The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe – review

This study of six great authors and their approach to death teems with detail but somehow misses the mark

Katie Roiphe began writing The Violet Hour, her sixth book, when she was 12 years old – or at least, that was when the thread of the idea burrowed its way, wormlike, deep inside her head. She was then gravely ill, so unwell with pneumonia she was coughing up blood. Was she dying? She believed that she was. Waking up from a long operation during which half of one of her lungs was removed, a nurse told her sternly she was too old to call for her mother, and in a way, perhaps this was true: old in mind, if not in body. During this period, she remembers, she liked to read books about genocide: Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, firsthand accounts of what happened in Armenia under the Turks.

And now, 35 years on, here it is. The thread has been woven into an investigation of mortality as revealed through the lives of six “great” writers. “I want to see death,” Roiphe writes in a strange, half-apologetic prologue to a book which is itself rather strange and apologetic. But to be clear: when she says “see”, she has in mind shelves rather than hospice beds; novels and poems rather than monitors and morphine. Her subjects are Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter, names she chose mostly by instinct: “I’ve picked people who are madly articulate, who have extraordinary and abundant imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words – and in one case images – in a way that most of us can’t or won’t.”

Those who think of Roiphe as one of the most dazzling writers around (I am one) will perhaps be surprised to find such a deficiency in her – and by the way she seems to acknowledge it. The Violet Hour is written in short paragraphs that float in white space. Sometimes, this lends them a lyrical, meditative, even prayerful quality. At others, the reader has the sense that for all her reading, their author remains uncertain, floundering, unable wholly to marshal her thoughts.

Each of her writers has a particular response to the approach of death, with the exception of the novelist James Salter, whom she met at his Long Island home when he was still very much alive, and who told her – this took her aback – that at 89 he didn’t often think of it. (Salter died of a heart attack in 2015, by which time she’d finished her book; his late inclusion in it seems mostly to be – this isn’t exactly a criticism – a tribute both to him, and to the thrill she felt at the afternoon they spent together, during which, simply by having agreed to the encounter, he gave her book his approbation.) Sontag, who had survived cancer twice before, did everything in her power to beat off the disease a third time, choosing a course of treatment her son, David Rieff, described as “torture”. Freud, on the other hand, continued to smoke (he had throat cancer) but refused painkillers, wanting to be able to “consider and analyse what remained to be considered and analysed”.

John Updike also worked at the end, turning “pain into honey” with a book of poems. His deathbed personality was cheerful, drollness being, as Roiphe puts it, more important to him than air; but when a clergyman telephoned him, his gratitude – “I loved him, bless his hide” – was undercut by the knowledge that a priest’s wares only really make sense to “the terrified”. Dylan Thomas, in New York and on a bender, did not rage against the dying of the light, so much as rampage: in the days before he finally drank himself to death, he took Benzedrine that he might stay up a little longer; he also went to a party with whose hostess he had sex upstairs, even as his mistress drank gin and tonic below. Finally, there is Maurice Sendak, who was obsessed by death, but who also, Roiphe believes, found it beautiful. He drew those he loved as they were dying. If this sounds strange, Roiphe understands: in writing her book, she believes, she is doing something not dissimilar.

But is she? One of the striking things about The Violet Hour is the frequency with which it veers from its ostensible subject. Roiphe’s 2008 book, Uncommon Arrangements, examined literary marriages, and in this study, she often returns to such territory, putting aside her stethoscope and setting instead about her subjects’ relationships with a scalpel. Her technique is never anything less than insightful: as the all-powerful Sontag fades, David Rieff has, she writes, “the slight air of being crown prince to a country that has suddenly and inexplicably gone democratic”. But it seems, sometimes, to belong to another book. It also throws up some odd effects.

Roife’s passion for these writers – the clue is the word “great” in her subtitle – means that she loses her distance. I can’t account for the way she seems to take against John Updike’s second wife, Martha; it’s as if Roiphe is jealous of her. Connected to this is the fact that only one of her subjects is female. No one goes to Roiphe, a contrarian and plain speaker to her marrow, for political correctness, but The Violet Hour often reads like a book about gods and their willing handmaidens. In her desire for intimacy with these literary masters of the universe, she forgets (or ignores) context, too. Where is the war in all this, and the Holocaust? (Many of Sendak’s extended family died in the camps.) What about Sontag’s stay in Sarajevo while it was besieged?

The quality of her noticing is undimmed. So, too, is her way with quotation; no one raids the jewellery boxes of other writers with so sharp an eye as the magpie Roiphe. On every page, she turns up something interesting, lets in some astonishing shaft of light. Her writing is elegant, cool, unforgettable. Once you know that Susan Sontag chose to have Leonard Woolf, of all writers, read to her as she lay dying, that John Updike plotted Couples in church, or that Maurice Sendak kept photographs of the body of his partner of 50 years, you can’t ever forget it. But still, I put down her book with the feeling – how to put this? – that she had blinked, that her ordinarily fierce heart had at some point grown faint. In her epilogue, she writes of being ambushed by the beauty she found in these writers’ deaths: “There is something glorious in the conflagration of everything at the end.” This, I think, is a falsehood: a consolatory lie, but a lie nevertheless. What’s on the page, and what’s in the room aren’t at all the same. Those who have watched someone die will know. It really isn’t pretty.

The Violet Hour is published by Virago (£16.99). Click here to order a copy for £12.99


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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