the suicides' cemetery

Happily she does not seem, in either case, to anticipate the subsequent years when her insight will often be blurred by panic, by the fear of stopping or the fear of going on. – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

In the Edwardian age, when the American tourist went to Europe, he or she was sure to take in the suicides’ cemetery in Monte Carlo. The story was that the population of the place was well prepared for suicide. A shot would be heard, certain figures would appear, the body would be disposed of. In John Polson’s decently shocked Monaco and its Gaming Tables, from 1902, cites a typical story is cited from a Menton newspaper:

Another gambling victim

Le Patriote Metonnais, dans son dernier numero, publie le terrible drame suivant qui happened Tuesday evening:

“A man with haggard eyes, and an upset countenance, came out of the gambling hall saying: I am lost, I have nothing more to do than die! I lost two hundred thousand france.”

The Casino guards sought to calm him, but the sad fellow wouldn’t listen to them, and coming upon the great staircase, he took a revolver out of his pocket and blew his brains out.
Some personnel arrived quickly to clean away the blood, and the gambling and ruin continued.”

Matilda Betham-Edwards – the very name comes to us through a heavy chintz cloud of couture, the rustle of all of those chaperones in the Henry James novels – in her France of Today (1894) gives her readers some sage advice:

The traveler … is advised to take the train to Monaco, and, arrived at the little station, whisper his errand in the cab-driver’s ear, “To the suicides’ cemetery.”

Once you get there, you see first the public cemetery – which Betham-Edwards informs us is not really up to American standards … and then – “quite apart from this vast burial ground, on the other side of the main entrance, is a small enclosure, walled in and having a gate of open iron work always locked. Here, in close proximity to heaps of garden rubbish, broken bottles and other refuse, rest the suicides of Monte Carlo, buried by the parish gravedigger, without funeral and without any kind of religious ceremony. Each grave is marked by an upright piece of wood, somewhat larger than that by which gardeners mark their seeds, and on which is painted a number, nothing more. Apart from these, are stakes driven into the ground which mark as yet unappropriated spots.”

But if the Americans, as usual, found that the seductive rumors of wickedness led to a dreary corner of broken bottles and nameless graveplots, the Russians found Monte Carlo much more thought provoking. Chekhov was so impressed with the gambling halls that he wrote home that he would like to spend a year simply gambling there. “This charming Monte Carlo is extremely like a fine… den of thieves. The suicide of losers is quite a regular thing.” Chekhov was as impressed by the expensive restaurants. ‘Every morsel is rigged out with lots of artichokes, truffles, and nightingales’ tongues of all sorts. And, good Lord! how contemptible and loathsome this life is with its artichokes, its palms, and its smell of orange blossoms! I love wealth and luxury, but the luxury here, the luxyry of the gambling saloon, reminds one of a luxurious water-closet.”

Chekhov’s hope that maybe someone could loser would blow his brains out right before Chekhov’s eyes is, of course, typical of the writer’s secret desire of being in the neighborhood when myth condenses into fact. Of course, there was more than just Puritanism plugging the suicides story – there was Nice, competing for tourists with Monaco, that emphasized the suicide angle every chance it got. But the suicide angle was not only a lesson about loss – there was a hidden lesson about capitalism as well. George Hole’s tourist book, Nice and her Neighbors, written two years after Marx visited Monte Carlo in 1882 (not, of course, that Hole had the faintest idea of Marx) recounts a conversation in a train with some young man who won 35 francs – and the remark of another man in the compartment that the winning of thirty pieces of silver has an evil sound: ‘A poor ruined gambler shot himself the other night in the grounds of Monte Carlo. I hope it was not his money you won, for, if so, it was the price of blood.” But one thing about money – the stain of blood wears off remarkably quickly.

Well, of course, for LI the suicides cemetery, with its numbers, stakes, and garbage, and its mythical status, and the cut throat of pure repetition quickly cleaned up by the help, is an allegory for…

Well, I’ll get to that later. One of these days.


new york pervert said…
Even so...the Suicides' Cemetery was very interesting. I didn't know about that.
Anonymous said…
I've just been reading about the very same suicides' cemetery in a magazine from about 1900.
There's a photo. Looks a mess even back then.