In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates the last days of six great thinkers, writers, and artists as they come to terms with the reality of approaching death, or what T. S. Eliot called the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.
Roiphe draws on her own extraordinary research and access to the family, friends, and caretakers of her subjects. Here is Susan Sontag, the consummate public intellectual, who finds her commitment to rational thinking tested during her third bout with cancer. Roiphe takes us to the hospital room where, after receiving the worst possible diagnosis, seventy-six-year-old John Updike begins writing a poem. She vividly re-creates the fortnight of almost suicidal excess that culminated in Dylan Thomas s fatal collapse at the Chelsea Hotel. She gives us a bracing portrait of Sigmund Freud fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna only to continue in his London exile the compulsive cigar smoking that he knows will hasten his decline. And she shows us how Maurice Sendak s beloved books for children are infused with his lifelong obsession with death, if you know where to look.
The Violet Hour is a book filled with intimate and surprising revelations. In the final acts of each of these creative geniuses are examples of courage, passion, self-delusion, pointless suffering, and superb devotion. There are also moments of sublime insight and understanding where the mind creates its own comfort. As the author writes, If it s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it? By bringing these great writers final days to urgent, unsentimental life, Katie Roiphe helps us to look boldly in the face of death and be less afraid.
Praise for The Violet Hour
A beautiful book . . . The intensity of these passages the depth of research, the acute sensitivity for declarative moments is deeply beguiling. The New York Times Book Review
Profound, poetic and yes comforting. People
Unconventional, engaging . . . The Violet Hour] is at once scholarly, literary, juicy and unabashedly personal. Los Angeles Times
Enveloping . . . I read it in bed, at the kitchen table, while walking down the street. . . . What normal person wants to blunder into this hushed and sacred space? she asks. But the answer is all of us, and Ms. Roiphe does it with grace. Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
A beautiful and provocative meditation on mortality. Minneapolis Star Tribune
A tender yet penetrating look at the final days . . . Roiphe has always seemed to me a writer to envy. No matter what the occasion, she can be counted on to marry ferocity and erudition in ways that nearly always make her interesting. The Wall Street Journal
Here is a critic in supreme control of her gifts, whose gift to us is the observant vigor that refuses to flinch before the Reaper. . . . She knows that true criticism does not bother with the mollification of delicate sensibilities, only with the intellect as it roils and rollicks through language. William Giraldi, The New Republic"
- ISBN-13: 9780385343596
- ISBN-10: 0385343590
- Publisher: Dial Press
- Publish Date: March 2016
- Page Count: 320
- Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.95 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-11-23
- Reviewer: Staff
When acclaimed writer Roiphe (In Praise of Messy Lives) was 12, she contracted pneumonia. This book, she declares, had its origin in the hazy, fever-filled days she spent hovering between life and death. Roiphe explores, through mesmerizing storytelling, how six writersSusan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salterconfronted mortality. Drawing on her subjects writing and on interviews with their friends and loved ones, she relates how they embraced or evaded, made peace with or raged against death. When Sontag receives her breast cancer diagnosis, she steels herself to continue her work. Returning home after deciding on chemotherapy, Updike rests his head on his typewriter, as if resigned to never writing again, until his wife, Martha, says to him, Just one more book. Freud faces his final days calmly, refusing painkillers, as if collecting notes for an essay about his own death. Thomas seems almost to long for death, while Sendak expresses pure terror in his stories and drawings. When Roiphe visits Salter, who died suddenly of a heart attack months after her visit, he tells her he doesnt think much about death. Roiphes riveting profiles reveal a simple truth: each person faces death in a unique way. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME. (Mar.)
How literary greats cope with life's end
Katie Roiphe’s latest offering details the deaths of five major writers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas and Maurice Sendak. Roiphe took the book’s title, The Violet Hour, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” because “the phrase evokes the mood of the elusive period I am describing: melancholy, expectant, laden. It captures the beauty and intensity I was finding in these scenes, the rich excitement of dusk.”
Each section of this elegiac book begins with the image of an empty room. “I very conspicuously do not belong in these rooms,” Roiphe writes, yet she recreates them in piercing detail: the hospital room in Sloan-Kettering where Sontag lay dying of cancer; the empty office where Sendak, in happier moments, drew pictures and whistled operas; Updike’s spare and efficient desk. These writers have something in common with all of humanity—they died. And in their crackling, vivid work, Roiphe finds keys that enable her to approach the mystery of death, although not to unlock it.
The chapters are organized around a moment-by-moment narrative of each writer’s final days. We find out, for instance, that Sontag was grateful for a last haircut and that Sendak ate homemade apple crisp. And that Updike’s first wife, Mary, grabbed his feet through the sheets and held them when she saw him the final time. So while a medical story is being laid out, there is also what Barthes calls the punctum, the evocative detail that elevates the reportage to something more like poetry. As these moments accumulate toward their final, inevitable endpoint, Roiphe takes many tangents to explore the writer’s attitude toward death as communicated through his or her work, which, for all these writers, was the central and most transcendent aspect of their lives.
“It’s all on the page,” Updike said. That may be true, and yet by combining the writer’s final moments of life with what they left on the page, Roiphe ultimately offers us something beyond the work:
a glimpse of death that is startling and new, intimate and uncomfortable, and deeply, deeply human.