I didn’t think I would ever have the nerve to write another literary critique after reading Anaïs Nin’s response essay on Daniel Stern’s The Suicide Academy in her 1976 collection In Favour of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays. She didn’t write many book reviews in her lifetime (she was too preoccupied with more lucrative erotica), so it’s as if she put her all into this one.
It’s a near perfect review, hampered only by the fact that it isn’t longer and doesn’t include more juicy details about the characters from Nin’s famously sensual perspective. Never in my life have I observed a professional response to a work of literature that is so elegantly written and woven with such grounded and unpretentious praise. How does one outperform this?
Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of the subjects of suicide.
“Here we slip into a surrealist world, relativity without center of gravity,” Nin writes. “We are dealing with the absurd, the irrelevant, the allegorical chaos of a world whose past hypocritical semblance of logic we can no longer accept. We are inside the Magic Theater of Steppenwolf, inside the nightmares of Kafka but in American equivalents—that is, with the weightlessness of humor.”
As an avid reader of Anaïs Nin, I trust entirely in her famously sophisticated taste in books, and so I became fascinated (and maybe a little obsessed) with reading this one. Hunting down a copy of The Suicide Academy was no easy enterprise, though. It’s so little-known, I had to comb through many international book websites and have one shipped in. It took over a month to arrive. What I got was a used copy, the pages a little limp and thumbed through, with that pungent old book scent and a mysterious inscription to someone on the front page. Obviously, it was someone’s treasure, once. Again, near perfect.
The Suicide Academy was published in 1968, and Anaïs Nin’s outstanding review is included again as the preface in my copy. A brief disclaimer: I do not, under any circumstances, believe that suicide is romantic, nor should it be romanticized. The concept of a school where people go to commit the final act of suicide, as a substitute for pursuing therapy, should never be real. It should only exist as a concept in a very experimental work of fiction.
However, as a writer, I can respect and admire Daniel Stern for daring to write an undaunted book like this in the 1960s, an era where people were in such a whirlwind of unrestrained living that I can’t imagine death being at the forefront of anyone’s mind. Perhaps that’s why it was largely ignored by the mainstream and became a cult classic instead. This book would be an absolute firecracker today. No mysterious underwater obscurity, just routine explosive controversy and outrage and book-burning in the yards of those who never bothered to read it.
Those, like me, who do read the book get to meet Wolf Walker, the narrator and main protagonist. He is the director of the Suicide Academy, and at the start of the novel he has been coming under fire by his co-workers for introducing too many ideas and courses to the school that lure students away from the end-goal of a successful suicide and back towards living instead (almost as if he would be better suited to being an actual mental health practitioner). He’s a cynical, solitary, withdrawn man, who stubbornly holds on to his grudges.
Said grudges are not unjustified. Firstly, he has to deal with his ex-wife Jewel and her new partner shooting a film on the academy premises and roping him once again into the melodrama of an unhappy love triangle, from which he’d joined the academy to escape. Secondly, he’s saddled with an obnoxious and anti-Semitic assistant, Gilliatt, whose unbearable presence provides the school in general with an extra layer of bleakness reminiscent of rancid butter.
It’s not the grouchy and bitter director, his troubled past, or his despicable and racist sitcom arch-nemesis that seduce the reader right away. In fact, their catty and offensive banter gets old quickly. It’s Stern’s wildly sensitive and sumptuous descriptions of the very landscape where then students of the Suicide Academy have come to die. Stern writes as if the readers themselves are the students and these will truly be the last sights they will ever see. Wolf Walker seems attached to his surroundings in a way that suggest that he values life more than he lets on. Here’s a particular excerpt that gave me stunned pause, so graceful is the style:
“When the weather was warm I would go down to the sand dunes that faced the sea. I had little time to myself with such a demanding job—but sometimes there in the faint heat of early dawn, stripped to the skin, facing the little waves still dark and bitter with night, I was the uneasy king of a sparse but perfect country. The dunes, still yellow with the last of the moon and not yet white with the first of the sun; and the sky slowly releasing itself from the night. Against such a landscape, what could the griefs say?”
This novel pursues and explores every possible philosophical avenue when it comes to the deaths of people in utter despair. It’s debated, it’s enacted, it’s battled against, and it’s defended. Characters, despite their friction, are united in their pursuit of answers to two all-encompassing questions. Firstly, is life really worth living? Secondly, if it’s not, if it’s just too much, is suicide the only available and logical option, one to which they’re fully entitled?
I’ve read other, more modern novels that have dabbled with this query—Julian Barnes’ 2011 The Sense of an Ending comes to mind, as does Hanya Yanagihara’s notoriously stark 2015 A Little Life—but Daniel Stern’s The Suicide Academy is, from my point of view, one of the only truly thorough investigations of the subject in the world of fiction.
Without sabotaging the experience with too many spoilers, I can confidently assure all potential readers that the risky subject matter is handled with class and finesse. The dialogue, as I’ve mentioned before, isn’t the sharpest or most attractive. The selling point is the prose. I almost feel like Anaïs Nin’s successor here. She convinced me to read it, and now I’m (hopefully) convincing you.
The Suicide Academy
“Mr. Stern has hit on a theme that most novelists would give their right typing finger for, and having hit on it, makes it work perfectly on several distinct levels. An enviable performance.” —Wilfrid Sheed