Since our society avoids talking about death, Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End (Virago) may initially be confronting reading, but it soon becomes fascinating. Roiphe’s way of understanding death is to investigate six prominent writers – Susan Sontag, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas (above), Sigmund Freud, James Salter and John Updike – their final months and days, and the manner of their dying. We speak of death as like a curtain, but really it is a cliff face, and in our society its presence is removed from the centre of society, despite its ubiquity in films and the media, sealed off hermetically in hospital rooms. Roiphe suggests that this remoteness does enhance its fascination, while at the same time its unfamiliarity breeds discomfort. She says that her investigation is less about ‘wisdom’ and more simply about confronting a fear of death.
Updike is the only one here with a conventional religious faith, if we can put it that way, growing up Lutheran and spending most of his life as an Episcopalian. Roiphe, while not antagonistic, admits she simply doesn’t get religion and finds it hard to understand Updike’s approach to death, which he calls an ‘adventure’ (a description echoed by Maurice Sendak, below) and about which he writes a final book of poems after learning of a fatal diagnosis. Roiphe is honest about her puzzlement over Updike’s mix of sincerity and irony towards his faith, a mix that many of faith will recognise (even though those without religious faith may find this at odds with a simplistic picture of what faith entails) and that is also to be found in one of Updike’s favourite writers, Kierkegaard.
Roiphe shows how these writers tended to confront death in their works and contrasts Sontag, who clung desperately to life, with Sigmund Freud, who calmly documents his demise as he would a patient’s, and Updike, who tells his wife emphatically that he is ready to go. Then there is Dylan Thomas who although, famously, in his poetry, was to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, seemed to rush headlong towards it via his drinking. Roiphe decides that his marital problems had a lot to do with it, and she opines that in the midst of such woes, sometimes ‘death does not seem like an unsensible solution’. Roiphe is sceptical that we can properly prepare for death, and that may be true, but some of the writers here show that we can go a certain way towards it.