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Is our story still making sense? I toyed with the idea of giving you a sequential story, one with a definitive beginning and ending. Would it be fair to furnish such an account? Or is it more accurate to depict those events and recollections as they clumsily unfolded themselves in my memory, disorganised and random? Perhaps we can agree on a middle ground.
This story is told from the perspective of a grieving lover. The events described are related through a one-sided dialogue with the dead woman, whom we are told overdosed on insulin. Characters are rarely named, as the reader is eavesdropping on recollections of a relationship between two people who have known each other for years. Therefore ‘you’, and ‘I’, are the most common forms of address, with ‘father’, and ‘mother’, following close. Consequently when the narrator introduces Karalynne, or Helen, the names stand out, feeling like intrusions into this very personal account of tragedy, a closed circuit of memory.
‘I’, describes how she first met ‘you’, when they were both children and how their close friendship slowly evolved into something more intimate over time. The ‘dead girl’, whose story this is came into the world the lone child of wealthy parents, enjoyed every luxury that money could afford and from an early age was evidently extremely intelligent. What really sets her apart from the person now telling her story, the woman who fell in love with her and never stopped despite the endless arguments, heartache and abuse, is the complete lack of affection in her life. It is made clear that the true downfall of this young woman began with the neglect she endured from an absent father, who valued his social prestige above any sincere relationship with his daughter.
As the narrator struggled to keep up academically with her friend, she finds herself left behind, her companion’s intellectual gifts and competitive drive catapulting here into college at an early age. This separation creates the initial sense of lack that will eventually bring the now adolescent girls together as a couple – but also inspire the unhealthy obsession that will dog them over the years. Enter Karalynne, the third party in this callous love triangle, initially referred to dismissively by the narrator as ‘the room-mate’.
It is at this point that we learn the storyteller’s lover has begun using heroin. Karalynn it is implied has introduced this into her life. What’s more her feelings of self-disgust, born out of an inability to please her father, have led her to begin cutting herself. The narrator is torn between wanting to provide support for her lover and trying to help her move on from this self-destructive behaviour. Tragically the woman relating this story explains how she could rarely say no to her friend, at times becoming complicit in her drug addiction. Submissively acquiescing to her childhood friend’s demands, the dynamic between them always rooted in the initial relationship of one being more knowing and demanding than the other, her enabling behaviour reaches its absolute low-point when she wakes to find her friend injecting her with heroin in her sleep: “Maybe I can try redeeming myself by saying I wanted to know what the appeal was and why the drug held you so strongly. I hated myself for allowing it and being so weak.”
Gwen O’Toole’s book is both an erotically charged doomed romance and an unflinching personal account of a person becoming consumed by addiction. Where it comes to writing I have a simple rule – if I experience the emotion that the author sets out to evoke, then that is a successful piece of fiction. Slow Blind Drive is not an exploitive piece of ‘misery lit’, but a genuinely affecting tragedy. The device of having the spirit of the dead woman be addressed in a persistently conversational manner, with the discussion skipping and jumping through time, makes the experience of reading this book feel intensely intimate. Interestingly a poem by Christina Rossetti, titled ‘Goblin Market‘ figures largely in the book’s latter half. In my ignorance I only knew of the poet from Kiss Me Deadly, although there too Rossetti’s verse is used as a symbol for a doomed woman.
From day to day, as I dive into book after the other, I am often unprepared for what I read. This story left me feeling devastated, but then that is exactly what it should do. Honestly told and heart-breaking.
With thanks to the author for my review copy.
For everywhere folk have again taken out the Christ they’ve kept hidden since Catholic days. Now, in every village and hamlet, you can see braided garlic and the holy images repugnant to the monster of Ropraz hanging from the window frames and catches, from lintels, balconies, railings, even from secret doorways and in cellars. Crosses are erected again in this Protestant countryside where none have been seen for four centuries. On hills, beside country roads, the object dominated since Reformation days is erected again. The vampire fears the symbol of Christ? “There, that’ll make him think twice! And the dog is loose.”
