”:
We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling. When someone ends their own life, whether a friend, a family member or even a celebrity who we identify with – think about the confused reactions to the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in recent times (although I suspect we could identify stories exerting a similar effect in any year) – one of two reactions habitually follow. We either quietly think that they were being foolish, selfish and irresponsible, or we decide their actions were caused by factors outside of their control (severe depression, chronic addiction, and so on). That is, if they acted freely in killing themselves, we implicitly condemn them: but if we declare that their actions were constrained by uncontrollable behavioural factors like depression, we remove their freedom.
Against this tendency, I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Suicide needs to be understood and we desperately need a more grown-up, forgiving and reflective discussion of the topic. Too often, the entire debate about suicide is dominated by rage. The surviving spouses, families and friends of someone who committed suicide meet any attempt to discuss suicide with an understandable anger. But we have to dare. We have to speak.
When I published the original blog post I was inundated with inclusions to the list of writers. Today I present ten more writers who took their own lives and who you may not have read.
Ann Quinn (1936-1973). British born author of the novels ‘Berg’ (1964), ‘Three’ (1966), ‘Passages’ (1969) and ‘Tripticks’ (1972), her works have recently been republished by both Dalkey Archive and And Other Stories. In August 1973 a witness saw a woman walking into the sea near Brighton pier and contacted the police; the next day, a yachtsman found a body who was later identified at Quinn. In 2018 And Other Stories published ‘The Unmapped Country. Stories and Fragments’, here’s the opening of the title story:
‘Good morning and how are we today?’
‘Blood rotten if you must know.’
‘Why is that – tell me more?’
Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man. She looked at the thin hair he had carefully placed over his yellow hust. Thin lips, almost no lips. Thich hands, bunches of spiders on his knuckles. He wrote or doodled, leaning forward, back.
‘I don’t like your madness.’
‘What do you mean by that Sandra?’
Pen poised, ready to stab yet another record. She could not see his eyes, the light bounced, spiralled in his spectacles. Black tentacles crept from his nostrils. In the distance a woman screamed.
‘Won’t you explain further Sandra – tell me what you are thinking?’
Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972). Born in the same year as Ann Quinn and taking her own life one year prior, Alejandra Pizarnik was an Argentine poet. New Directions published a collection of her poems in 2016, translated by Yvette Siegert. Titled ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972’. After leaving a hospital, where she was institutionalized, Alejandra Pizarnik took an overdose of barbituates. Here is the opening to the ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness’ (without the epigraph):
The bad light is near and nothing is real. When I think of all that I’ve read of the spirit – when I closed my eyes, I saw luminous bodies turning in the mist, on the site of tenuous dwellings. Don’t be afraid, no one will come after you. All the grave robbers have gone. Silence, always silence; the gold coins of sleep.
I speak the way I speak inside. Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.
Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). Maybe Kawabata shouldn’t be named here as he did win the Nobel Prize in 1968 so he is likely to have been read by more people than some of the other writers I am featuring. There is also speculation that his death by gassing was an accident, and there are also claims that he was haunted by his friend’s Yukio Mishima’s suicide two years prior. A raft of works that I could quote from and I have reviewed a number of his books over the years, most recently his collection of short stories “House of the Sleeping Beauties and other stories (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker), the title story following the tale of an aged man paying to sleep with young drugged virginal girls, the drugs causing them to be asleep when he arrives:
It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women; but Eguchi, on this third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to sleep forever beside a girl who had been put to sleep? There seemed to be a sadness in the young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved; and perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken. (pp58-59)
Guido Morselli (1912-1973). Morselli’s tale is a tragic one in that all his novels and essays were posthumously published after he committed suicide, due to the rejection of his manuscripts by many publishing houses. His novel ‘Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing’, translated by Frederika Randall, was published in 2020 by The New York Review of Books. The novel was their December 2020 Book of the month, their summary is as follows:
From his solitary buen retiro in the mountains, the last man on earth drives to the capital Chrysopolis to see if anyone else has survived the Vanishing. But there’s no one else, living or dead, in that city of “holy plutocracy,” with its fifty-six banks and as many churches. He’d left the metropolis to escape his fellow humans and their struggles and ambitions, but to find that the entire human race has evaporated in an instant is more than he had bargained for. Meanwhile, life itself—the rest of nature—is just beginning to flourish now that human beings are gone.
Guido Morselli’s arresting postapocalyptic novel, written just before he died by suicide in 1973, depicts a man much like the author himself—lonely, brilliant, difficult—and a world much like our own, mesmerized by money, speed, and machines. Dissipatio H.G. is a precocious portrait of our Anthropocene world, and a philosophical last will and testament from a great Italian outsider.
Karin Boye (1900-1941). A Swedish poet, who is more well known in the English speaking world for her dystopian novel ‘Kallocain’ (1940), translated by David McDuff in the Penguin Classics edition, Karin Boye overdoes on sleeping pills, in the open, curled up on a boulder, which is now a memorial stone, in her later years she lived with Margot Hanel, who she referred to as “her wife”, who laso suicided soon after Karin Boye’s death. Here is a the opening of ‘Kallocain’ (tr. David McDuff):
The book I now sit down to write will inevitably appear pointless to many – if indeed I dare suppose that ‘many’ will ever have a chance to read it – since quite on my own initiative, without anyone’s orders, I am beginning a task of this king and yet am myself not really clear about its purpose. I will and must, and that is all. Ever more inexorable are the demands for purpose and method in what is done and said, so that not a word shall fall at random – it is only the author of this book who has been compelled to go the other way, out into futility. For although my years here as a prisoner and chemist – they must be over twenty, I imagine – have been full enough of work and hurry, there must be something that feels this to be insufficient, and has directed and envisioned another task within me, one that I myself had no possibility of envisioning, and in what I nevertheless have had a deep and almost painful interest. That task will be completed when I have written my book. SO although I realize how absurd my writings must appear in the light of all rational and practical thinking, I shall write all the same.
