When Katie Roiphe was 12, she had an illness so extreme — 107-degree temperature, an inability to climb stairs without gasping for breath — that she required seven hours of surgery to remove half a lung. That’s the kind of experience that’s bound to stay with a survivor in her adult years. For Roiphe, the ordeal also fostered a desire to explore further what Freud once called “the painful riddle of death.”
In “The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End,” she has done just that. Her goal was to write about the deaths of “writers and artists who are especially sensitive or attuned to death.” The result is a beautiful and provocative meditation on mortality.
The profiled authors approached the final majority in different ways. Susan Sontag, who “fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception,” confronted illness the same way she set about writing her essays: by seeking as much knowledge as possible to solve her diseases “like a logical puzzle of the highest order.”
Sigmund Freud, however, upon learning that he had leukoplakia, a mouth disease that affects smokers, hired a personal physician but didn’t exactly heed his advice. Freud kept smoking his beloved cigars and accepted only aspirin and a hot-water bottle to alleviate his pain, even after the necrosis that produced a hole in his cheek gave off a smell so unpleasant that he had to drape a mosquito net over his bed to keep insects away while he slept.
John Updike worked on a final novel and a poetry collection even though a round of chemo and lungs riddled with tumors had rendered him so weak that he couldn’t stand up to shave. Dylan Thomas, who “liked the theater of sickness, the staginess, the attention it brought him,” is alleged to have drunk 18 whiskeys the night before he lapsed into a coma. And Maurice Sendak was so obsessed with dying that he owned Keats’ original death mask and liked to stroke its forehead because the gesture made him feel maternal.
In an epilogue, Roiphe interviews 89-year-old James Salter, who died a few months after telling her, “I don’t try to imagine it,” when she asks about death. This is the sort of unsentimental touch that characterizes the book. Roiphe isn’t afraid to point out her subjects’ lesser qualities, including Updike’s womanizing and Sontag’s sense of entitlement and labored writing. But despite acknowledging the “completely illusory control that language gives over life,” she can’t help letting a little genuine emotion through. Sendak, as Roiphe puts it, may have hit upon the key to dealing with death: “Staring into something you have always been terrified of and finding it beautiful.”
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, and BookPage.