History is peppered with tragic accounts of rampant superstition in small communities leading to fevered accusations of witchcraft, vampirism and demonic possession against people whose lives were then destroyed by the enflamed mob. I once had an English teacher who claimed that women accused of being witches were in fact proto-feminists. I find that doubtful. To my mind those accused by the community were most likely already isolated from the other folk in the area, nevermind what they thought, or believed in. Victims of history if you like, our knowledge of the past passed down to us from the dominant narratives of those who dominate.
Jacques Chessex here presents a semi-fictionalised account of actual events. The town of Ropraz in Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century was gripped by tremendous fear after the body of a young woman, the daughter of a local justice of the peace who had passed away from meningitis, is discovered to have been disinterred and interfered with in the graveyard itself. The young Rosa Gilliéron mutilated corpse was found by her own father only two days after she was buried. Ropraz itself having already been moved to great despair by the tragic death of the beautiful girl is incensed at the monstrousness of the crime. The body has been sexually molested, chewed on and even had organs cut away by a sharp blade. Only a fiend could be capable of such a horrific crime. The people take to their homes, arm themselves and whisper to one another at night of the Vampire of Ropraz.
After shock comes anger and a desperate need for swift justice. Accusations are thrown against innocents, family feuds are reignited, suspicion falls on medical students, butchers and well-known criminals. The police are unable to find the culprit and then as the winter snows melt further outrages are committed against two more girls, thought safely resting in their graves. The vampire seems to be on the move, striking out to find more amenable hunting grounds in neighbouring towns. Word of the crimes reach newspaper readers across Europe, Catholic superstitions return to Protestant Switzerland and no one can tell where the fiend will strike next.
Then a man known as Charles-Augustin Fevez, a drunk with an exaggerated gait due to a dislocated shoulder, is identified as the culprit. Found molesting a cow in a stable, the leap from bestiality to bestial savagery is an easy one to make in the eyes of the public. The vampire of Ropraz has been found and the people want revenge.
What follows is a fascinating account of mob-justice and early psychiatry. The descriptions by Chessex may take artistic licence with certain details, certainly this is a more lyrical record than usually found in history books, but he shows a keenly felt personal interest in the scapegoating of Fevez by the community that never wanted him. Not that any argument protesting his innocence is made – this book is more interested in how a human can be made into a monster to excuse the crimes of the people around him. The small towns in Switzerland are in this period crippled by poverty and misery, with alcoholism, incest and mental illness found everywhere:
They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam
There can be no justice, only the exacting of a brief vengeance before life trundles on.
Where before Fevez was an anonymous stable-hand, he is become a celebrity of sorts. A lady in white bribes a warden to be allowed to spend time with Fevez in his cell on several occasions. In a strange inversion, Fevez becomes alike to the virginal innocents he is supposed to have ravished. Chessex ends his tale with the troubled man from Ropraz gaining immortality from an unexpected source.
A very curious record of a grotesque and bizarre historical event.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some “critical awareness” about myself and my certainties…because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
Some weeks ago a friend took me around the well-stocked aisles of Kinokuniya – an excellent book store in Sydney – pointing out several authors that he recommended I read. One of them was David Foster Wallace. I had heard of the Infinite Jest, but had not as yet tackled it. It is unlikely that I will try for the purpose of this blog.
So I tracked down this much smaller work to get a taste for Wallace’s writing.
This book presents a speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. Opening with a typically gnomic fable about fishes swimming in water – this he confesses is the very stuff of graduation speeches – he expands upon the themes hinted at by his simple parable, addressing the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education.
Wallace introduces a corrective of pragmatic philosophy to the ‘reach for the stars’, clichés of college commencement speeches. College education is often described as having the purpose of teaching students how to think. Wallace argues that what you choose to think is more important. He presents examples of day-to-day challenges that will face these graduates once they enter the work force. The daily grind of worklife stress, compounded by domestic responsibilities, the rushed journey to the supermarket to buy essential groceries, only to be trapped in a frustrating traffic queue.