Sanmao (1943-1991). Born Chen Mao-ping, Sanmao adopted the pen name adopted from the main character of Zhang Leping’s most famous work. Sanmao studied philosophy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, her partner, to whom she was engaged died of a heart attack and after returning to Madrid, (where she had studied) she rekindled a relationship with a Spanish marine engineer José María Quero y Ruíz they later married in 1973 while living together in the then Spanish-controlled Western Sahara. It was from her experiences here that she wrote the autobiographical ‘The Stories of the Sahara’ part travelogue part memoir about her experiences with her husband living in the desert. Her husband drowned three years after the book’s publication, and little more than eleven years later Sanmao took her own life by hanging herself in the Taipei Veterans General Hospital with a pair of silk stockings. She has also written the script for the film ‘Red Dust’ a highly awarded film directed by Yim Ho, but interestingly at the 1990 Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, where the film won eight awards, it did not win the best screenplay category.
Henri Roorda (1870-1925). Roorda was raised amidst revolutionary ideals: when he was a child, his family had to relocate to Switzerland after his father was declared persona non grata by the Dutch government, and there his parents befriended the anarchist thinkers Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin [taken from Asymptote Journal]. Although the author of numerous political and educational essays, Roorda is known for his essay published in 1925, ‘Mon suicide’ soon after publication shooting himself in the heart. An excerpt from the essay has been translated by Eva Richter and published by Asymptote Journal. You can read that excerpt here.
Aliocha Coll (1948-1990). Aliocha Coll’s writing is described as “avant-garde verbal experimentalism” along the lines of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett , Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Julián Ríos. The Javier Marias blog apparently quotes Marias about Coll’s writing:
“I asked him why he didn’t try to do something less avant-garde. He really had a lot of literary talent and could have done anything. Admittedly, his texts were very hermetic. It was difficult for an editor to take the risk of publishing something that the most conventional reader would not understand”
Coll’s novels ‘Atila’ (1991) and ‘El thread de seda’ (1992) were published posthumously. His works remain untranslated into English.
Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868). Adalbert Stifter’s Wiki page states, “He was notable for the vivid natural landscapes depicted in his writing and has long been popular in the German-speaking world, while remaining almost entirely unknown to English readers.” Hopefully that view will change with the recent publication of ‘Motley Stones’, by The New York Review of Books, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. Adalbert Stifler, suffering from the effects of cirrhosis of the liver, slashed his own throat with a razor, taking three days to die. HE left behind a substantial body of work, here is the blurb from NYRB for ‘Motley Stones’:
For Kafka he was “my fat brother”; Thomas Mann called him “one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, secretly audacious and strangely gripping storytellers in world literature.” Often misunderstood as an idyllic poet of “beetles and buttercups,” the nineteenth-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter can now be seen as a radical experimenter with narrative and a forerunner of nature writing’s darker currents. One of his best-known works, the novella cycle Motley Stones now appears in its first complete English translation, a rendition that respects the bracing strangeness of the original. In six thematically linked novellas, including the beloved classic “Rock Crystal,” human dramas play out amid the natural cycles of the Alps or the urban rhythms of Vienna—environments so keenly observed that they emerge as the tales’ most indomitable protagonists. Stifter’s human characters are equally haunting—children braving perils, eccentrics and loners harboring enigmatic torments. “We seek to glimpse the gentle law that guides the human race,” Stifter famously wrote. What he glimpsed, more often than not, was the abyss that lies behind the idyll. The tension between his humane sensitivity and his dark visions is what lends his writing its heartbreaking power.
Unica Zürn (1916-1970). A German author and artist, Zürn is remembered for her works of anagram poetry and automatic drawing and for her photographic collaborations with Hans Bellmer. This from Zürn’s Wiki page:
The majority of her mature texts, if not explicitly autobiographical, closely resemble the author’s life experiences. Dark Spring is a coming-of-age novel, of sorts, that follows a young woman as she has her first sexual encounters and experiences the first hints of mental illness. Several recurring archetypal characters appear in the book: the idealized father, the despised mother, and a troubled girl with masochistic tendencies. Disconcertingly, Zürn’s death seems to be foreshadowed in the text as the protagonist of Dark Spring eventually commits suicide by jumping out of her bedroom window.
Zürn did commit suicide by jumping from her Paris apartment window, whilst on five days leave from a mental hospital. Her most recent work to be published in English is ‘The Trumpets of Jericho’ (translated by Christina Svendsen) and published in 2015 by Wakefield Press. Here is Wakefiled’s blurb of Unica Zürn’s book:
This fierce fable of childbirth by German Surrealist Unica Zürn was written after she had already given birth to two children and undergone the self-induced abortion of another in Berlin in the 1950s. Beginning in the relatively straightforward, if disturbing, narrative of a young woman in a tower (with a bat in her hair and ravens for company) engaged in a psychic war with the parasitic son in her belly, The Trumpets of Jericho dissolves into a beautiful nightmare of hypnotic obsession and mythical language, stitched together with anagrams and private ruminations. Arguably Zürn’s most extreme experiment in prose, and never before translated into English, this novella dramatizes the frontiers of the body—its defensive walls as well as its cavities and thresholds—animating a harrowing and painfully, twistedly honest depiction of motherhood as a breakdown in the distinction between self and other, transposed into the language of darkest fairy tales.
There are still many many more writers I could have included in this list, and maybe I will do another post, in another year or so, listing a few more. Again, will leave you with the same closing quote from Simon Critchley’s ‘Notes on Suicide’:
Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in a sense that writing is a leave-taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, both more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.