Death. It happens to everyone. All of us, even artists, even doctors, even writers. Death comes in and destroys all.
The world tends towards destruction.
Nothing lasts forever1.
“We start as spunk and end as soil”, a very talented writer once wrote2, and it’s not just the deaths of our loved ones, our enemies and our idols that we must suffer through, but also our very own. We die.
We must die.
And one of the weirdest things about death is that we don’t have to accept it for it to happen.
Death is the opposite of puberty, having a dog or writing a novel: it doesn’t matter if we don’t want it, in the end we must succumb.
How different people respond to their own mortality, to the ‘violet hour’ of their deathbed, varies across the full human spectrum, and in her 2016 non-fiction book, The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe explores Death via an in-depth look at several specific deaths. Not hers, for she is still with us and was not dying as she wrote, but the deaths of a few famous people: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter.
I find Death interesting. The contemplation of Death, the intellectualisation of it, capitalised. The way Death is viewed within society, the way it is viewed without. How people talk about Death, what they ignore, what they deny.
Death, now, isn’t a commonplace discussion, because our consumerist, #nownownow #mememe society is not happy to engage with thought of a later time, a less happy, a less selfish time. Death means the end, the disruption of relationships, the termination of a life and consumption and pleasure, an existence moved from the actual to the memorial.
The Dead exist only as memories, be those psychological or physical, and the most obvious way people’s actions are preserved after their time is through physical objects they directly affected, be that through interaction or creation. All of Roiphe’s subjects left behind an impressive body of work, broadly considered of intelectual and/or artistic value. All of these people wrote about death in their works (though it would be rather difficult to write an oeuvre of any weight without mentioning it), and all of them responded to notions of mortality differently. Roiphe considers how they thought about death before it was close, then how they behaved on their deathbed. The reader sees how they fought (or didn’t), how they accepted (or didn’t), and exactly what happened on a practical level in their final days.
The problem I had with The Violet Hour was this: when I was about halfway through this book about famous literary types dying I flicked back to the contents page (which I’d deliberately ignored) and made the crashing realisation that not one of the figures Roiphe was focusing on was anyone whose work I was especially familiar with, let alone “a fan”. I obviously read a handful of the canonical Dylan Thomas while an English Lit student at A Level and undergrad, but I’ve never dived deeper than the prescribed. I have a Collected Poems of his that’s lain untouched (tbf, nearish the top) of my to read pile for years. Of Updike, I read Rabbit, Run years ago and hated it; Sontag and Freud I know a bit about, especially regards their interests, but have never read anything either wrote; I wasn’t 100% certain who Sendak was3 and I still have no idea why I was expected to have heard of James Salter, who was a peer of Updike’s or something? Maybe he’s big in America? Roiphe doesn’t really explain other than to make clear he’s another old writer who the reader is presumed to be familiar with. Also, everyone’s white (though more than one is Jewish), everyone (bar Sontag) is a man, and all of them were phenomenally successful in their respective fields: this is elite death, all are wealthy, all (bar Thomas) die when old, and all (bar Dylan and Freud) died relatively recently with stonking medical help up until the end.
The Violet Hour is a fractured book, and that is what gives it strength when it is great but, unfortunately, means that some sections are less than exciting. Basically, the two chapters where Roiphe’s research was book-led stick out and are unsatisfying. The chapter on Dylan Thomas is kind of engaging and exciting, but only because he was: it’s a well written and informative account of his death, but I didn’t feel it had any of the power of the book’s sections that were based on close conversations with the loved ones of the deceased. The Freud chapter is set even longer ago and thus was even more reliant on secondhand accounts and this too – though fine – isn’t especially inspired. It is when Roiphe’s interactions with bereaved people come to the fore that the book shines. The death of Updike – a man I dislike – is rendered beautifully through the descriptions of the poems he wrote as he was dying, the way his life eeked away as his family watched. Sontag, who fought to the end, is brave and sorely missed, and the medical procedures she undertook that caused a far more unpleasant death than she needed are painfully described. Salter is met by Roiphe before he dies, and their conversation about Death is moving, and charged with his great age and forthcoming demise. But the book’s real star is Maurice Sendak – a charming, talented, weirdo whose writing is explored in more detail than everyone else’s and – other than Thomas – his personal life too.
Sendak’s relationship to death was more fraught than everyone else’s, as he witnessed a friend killed in a traffic accident when a small child and blamed himself: his friend chased a ball Sendak had thrown into traffic. His books – books for children – deal with death and loss rather a lot, and Roiphe describes his working attitude and his general demeanour with great interest and great heart. We meet his adopted son, his ward/housekeeper/friend, we meet his family and friends and his is the death we – as readers – feel the most, because he has been most accurately rendered as alive. Sendak’s lasting impression on the people who knew and loved him is so warm that it filters from their interviews through to Roiphe’s prose, and it is this 60 page chapter where The Violet Hour is at its most readable and pleasurable. As I wrote above, I wasn’t certain who Sendak was when I started reading this book, but by the end I have great warmth and affection for a writer whose work I haven’t engaged with since I was barely literate. A similar feeling is evoked for Sontag, and almost for Updike, but Thomas and Freud are far less alive on the page – they are too dead for this book about dying and death.
I wish Roiphe had focused entirely on people whose memories she could explore personally, as there is a striking difference in this text between the subjects she researched entirely in libraries and those with whom she met people who cared, deeply, about them. The Violet Hour is a good read, but sadly disappointing in places due to the stand out success of two of its six sections. I liked Roiphe’s writing and focus, but I wish she’d made me care as much about every individual as I now do about Sendak and Sontag.
1. “No, not even Jean Valjean”, as I always sing internally when I hear that phrase. ↩
2. Me, in my unpublished cod philosophical sex-cocaine (or possibly cocaine-sex) masterpiece (or possibly not), White Lines, Black Truffles, a novel all about the intended escape from thanatophobia through excess, excess, excess and more excess. It’s a rollicking read. This is an extract. ↩
3. Where The Wild Things Are and – apparently – numerous other children’s books. ↩