Individuals are literally selfish, the centre of their own perspectival universe. Wallace has a wonderful phrase later in the speech – “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms”. The danger is that over-educated, privileged middle class graduates might feel a certain sense of frustrated entitlement, a resentment of these other people preventing them from finding their foodstuff of choice in perfect time when they rush into the supermarket; or trapping them behind the rear of a gas-guzzling SUV. Even that white-collar post-university profession could become the cause of unremitting resentment, a burden for the martyred solipsist.
What truth Wallace has to offer is that individuals remain free to choose how to think about their circumstances. That one’s thoughts should never be allowed to enslave one. These mental chains are the result of unconscious processes, beliefs, prejudices that we as adults fall into a pattern of living by. While he does not advance any one moral philosophy, or preferred belief system, he does insist upon the importance of belief. Especially the need to believe in something beyond oneself. These are simple truths he is relating and yet his essential message is one that has been confused over time by mealy mouthed metaphors.
The elephant in the room when discussing Wallace is of course his own suicide in 2008. I do not know enough about the man to discuss that. However, his speech to the class of Kenyon College was poured over for suggestions of depression, or suicidal tendencies in the wake of his death and yes, he does mention suicide. Interestingly in relation to the burden of individuality:
“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…the head.”
What he is addressing in that quote is suicide as a rejection of self, or the individual’s existence as a thinking entity. A gun blast to the head annihilates the very seat of consciousness. I do not know if that relates to Wallace’s own suicide in any particular way that could be said to be relevant.
What remains of the man written here is a soul concerned with compassion and practical intelligence. His speech to the graduates eschews miserabilism, advocating the importance of choosing to think about life as a sequence of opportunities. What interests him is the practical advantages of being ‘truthful’. As individuals we should be true to ourselves, but we must also acknowledge the value of others in our lives also – that they are also important, the kings and queens of their own skulls.
This edition of This Is Water presents each paragraph of the speech as a single page epigram of condensed wisdom. Recommended.
He tells you, in the sombrest notes,
If poets want to get their oats,
The first step is to slit their throats.
The way to divide
The sheep of poetry from the goats
When Stephanie saw me crack the spine on this collection of poetry, she queried whether any poem could be cited as definitively great. As verse (free or otherwise) is the product of the inner-world of the poet it is both subjective in its construction and reception.
When challenged the first poem that sprang to mind was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
But is my appreciation of that poem due to its inherent quality, or because I have fond memories of my teacher Dennis Craven reciting those lines in 1998? Nostalgia creeps in, the associative quality of poetry merges with the personality of the reader and we end up with a poem having, in effect, reconstituted it to have a more personal meaning.
James Fenton’s career as a foreign correspondent and political journalist for a number of British newspapers informs his writing. In this collection he recounts in verse experiences he had in post-war Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and then his return to England, his perspective on his home country forever altered by what he witnessed.
Children in Exile describes the slow release of young emigrants who have escaped Pol Pot’s regime from the memories and nightmares of the country they left behind. One startling image is of a child who dreams of “Jesus with a gun”, an image of a newfound protector that he has learned of from his American rescuers informed by his understanding of what is required to save a life. These children’s education is of a bloodier sort than their Western counterparts: “Students of calamity, graduates of famine […] They have learnt much. There is much more to learn. Each heart bears a diploma like a scar”.
