I first encountered Katie Roiphe via Canongate Books’ ‘Handpicked’ initiative whereby if you bought one title they would ‘handpick’ another for you and send it to you free of charge. As a vociferous advocate of Canongate (they publish excellent books) this initiative was obviously very appealing to me. Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives was my handpicked title. It was extremely good. When I saw she had a new book coming out, this time via Virago, I knew I had to read it. Especially given the subject matter.
The Violet Hour deals with great writers and their approaches towards death. Here Roiphe focuses on six writers in particular: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter (though the Salter section is a little different, as I will explain) and she follows their last few days, the illnesses which led to their deaths and the way they approached it, both by examining close hand the events of those days – talking to people that were around the writers, or the writers’ own writing about it – as well as a wider reading of their work and what it shows of their philosophy towards death. Wrapped around this is Roiphe’s own story: as a child she had her own brush with death, a mysterious respiratory condition which led her to spend a significant time in hospital, removal of part of her lung and a youthful reminder of the mortality of the flesh which imprinted upon her, something she could never quite let go. As she explains:
“I am coming to see that the real thing I am afraid of is not death itself but the fear of death. This fear is not abstract to me. The knowing you are about to die. The panic of its approach. That is what seems unbearable to me. That’s what I’ve been trying to write my way through.
But here’s what I learned from the deaths in this book: You work. You don’t work. You resist. You don’t resist. You exert the consummate control. You surrender. You deny. You accept. You pray. You don’t pray. You read. You work. You take as many painkillers as you can. You refuse painkillers. You rage against death. You run headlong toward it.
In the end the deaths are the same. They all die. The world releases them.”
Roiphe starts with Susan Sontag (who I now have to read), a woman renowned for beating the odds, for overcoming, for her survival instinct. By the time she reached seventy-one, Sontag had already previously overcome a bout of breast cancer which she hadn’t been expected to survive but her fierce will to continue, coupled with a willingness to set aside physical comfort, helped her to beat it. Her brush with illness, her critical judgement and mythologizing attitude (Sontag considered herself exceptional, which I think she was, therefore she would be the exception) informed her work, making her a formidable and respected woman. Sontag did not believe that this latest diagnosis would lead to her death. She fought for life, clung desperately to it, she refused to admit defeat, to allow the cancer to extinguish her. Yet her writing deplored the reference to illness as a ‘war’. Sometimes Sontag the woman and Sontag the writer didn’t match up; no doubt this is true of all writers (and all of us). Her prospects were poor from the beginning, as described here:
“The transplant had only the slimmest chance of success. For one thing, Susan is seventy-one. With her exhaustive research she knew how slim her prospects would be. On the other hand, of course, she has survived against very, very shabby odds before. There is one person, at the tail end of the bell curve, who survives under the direst prognosis, and she could be that one person, the exception. She has always been the exception. So in a way the slimness of her prospects only confirmed the role she has carved out for herself: the survivor. Dr. Nimer said to David later, “She was not ready to die. As far as seeking treatment, I knew from the first time I met her that she would rather die trying.””
Yet her will to live was so strong. There’s a sense that Sontag conned herself, and in so doing forced those around her to become complicit in the lie, that she was not going to die. But her age and the severity of the treatment were too much. Her son, David Rieff, describes her treatment as ‘torture’ and does so without hyperbole. That she was able to sacrifice her (temporary) physical comfort is part of Sontag’s strength and mystique. Obviously the mystique, the mythologizing, weren’t enough this time.
Freud’s approach to dying was different again. Also suffering from cancer, Freud’s descent towards death was long, drawn out and painful. Diagnosed in 1923 with cancer of the jaw, largely likely to have been caused by ongoing smoking, Freud didn’t die until 1939. During this time he suffered constant pain, his jaw was necrotic and inoperable. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet Freud declined painkillers; he wanted to approach the end clear-headed and able to work. Neither would he quit smoking, though it was known that the smoking was contributing to the problem. As a proponent of a ‘sex and death’ philosophy of life, in Freud’s life, perhaps, it was truer to say ‘smoking and death’, smoking forming his primary pleasure.
