Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is Love Bomb. She teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University in Camden.
W . B. Yeats famously declared that “only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind: sex and the dead.” Journalist Katie Roiphe has already said plenty about sex. In books like “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism,” she has helped shape the discussion about current sexual mores and politics. In her meditative new book, “The Violet Hour,” she turns her attention to death — in particular, to the deaths of six famous writers.
As a child, Roiphe was obsessed with death. In fact, she argues that all writers share a mix of fear and fascination about the mystery of mortality. “The Violet Hour” asks whether writers’ fluency with language and their acuity of perception buy them more conscious, meaningful ends. With varying degrees of success, the writers chronicled here tried hard to shape their deaths in ways that accorded with their personal narratives.
Roiphe begins with Susan Sontag, who, having lived through cancer once, was sure she could beat it again. Sontag seems to have been stuck in the denial stage of bargaining throughout her grueling and ultimately failed treatments. Roiphe documents how those around Sontag propped up her conviction about her specialness. Demanding, imperious, mercurial, Sontag is not particularly appealing in this portrait, although Roiphe clearly admires her ferocity about writing as long as she could.
None of the writers Roiphe chooses for these tableaux is a failed one or an obscure one. They all enjoyed the privileges of success and fame. Their specialists came to their houses. Sontag was flown to Seattle for one set of experimental treatments in a private plane. When the poet Dylan Thomas, in the United States for a lucrative reading tour that produced adoring audiences of thousands, fell into a coma, his mistress politely vacated his hospital room so his wife, rushed there from London, could sit at the foot of his bed and rub his feet.
Thomas’s attitude toward death was the opposite of Sontag’s. She hoped to conquer it; he seemed to have chased it, embracing the picture of himself as a tortured poet racked by consumption. “He harbored many romantic mythologies about the frailty of his constitution,” Roiphe reports. “He certainly liked the theater of sickness, the staginess, the attention it brought him, and later the excuses it provided.” Whether he drank himself to death, with the 18 whiskeys he bragged that he downed on top of near-pneumonia, is subject to debate. But there’s no doubt that the author of “Do not go gentle into that good night” had been rehearsing his dramatic end for many years, even clowning at dinner parties about his imminent suicide.
The other writers whom Roiphe discusses — Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Maurice Sendak and James Salter — occupy different points on the spectrum from denial of death to courtship of it, from control to abandon. Freud, inventor of the controversial theory of the death wish, famously refused to give up smoking, even after brutal surgeries for mouth cancer. Roiphe theorizes that the smoking was “the one anarchic thing he did” in a life so staid and bourgeois that it embarrassed him, given how strongly his work focused on libido. Freud seemed intent on dying with dignity, fully aware. He pretty much managed it. So did Updike — continuing to write with great intensity, remaining free of self-pity and cordial to his visitors. Updike’s conviviality stood in direct contrast to the behavior of his second wife, who jealously guarded his time, even, heartbreakingly, limiting visits by his children and grandchildren from his first marriage in his final days.
Some of the most riveting anecdotes here are about how these writers managed to inspire such dedication from their helpmates. Despite his wanton overspending and his many infidelities, Thomas’s wife would feed him in bed when he was hung over — cubes of bread soaked in milk, just like his mother used to do. Sendak, suffering from depression and anxiety, had crippling panic attacks when his lifelong maid, cook, chauffeur and everything-else, Lynn, dared to stay out past 11 p.m.
Roiphe provides no interviews with psychiatrists or hospice workers about methods of facing death. “The Violet Hour” doesn’t really make an argument about ways to die (although most of us would probably choose to be Salter, with his clean, efficient heart attack shortly after his 90th birthday). Instead, the book is a series of impressions and observations, sometimes gossipy, sometimes gently ruminative. She doesn’t even proceed chronologically from diagnosis to last breath. Indeed her stories dart all over the place, from the writers’ childhoods to the present. Except for some puzzling tense shifts, the episodic structure makes sense; if there is an overarching theme in “The Violet Hour,” it’s that death never comes in a straight line, no matter how hard the writers try to exit with a “graceful bravura.”
Roiphe is moving and insightful about these artists’ late works. Sendak feverishly drew right until the end. When Updike ruefully told his wife that he thought he was done writing, she pushed him, “Just one more book.” And he did complete his rapturously elegiac collection of poetry, “Endpoint.” If Freud is right that “every one of us is convinced of his own immortality,” Roiphe proves to us that writers chase immortality the hardest of all.
By Katie Roiphe
Dial. 306 pp. $28