Fenton is writing journalism through verse, transforming coldly objective prose into more emotional material, where he has free reign to give vent to righteous anger. In a Notebook uses a comparison between traditional poetry, with its dropped hints and suggestive language, italicised to contrast it with the opposing page which repeats the content, but revisits the ephemeral beauty described with harsh reality:
And I’m afraid, reading this passage now,
That everything I knew has been destroyed
In a Notebook provides a valuable insight into Fenton’s project. A self-conscious note is present, highlighting the concern as to whether poetry is possible in relation to such atrocities. I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s famous quote “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Fenton’s perspective on England itself has been heavily influenced by what he has witnessed. My opening quote is taken from Letter to John Fuller, challenging a rival poet to exchange the pretence of a tortured poet for real torture and suffering. The primacy of a published poet’s anguished musings loses some of its power when contrasted with the suffering of starving children, victims of oppression, or even the homeless who eke out their existence on the streets of Western cities. Our assumption in the benevolence of the Almighty is also rejected, as to Fenton’s mind there is not a lot of evidence to support it:
I didn’t exist at Creation,
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
And I won’t be around for Salvation
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
Throughout this collection Fenton supplies some wonderful combinations of language. I was particularly struck by the phrase “the eloquence of young cemeteries”. To answer Stephanie’s challenge though, is it great poetry? I am not sure.
I think it is very good writing, but for me poetry is consistent in its meaning. The associations, wordplay and poetical structure are all meant to convey a continuous thematic thread from beginning to conclusion. With many of the poems here I felt as if meaning surfaced and then dived beneath the musings on war and death, like an elusive submarine plumbing treacherous waters. The uncertainty as to whether the poetical format suits these missives leaves the overall project unsteady at times, fitfully brilliant with occasional dips into confusion.
The author is again visibly starting to amuse himself – nay, we’ll use the word – to mystify us.
So I woke up this morning feeling tired, wondering what I would read next. Then Mr Postman arrived with a package from Canada. Wouldn’t you know it; it was a book from Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse blog. Hey, if anyone else out there wants to send me on a book, that would be just lovely.
This book features a series of parodies of different authors by Proust, describing the circumstances of a scandal that involved the famously neurotic writer himself. Henri Lemoine was a scam-artist who claimed to be able synthesize diamonds from coal. Proust himself was conned, but famously the De Beers Diamond Mines were also taken in by the scam.
For the purpose of his parody, Proust has the likes of Henri Balzac and Gustave Flaubert respond to the scandal, as well as a critical review by Sainte-Beuve of the latter’s effort published in The Constitutional. With each example chosen the parody extends beyond merely stylistic quirks of the respective authors, as the short chapters focus on different aspects of Lemoine’s deception.
I have never read À la recherche du temps perdu, having previously only come close when studying Chien de Printemps by Patrick Modiano, as well as that silly book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. As such my impression of him was that his writing was structured around endless digressions into memory and self-consciousness. The Lemoine Affair proves that I was missing the point entirely.
The authors selected by Proust are not merely chosen to display his gift for parody, but to demonstrate his insight into their importance in French culture. What if this scandal had demanded that all the bright lights of the literary world weigh in on what had happened? What if Lemoine’s trickery had led to Proust’s own suicide? In imagining this scenario he removes himself from the ranks of literary contenders vying to write the definitive account of the affair. Yes, and by association, about Proust’s own shame in being taken in by the scam. In this as in everything else, the central point of concern is Marcel Proust himself. This is interesting as Sainte-Beuve for one is known for having argued with Wilde on the point about all authors revealing their inner selves through their fiction.
Balzac in particular fairs poorly as a target of gentle ridicule. ‘His’, section of the novella concerns itself with aristocratic gossip and badinage, right up until the end, when it seems the author suddenly remembers to deliver a screed of exposition on Lemoine. Flaubert’s realism is also dismissed as mere stylistic prudery and Michelet delivers pedantry about the diamond industry itself. Again and again we see the degree to which Proust prided himself not only as a writer capable of translating his thoughts onto the page with exacting detail, but as a critic of literature itself. Failing to revenge himself upon Lemoine, he retreats to the world of writing, where he holds a stronger position.
I enjoyed this book for its insight into Proust and the taste it gave for his masterpiece. While I do not intend to plough through that sequence of novels for this site, I am looking forward to reading them soon.
Thanks again to Stacey for the lovely gift.
One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.
Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.
The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.
We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.
Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.
The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.
So why do I find this such a trite book?
In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.
This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.
This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.