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.
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.
- Simon Critchley ‘Notes on Suicide’ p13 Fitzcarraldo Editions 2015
Lists, internet click bait, the weekend’s article by Time Out “the best book set in (almost) every country in the world”, the yearly best of’s. Don’t get me wrong, I love lists, but over the weekend I was thinking, is there a list of suicide literature?
Sylvia Path, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson, this list goes on and on, famous writers who took their own lives. Compiling a list of suicides and related works could extend to the 100’s, Wikipedia has that many entries of “writers who committed suicide” it has broken it down by country, and alphabetically (eg. Here’s a list of Brazilian male writers whose who have committed suicide”). I’ve restricted my list to translated writers, whose works I’ve read.
Édouard Levé (1965-2007). French writer whose last book was titled ‘Suicide’, translated into English by Jan Steyn. A novel that is meant to be an homage to the narrator’s friend who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, however given Levé took his own life ten days after delivering the novel to his publisher, you cannot avoid the constant alignment to the tale of Leve’s own death. Written in the second person, the short novel consists of Levé addressing his departed friend
If each event consisted of its beginning, its becoming real, and its completion, you would prefer the beginning because there desire wins out over pleasure. In their beginnings, events preserve the potential that they lose in the completion. Desire prolongs itself so long as it is not achieved. As for pleasure, it signals the death of desire, and soon of pleasure itself. It’s strange that while loving beginnings, you terminated yourself: suicide is an end. Did you consider it a beginning?
Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). Dazai’s novel ‘Ningen Shikkaku’ (人間失格, No Longer Human, 1948), translated by Donald Keene, tells the story of a young self-destructive man who drinks excessive amounts, visits prostitutes, generally lives beyond his means and does not show any sense of emotion or connection with fellow humans. All of these acts lead to a love suicide pact with a woman, by drowning. Just prior to writing this novel Dazai abandoned his family, moved in with a beautician, Tomie Yamazaki. On June 13, 1948, Dazai and Tomie drowned themselves in the rain-swollen Tamagawa Canal, near his house.
I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak and act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.
Qiu Miaojin (1969-1995). Having Osamu Dazai on this list means I must include Qiu Miaojin. In her book, ‘Last Words From Montmatre, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich, Miaojin mentions Osamu Dazai a number of times, referencing his book “No Longer Human”:
If I told you the truth, Yong, would I have to drown myself as Osamu Dazai chose to do upon finishing No Longer Human? Remember that time when we went to the Institute of Modern Literature and saw photographs of the recovery effort for Dazai’s body and you promised to take me to the river where he drowned himself. I was thrilled by your suggestion. Yong, when will I die? For a long time I’ve appreciated Dazai, as you know, in a different way than other artists. He didn’t reach his potential, he died before he could become a great name, and Yukio Mishima made fun of him for having “weak vitality.” But this is irrelevant, really. People can make fun of him all they want, and yet the ones who do are often the same ones trying to hide some sort of corruption or hypocrisy, even Mishima. Dazai and I basically share the same nature. Yong, I’d like to go to Tokyo to see the river where he drowned before I die. Will you take me there, to the place you didn’t have time to take me last time?
The ”novel” takes the form of twenty one letters and introduction and conclusion, as our author points out “If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.” In fact, the “letters” do not follow a strict numerical sequence with “letter five” appearing after “letter seventeen”, which in itself is repeated twice (as a heading) and appears after “letter ten”.
As the translator points out in the ‘Afterword’:
Although Qiu was celebrated in Taiwan as a national prodigy, she saw herself as part of an international community of writers and artists both living and dead and, crucially, as part of a community unconstrained by conventional labels and categories such as “lesbian,” “Chinese,” or even “woman.” Like the Japanese and French writers she revered, Qiu saw herself in dialogue with “classic, albeit mostly avant-garde, world art and literature.
A book that did not receive the recognition it deserved when released in English back in 2015.
Yes, this time I’ve decided to kill myself not because I can’t live with suffering and not because I don’t enjoy being alive. I love life passionately, and my wish to die is a wish to live…
Stig Saeterbakken (1966-2012). Saeterbakken’s last novel, ‘Through The Night’, translated by Sean Kinsella, deals with suicide, through the eyes of Karl Meyer, a dentist, who is struggling to come to terms with his teenage son’s suicide. The book opens with a powerful set of vignettes, with Karl attempting to deal with his grief, make sense of his wife’s grief (who has just put an axe through the television) and wondering how he can reconnect with his daughter.
The novel then tracks back, through a long series of short memories, recalling the events that Karl shared with his son Ole-Jacob, and all the actions that may have led to this tragic suicide.
