Hubert Selby, Jr (1928-2004)
April 28, 2004 5:21 PM   Subscribe

"Hubert Selby died often. But he always came back, smiling that beautiful smile of his, and those blue eyes of his... This time he will not be back. My saints have always come from hell, and now, with his passing, there are no more saints". Selby is the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, (tried for obscenity in England and supported by, among many others, Samuel Beckett and Anthony Burgess), Requiem For a Dream, Song of the Silent Snow. He is being eulogized in the USA and UK, but also, massively (I've just watched a fantastic TV special) in France, where he is much more popular than in his native land (Selby's death was the cover story -- plus pages 2, 3 and 4 -- in the daily Libération today -- .pdf file): Dernière sortie vers la rédemption, L'extase de la dévastation. What makes all this kind of ironic -- in a very Selbyesque way -- is that Selby himself used to say, "I started to die 36 hours before I was born..." (more inside)
posted by matteo (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I started to die 36 hours before I was born. By the time I was born I was in deep serious trouble. (Laughs) I was blue from cyanosis, my head was all twisted and out of shape, and a few kinds of brain damage. My mother, she almost died too, she had severe toxemia, and when she asked the doctor what she should do about feeding me. He said, "Well, just keep breastfeeding him and eventually he’ll suck out all the poison." (Selby cackles gleefully.) They had to drag me screaming into the twentieth century. So that was, I guess, a very defining moment, because I have been defiant ever since. And dying became a way of life. When I was 18, in 1946, they said I couldn’t live more than 2 months, I ended up spending more than 3 years in bed, had 10 ribs cut out and all that. In 1988, the doctor told a friend of mine, "According to all accepted medical evidence, your friend is dead." So dying has been a way of life.


And Newsweek I guess might be considered a competitor, and the fellow there liked Last Exit so they gave me a big spread in Newsweek, a review-interview kind of thing, and then there was an interview in the Saturday Review. So it was used by some people to attack Time magazine. It became a big thing. And then Barney took out this big full-page ad in the Times, and I remember they had in big caps, they had a quote from Allen Ginsberg and it was something like: "THIS BOOK SHOULD EXPLODE LIKE A RUSTY BOMBSHELL OVER AMERICA." And that certainly didn't do any harm.
posted by matteo at 5:26 PM on April 28, 2004

Selby was great. Very powerful work (about people who could have been my neighbors and relatives).

(now i'm expecting one more literary person to die today, after Gunn and Selby)
posted by amberglow at 5:38 PM on April 28, 2004

Of course his books have been the basis for a coupla good movies, too:

What Selby is saying is that anything can be a drug -- it doesn't have to be smack. It could be TV, it can be coffee, it can be chocolate, it can be food, it can be hope, it could be love, it could be sex. The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person's head when they're trying quit drugs as with cigarettes, as when they're trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. I thought it was an idea that we hadn't seen on film and I wanted to bring it up on the screen.

posted by matteo at 5:39 PM on April 28, 2004

Hubert Selby was one of the great ones. My personal favorite author cites him as his main influence.

I remember watching Requiem For A Dream not long after I stopped drinking and noticing that it was one of a very few movies involving drugs and booze that I did not want to get loaded after watching.

Godspeed, Mr. Selby.
posted by jonmc at 5:47 PM on April 28, 2004

Anyone who's seen the deleted scenes and the 'behind the scenes' documentary on the Requiem DVD will know that Selby acted completely and perfectly demented in his role as the prison guard. Whoever was in charge of the editing had no idea what genius they were cutting out.

"it was one of a very few movies involving drugs and booze that I did not want to get loaded after watching"

What were the others?
posted by tapeguy at 5:53 PM on April 28, 2004

I was just allowing for gaps in my recall, tapeguy. Most of the time when you see booze and drugs in movies, it's either in a heavy-handed morality play that lacks credibility or in a "party" context showing it all as a good time.

I mentioned the movie to numerous recovering substance abuser freinds of mine and they agreed with my assessment, for what it's worth.
posted by jonmc at 5:56 PM on April 28, 2004

I made a throwaway line about writing in uppercase in a previous thread. When I read 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' many years ago it's the chapters written in uppercase that stand out in my mind. That book totally warped me and my friends for quite a while.

Then someone just had to make it into a 'film'.

Nice links matteo, ta.
posted by bdave at 6:16 PM on April 28, 2004

I was waiting for this news to hit Metafilter. Excellent job, matteo.
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:16 PM on April 28, 2004

rest well, mr. selby.
posted by NationalKato at 9:44 PM on April 28, 2004

posted by drezdn at 10:00 PM on April 28, 2004

Having said that, I'm glad I read "Last Exit To Brooklyn" before I saw the movie. It's one of the major movies that I would point to as a film that makes no sense if you haven't read the book (another example: "Crash")
posted by drezdn at 10:02 PM on April 28, 2004

fucking wonderful post. must destroy newsfilter.
posted by Satapher at 10:16 PM on April 28, 2004

thanks matteo. wonderful tribute.
posted by xmutex at 10:34 PM on April 28, 2004

Mashed potatoes!
posted by Dagobert at 1:23 AM on April 29, 2004

Well done, matteo!
posted by shoepal at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2004

Dark Angel
Remembering Hubert Selby Jr.

by Jerry Stahl

Hubert Selby used to joke that, though The New York Times didn’t review his books, he was pretty fucking sure they’d run his obituary. He was right.
Selby preferred to be called “Cubby” despite the decidedly un-baby-bear-like, gleefully sepulchral remnant of a body that he carried around on his twisted-coat-hanger bones. I could never get it straight — whether doctors had removed half his ribs and deflated one lung, or if they’d cut out three-quarters of his lungs, 10 ribs and a chunk of spine the size of a clenched fist by way of treating the TB he caught as a runaway in the merchant marine. Before penicillin.
However many categories precede skinny, Cubby’s was the closest to not being there at all. Physically, the one job he seemed fit for was popping out of a jack-in-the-box in hell. That or felonious leprechaun. But there is no one I’d have rather had next to me in a street fight.
The literary phenom who stares like Brando from the back of the Grove Press paperback of Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1964 stared even more fiercely 40 years later, when not one breath came easy, and the Irish skeleton’s skull seemed to be pushing out from inside his translucent skin.
“I’ve been dying since I was born” was a favorite Selby line. Another was: “My whole life, I was a scream looking for a mouth.” I can honestly tell you he was the most cheerful man I ever met.
Once, in a moment when desperation got the better of dignity, I foisted some ragged version of a book I was trying to write into Selby’s hands. His comments made clear that what had seemed, to my limited vision, like a disconnect in his personality was in fact its unifying principle. “When you write about somebody you hate,” he told me, handing the soiled pages back, “write about them with love . . .”
This seemed, at the time, like a counterintuitive if not downright suspect exercise. But I adhered to his direction with unquestioning fervor. Because, it soon became obvious, this wasn’t a writing tip — it was a survival tool.
If there exists a higher art than rendering the ugly beautiful, it was Hubert Selby’s angel-headed hipster genius to comprehend that there is no more necessary one. The world is a much less monstrous place for Cubby having lived in it. But I’m prejudiced. I loved the guy.

posted by matteo at 5:38 PM on May 12, 2004

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