I would have thought that an author who wrote movingly of deathbed reflections would embrace such an eventual life review for himself. Yet acclaimed South African writer Karel Schoeman chose to end his own life at the age of 77, rather than carry on living, writing and reflecting.
Afrikaans writer Karel Schoeman commits suicide
Schoeman was praised as a post-apartheid novelist who interrogated the Afrikaner people’s past and future. He was one of only two living South African writers to be honoured by Nelson Mandela with a State President’s Award in 1999, among many literary awards he received dating back to the 1970s.
Schoeman’s Sussie on her deathbed
I am particularly baffled by Schoeman’s suicide because of a memorable character he created. Named Sussie, this lifelong inhabitant of the Karoo is introduced to readers when she is elderly and bedridden in the house, the very room, where she was born. This central character of Schoeman’s masterful work, This Life (Hierdie Lewe) has, since its publication in 1993, enthralled readers with her reminiscences in the final days of her long, tough life and that of her family over four generations.
Reflecting on her childhood, Sussie explains how the funeral of her brother revealed to her the secret of appreciating the final period of one’s existence. In grieving about Jakob’s mysterious death – while looking for sheep in a Karoo snowstorm – Sussie describes finding a new freedom.
“That was when I discovered for the first time how much you could see and hear if you remained silent and withdrew, if you watched and listened and did not allow a single word or gesture to escape you.”
– Sussie in Schoeman’s This Life
Schoeman created a dying woman who gained insight from death – not only in that epiphany, but again and again throughout her life and through the deaths of others. Her family and neighbours thought they knew her. She knew that they believed that her own mother’s death left her “nothing to look forward to escape my own inevitable old age and death”. Yet she reveals, as she mourns her mother and rejects others’ views, that this painful and intimate loss brought her new strength.
“I had survived each change and each loss thus far, and I knew I would be able to endure this one too, regardless of their expectations.”
– Sussie in Hierdie Lewe
In This Life but not in his life
I would have believed that the writer who brought us Sussie would look forward to the time when he too could engage with memory, with those quintessentially South African notions of truth and reconciliation, as he approached his own death. Now I am trying to understand why Schoeman was so unlike his literary creation. Why did he feel unable to endure what lay ahead of him in his last years?
I am struggling to understand why Schoeman himself did not wish to live to face the challenges of old age. Why did his views about aging seem to change in the quarter-century since he wrote This Life? Why did he choose not to live to the point that Sussie had reached? Why didn’t he want to reflect on his own life?
The Suicide Note
I tried to find answers in Schoeman’s final piece of writing. His page-long suicide note is entitled Verklaring, the Afrikaans word for statement or declaration. In it he clearly expresses his views on getting older:
“I have encountered enough aging and old age to be sure that I never want to be old.”
– Karel Schoeman in his final Statement
As for this fan’s hope – and surely that of many other readers of his many works – that Schoeman would live to write another day, his note explains that he did not wish to continue writing. He stated, to my great surprise:
“The research and writing that has always kept me busy so long has become a burden to me. With a certain amount of relief, I distance myself from it.”
– Schoeman in his suicide note
Given my own writings in this blog about the possibilities that can open up in old age, I was disappointed to read of Schoeman’s depressive views.
“What lies ahead for me is a state of decline and growing helplessness and dependence where I increasingly become a burden to myself and others.”
I couldn’t help but thinking that if Sussie had felt this way, we would never had the privilege of reading about her fascinating final phase.
I may be misinterpreting Schoeman’s last words, which can be seen as more about suicide than old age. For he expresses his hope that his death will not only “contribute to the problem of old age” but also to the “general issue of autonomy being more openly discussed than is currently the case”.
Schoeman uses the term “autonomy” (“selfbeskikking” in Afrikaans) to mean the right of competent adults to make their own decisions with regard to giving – or withholding – medical treatment. This complex concept has been invoked to support arguments both for or against assisted suicides, including his own.