Thoughtful look at leaving this life when it’s time to go

Review: Vivien Horler

At Close of Day – Reflections, by Karel Schoeman (Protea House of Books)

at close of day

The cover picture is a David Goldblatt photograph titled ‘Sheep farm, near Edenburg, Orange Free State, 16 April 1982

Years ago I read an article in The Guardian newspaper that said something like “old age is terrible – it is much, much worse than you can imagine”.

I was in my early 30s at the time and old age was a long way off, but there was something about the gloomy statement that stayed with me.

And now, finally on the cusp of old age, I have just read Karel Schoeman’s sobering At Close of Day, a book of reflections on age and disintegration and death.

Schoeman, a prolific and award-winning Afrikaans author, updated the manuscript on April 26 last year, when he was 77. Five days later he killed himself.

The book was published in Afrikaans shortly afterwards and has now been translated into English by Elsa Silke.

The fact that such a literary icon killed himself shocked many people, but had they been privy to his thoughts – unlikely since Schoeman was a private, even reclusive man – they would have known it was no sudden decision.

Apart from personal inclination, he was also careful not to share his thoughts with people in case he was stopped. Doctors do not seem to understand that someone thinking of ending their own life could be “normal”, he writes. “The hand instinctively reaches for the pad to prescribe an antidepressant, and a referral to a psychiatrist is mentioned… It is evidently impossible to have a sober and considered discussion of the subject with these decision-makers about life and death.”

Schoeman’s mother died a long four years after a stroke that left her lucid but unable to speak, paralysed and incontinent, and Schoeman knew he did not want an end like that. This led him to consider the alternative, “namely the voluntary ending of my own life”.

He ponders the indignities of age, thinks back to the books he has written and the acclaim he has won, and says: “But you reach a point when the handle in the shower cubicle is more important than immortal prose.”

He mourns his increasing physical weakness: the walking stick that gives way to the walker on wheels (those with six wheels are best, he finds); the fact that you dare not do two things at once, like walk and wave to a neighbour; the danger of small differences in floor levels, or uneven paving stones in his retirement home.

He thinks of watching his mother and other old people crumble, like clay walls washed away in the rain, adding: “And when they have fallen away, you yourself will be the outer embankment, the last defence against the ferocity of the sea.”

He was still able to feel satisfaction in the writing of this book, he says, which was a bonus, but mostly he felt he had done whatever he needed or wanted to do. “At a practical level my life has no obvious further purpose or goal, not even to myself… What lies ahead in the rest of my life is a process of slow and unstoppable degeneration of body and mind, already in progress.”

But there are still happy moments, a beautiful day, the comfort of a warm lamplit room. “A chilly, cloudy day, light rain in the afternoon. The intense blue of the salvia in the garden towards evening, the last of its flowers at the end of summer. For the time being there are still moments like these, epiphanies.”

And he writes: “What I could have done or may have wanted to do, I have done; I am grateful; it is time.”

But the question is how. He considers refusing food and drink, but that could take a while. He also secretes sleeping pills. The death should cause as little inconvenience or unpleasantness to others as possible.

Schoeman doesn’t like the word suicide or its Afrikaans equivalent selfmoord; he prefers selfdood (self death), and even better, selfbeskikking (self determination).

In his last years he looks back on his life, his travels, his reading and his writing. He says he is left with gratitude for all he has had. He gets much pleasure from revisiting books he read as a young man, and finding apt quotations, because words have been his life.

As an English reader, though, I would have been grateful if Silke had attempted to translate the many, many Dutch and quite a few German quotations into English. I suspect I missed a lot of what he was trying to convey.

The cover on the hardback version of this volume has a black and white photograph titled Sheep farm near Edenburg, Orange Free State, 18 April 1982 by David Goldblatt, who died last week.

At Close of Day is clearly not a cheerful book, but it is intelligent and thoughtful and offers beautifully described insights into what is ahead for all of us. And perhaps it will also help reignite a broader discussion of “self determination” in South Africa, so that people who are ready can leave this life with as little unpleasantness and inconvenience as possible.

After all, we do it for our pets.

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday, July 1, 2018.

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