The thought of losing her left me cold and made me feel faint. I didn’t understand why it had to be this way, why one life was so completely destructive in relation to the other. I wanted to live together with Eva, and I wanted to drown together with Mona. So why couldn’t it be done? Was it just down to all the ideas we’d pledged allegiance to, keeping these states mutually exclusive? But what were our real thoughts, aside from what we’d been instructed to think? Why should you have to stop living just because you were drowning?
The novel is broken into two distinct sections – the lead up to Ole-Jacob’s death and the events that may have pushed him to take his own life; and then the post death grieving and attempts at reconciling with oneself that final act.
Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951). Iranian writer Hedayat left Tehran in 1951, travelled to Paris, rented and apartment, tore up all his unpublished work, plugged the doors and windows with cotton and turned on the gas. His novel ‘The Blind Owl’, translated by Naveed Noori, opens with a frontispiece “The printing and sale (of this work) in Iran is forbidden” which has apparently resulted in a black market for Hedayat’s book in Iran.
A book narrated, in two parts, by an opium smoking painter of pencases, the slow spiralling thoughts of a man wracked with drugs, is a measured destructive piece. Peppered with dashes, as our narrator pauses, switches of thought, it is reminiscent of a work by Edgar Allen Poe or Jorge Luis Borges. The story itself is quite simple, our reclusive narrator writes the tale we are reading, for his own shadow, a story where he sees, through a non-existent hole in his wall, “a Hindu yogi, wearing a cloak with a turban wrapped around his head, squatting underneath a cypress tree, who, with an astonished look, placed the index finger of his left hand to his lips – In front of him a damsel in a long black dress, bent over was offering him a morning glory flower – for between them there was a small stream” – the same image he paints on his pen case covers. The “damsel in a long black dress” then becomes the focus of our narrator’s tale, his adoration of her, and her grizzly end. The second half of the work is the same narrator writing his story – yes spiralling, labyrinthine, Borges…
From where must I begin? For all the thoughts that are presently boiling in my head are from this moment, they are without hour, minute or history – an incident from yesterday may be older and less moving than an incident from a thousand years ago.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Japan’s premier literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the “father of the Japanese short story”, he took an overdose of barbiturates aged 35. Akutagawa’s most well-known story is Rashomon , primarily due to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 successful movie of the same name, the film is in fact based on two of Akutagawa ‘s stories, “Rashomon” (for the setting) and “In A Bamboo Grove” (for the characters and the plot). Both of these stories as well as later works by Akutagawa, where his fear of madness comes to the fore, can be read in the Penguin Classics “Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories”, translated by Jay Rubin. His short story collection ‘Mandarins’, translated by Charles De Wolf, contains fifteen stories as well as a detailed notes section, which explains the connection to the traditional Japanese tales as well as giving detail on the text.
Akutagawa was raised by his uncle as his mother had gone mad only a few months after his birth, in 1892. This event was to haunt him throughout his life, the fear of insanity.
The passing of time is evidenced through two stories “Autumn” and “Winter” – Autumn the story of a promising young female writer who gives up her work to marry, a tale of tranquillity, of desolation, of the end of an era. Winter telling a story of a cousin visit to prison and the long wait, the non-understanding of the charges, the future, again desolation.
I was, naturally, beginning to feel hungry, but what was truly unendurable was the cold, for the room was quite without any sign of heating. As I continually stamped my feet, trying to keep my annoyance in check, I was surprised to observe that no one else in the crowd seemed perturbed. There was, for example, an apparent gambler, wearing two cotton-padded kimonos, who, instead of whiling away the time with a newspaper, slowly ate mandarins, one after another.
Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Another Japanese writer, Mishima’s commited ritual suicide after a failed “coup”. He and four members of his self-styled militia, the Tatenokai, entered a military base in central Tokyo, took the commandant hostage, and attempted to inspire the Japan Self-Defense Forces to overturn Japan’s 1947 Constitution. This event is well known and captured in Paul Schrader’s 1985 film ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”.
Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, ‘Spring Snow’ (tr by Michael Gallagher), ‘Runaway Horses’ (tr. Michael Gallagher), ‘The Temple of Dawn’ (tr. E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle) and ‘The Decay of the Angel’ (tr. by Edward G. Seidensticker), four novels that follow the life of Shigekuni Honda and his interactions with Kiyoaki Matsugae, Isao Iinuma, Ying Chan and Tōru Yasunaga, supposedly reincarnations. Covering the period October 1912 to November 1970 it is a collection moving through significant historical periods in Japanese history.
The final novel in the tetralogy is dated 25 November 1970, the same date of the failed coup d’état.
I will leave you with a 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.