In John Updike’s case, lung cancer brought him to his end. Here Roiphe focuses on his relationship with his work and also with his family. His relationship with his children is the saddest part, as described here:
“The children and grandchildren were always invited to Haven Hill to watch the fireworks on July 4, but they would watch from the beach. If it rained, Michael says, they either watched in the rain or went home. They were not invited to come into the house and watch from the porch.”
Despite this distance, Updike managed to connect with his children before he died, though Roiphe suggests that his (second) wife Miranda was a barrier to intimacy. He also managed to write and that, too, was largely due to Miranda.
Dylan Thomas’s death is perhaps the most well-known of those described, yet the extent to which he pushed himself towards it is strangely surprising. A man so fearful of illness, who spent most of his life being sick with one thing or another, he seemed to propel himself deliberately towards death. Once his father said that Thomas wouldn’t live to the age of 40 if he didn’t control his drinking. How right he was.
Maurice Sendak was brought down by a stroke, but you could say that Sendak had been preparing for, and making magical, death his whole life. For some reason I found Sendak’s story the most moving, perhaps because I had the least knowledge and expectation of the writer. Beyond Where the Wild Things Are, and his fairly ferocious reputation, I know little of Sendak. That he was ferocious, a compulsive worker, comes through in the story. That he loved and feared loss, that he needed to be cared for (and was lucky enough to find that care in his lifetime), this was all news to me. Death punctuates Sendak’s work, his experiences and the things that moved and frightened him make their way in. Yet whilst Sendak feared death, he was also exhilarated by it, as explained here:
“He tells the story of visiting an old family friend who was dying. He was very afraid of seeing her, afraid of how his parents would feel, and afraid of how he would feel. This was the last time he would see her. And yet when he did it was strangely lovely. It was like staring into something he had always been terrified of, and it was exquisite. He left feeling both miserable and elated.”
Then there is James Salter. James Salter was alive when Roiphe wrote about him. She wanted to speak to an aging writer, someone who might have death on the mind. As an admirer of Salter’s work, she approached him. Eighty-nine at the time of the interview, his insight into the approach of death is extraordinary, perhaps because it is so unexpected. He doesn’t think about it, he says. They talk about Roiphe’s father’s death – he had a heart attack in their building lobby and died quickly. Roiphe mythologizes the event; she has always presented it as it occurring too quickly for her father to have known what was coming, though he had time to refuse an ambulance. Yet Salter raises the question of pain, reframing the whole event. This exchange is extraordinarily poignant:
“SALTER: Most people want to die in their sleep.
SALTER: A friend of mine said, “I wouldn’t want that moment to pass unnoticed.” I think he has something there.
ME: I don’t know. Maybe.
SALTER: Maybe it’s better not to die in your sleep.
ME: Freud had this idea of “heroic clarity.” He wanted to be clearheaded and aware.
SALTER: It’s very human to want to, you know, mark the moment.
ME: You’re right. To be there and attentive.
SALTER: Something big is happening.
[He looks away]
SALTER: I don’t know what I’ll do.
[I don’t say anything.]
SALTER: Let’s not talk too much about this.”
Needless to say, The Violet Hour is an emotionally charged book. I found myself having to remove some ‘dust that had blown in my eye’ several times on the train. Susan Sontag, James Salter, Maurice Sendak: their stories are all profound and moving. I don’t think they make the idea of death any less scary, any easier to understand, but sometimes looking it in the eye can bring a strange kind of comfort. Yet it is not a comforting book. It is, however, beautiful. All of the writers approached death in their own way, in the only way you can: alone and coping however you can. Salter, too, died before Roiphe quite completed the book. Like her father, he had a heart attack. Roiphe thought he would go on; she talked about his death without thinking about it actually happening. Just like all those other writers did. Life is fleeting. We can fight for it, we can drink it away, we can burn like a firework or a candle, but eventually all our flames go out. I, for one, am glad I read this before mine did.
The Violet Hour is published by Virago