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The Violet Hour

posted on 02 Dec 2017

The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe

I must admit, when I read Roiphe’s introduction to The Violet Hour, my heart sank. There was something over-personal about it, solipsistic even, that I wasn’t prepared for. I liked the idea of approaching great writers through a sort of reverse biography – an examination of their final days and their deaths, with the aim of seeing how this might illuminate their lives – but I wasn’t convinced that Roiphe’s own childhood illnesses, nor the surgery this necessitated, nor the death of her father (a secret smoker, it seems) necessarily gave her special qualification to consider the deaths of others.

But I put these concerns aside and pressed on. And I’m glad I did, because Roiphe’s meditation on six great writers at the end of their lives – Susan Sontag, Freud, Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter – is a beautifully written and humane book, probing and revealing but somehow not intrusive (or at least, never cruelly so). She is sympathetic to weakness and fear, but critical when she needs to be, sceptical for instance of any signs of special pleading or hypocrisy on the part of her subjects – and this is perhaps especially the case with Susan Sontag, clearly Roiphe’s heroine, and the essay which opens the book and to a large degree sets its intellectual tone.

Of course, you might think that you would get the same experience from reading a biography of each of the writers concerned, but this isn’t quite the case. For having decided on her subjects Roiphe then combed their work, their letters, journals, manuscripts and papers, to find out what they themselves had said or thought or written about death. Wherever possible she interviews those who were close to the writers to see what they bring to the subject. Did they embrace death? Did they rage against the dying of the light? Did they die with the courage with which they had lived?

Personally, I found the book fascinating and moving, although I do think some essays were better than others – which is to say, I think some were better choices than others.

The weakest in my view were Dylan Thomas and the final essay-cum-epilogue on James Salter. The strongest, the most moving and the most illuminating were Susan Sontag and Freud. Sontag, because of her unparalleled determination to live, her conviction that there was a treatment, no matter how gruelling, that would save her – surprising, given all she herself had said and written about illness and the need to face it with rationality and clear-sightedness rather than metaphor and banal clichés. And Freud, because his wry stoicism is so pungently present – his heartbreak when his beloved dog will no longer come near him because of the smell of death from his cancerous jaw; his description of using a clothes-peg to pry open “the monster” – the cumbersome prosthetic palate he had to wear – so that his jaws would accommodate a large cigar. Smoking cigars was “the sin” that was killing him – but without them life was worthless. “The organism,” he said, “wishes to die only in its own fashion.” He also refused any painkillers other than aspirin saying that he preferred “to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly”.

The one that shines the brightest light on the writer’s work, I think, is the essay on Sendak. For the first time I fully appreciated the degree to which death and a fear of death and loss and loneliness permeate (or are smuggled into) his increasingly complex and sophisticated illustrations. I also found the sharp, economical descriptions of Sendak’s unorthodox ‘family’ fascinating – his partner Gene; Lynn, his housekeeper, companion, confidante and lifelong friend; and Jonathan, the son of Gene’s best friend, who fell into their lives “in the manner of a character in a Sendak book” and to whom they became father-figures.

In a letter to a friend Sendak once said that bereavement would be “a terrible strengthening”, and that perhaps more than anything else is what this book is about: the terrible strengthening that the death of loved ones both offers and requires of us. If The Violet Hour does have a failing it is that it doesn’t cover enough writers. But then there will almost certainly be a second volume. After all, why stop? Death doesn’t.

You’ll find the book was previously mentioned by Letterpress HERE, with a link to The Atlantic website and a lengthy extract from the piece on Sendak.

Alun Severn

December 2017