Twenty Years Ago Today: A Writer's Death

Sandra ParettiTwenty years ago today, a paid notice appeared in the pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Zurich-based newspaper. In it was announced the passing of the Swiss-German novelist Sandra Paretti, which came as something of a surprise to her followers as hardly anyone seemed to know that she was ill. What alarmed them even more was that the notice informed them that she intended to take her own life - and that by the time anyone read the article, she had already done so. This was no obituary. This was a suicide note.

Paretti (whose real name was Dr. Irmgard Schneeberger) was dying of abdominal cancer, and had decided to take her own life - but in a safe, sensible and controlled manner. She sought the help of EXIT, a Swiss charity that assists people with euthanasia (not unlike Dignitas, which you may also have heard of in recent years). She passed away peacefully of a supervised drug overdose on March the 13th.

She never had a massive following in English, but was exceedingly well known in German and had been translated into 27 other languages, with 30 million copies sold by the time of her death. She made no claim to be a literary author - she knew her audience and gave them exactly what they wanted, with no pretence at being anything else. She mainly wrote historical novels which were known for their melodrama and sentimentality, such as The Drums of Winter, in which a pair of Hessian half-brothers are sent to fight in the American Revolutionary War (and seem to fight each other as much as they do anyone else). She'd begun her career in 1967 with The Rose and the Sword, set in Napoleonic times, had seen another novel adapted for television in the last few years, and her last work was an original television series called The Red Bird.

Yet despite all this success, she'd managed to keep her cancer out of the limelight. The newspapers immediately started trying to dig up friends and relatives to find a juicier angle, but no one knew anything. The only one who could add anything was her lawyer, but he had only known of her illness for the last couple of months. She'd been ill for two years and had struggled through all the usual treatments - yet virtually no one knew, other than the doctors who treated her. There was no story to tell, save the one she wrote for herself.

The last page in her life was the notice in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which was as unashamedly sentimental as any of her novels. "The name of the disease is of no importance," she wrote. "I did the same with my disease as with my life - I embraced it and behold, it was my last lover.

"I had an easy and wonderful life, like one of Mozart's symphonies, and I am now being swept towards an impatient but brilliant finale."