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

Overview - From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter--an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.  Read more...

In Stock.

This item is Non-Returnable.
FREE Shipping for Club Members
> Check In-Store Availability

In-Store pricing may vary

New & Used Marketplace 64 copies from $2.99

This item is available only to U.S. billing addresses.

More About The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe
From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter--an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.

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

This item is Non-Returnable.

  • 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

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Literary Figures
Books > Literary Criticism > General
Books > Psychology > Grief & Loss

BookPage Reviews

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.


This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews