[Dial Books; 2016]
Death-lit isn’t a niche section in a bookstore, anymore: it’s moved to the front. Both books by and about the dying have proliferated in the past decade, and this is the generous territory that Katie Roiphe dives head-long into with The Violet Hour, a book which traces the last moments of her favorite writers: Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, Maurice Sendak, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and James Salter. It’s an elegant book: thoroughly researched, elliptical, and lyrical. It is also very frustrating.
Roiphe is a steely writer. When she writes admiringly of James Salter that “he does seem to have a tiny sliver of ice in his heart in the best possible way” it’s hard not to be reminded of her own writing: if Salter has a sliver of ice in his heart, surely Roiphe has a cork. She approaches death with conservative resolve: her humor is dry, her language clinically precise. Every detail matters. When, after pages of careful appraisal on her subjects, she tosses in a visual rolodex, it’s a visual so taut and beautiful that it seems to exhume: John Updike out of breath from playing winter kickball with his grandchildren, or on the beach with his new wife, dusk-swept and leaning in for a kiss above the inaudible clink of paper cups.
When Updike was in bed dying from lung cancer, Roiphe writes, his wife Martha considered giving him a Hérmes scarf, but opted to instead give him The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. It’s an ungrafted anecdote, the kind of poetic detail that Updike himself might have included in one of his Rabbit books: a whisper, a hint at the invisible and pragmatic (or unpragmatic) reorderings made necessary by death. Roiphe writes later that Maurice Sendak was devoted to his dogs, but when Lynn Caponera — Sendak’s caretaker and companion — offered to bring his beloved German Shepherd, Herman, to the hospital, Sendak refused. This is when she was sure he was near death.
The absent scarf, the absent dog — these are the kind of granular details that makes Roiphe’s research so dazzling: omission, in the moments preceding death, holds fragile court alongside inclusion.
Writers spend their whole careers in various refractions of death, so they make an obvious subject for a book about death. The clues that Roiphe chooses to examine, though, are never very obvious. Her pacing is at once calculated and subtle: in the essay about Dylan Thomas, his most famous and baldly death poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into The Good Night,” is not mentioned for the first 22 pages. When she does finally mention it, she skips the grade-school exegesis about grief and turns the tables, describing, instead, how it sounds when Thomas reads the poem in his famous brogue: how the words shapeshift from quick, bright rage to “a lullaby, drained of violence.”
With this in mind, Thomas’s relationship with death falls into clearer focus: the infamous (purported) 18 last shots of whiskey he took before he died match the seductive theater that he found in illness and dying. If you’re already disgusted with your body, if it’s already decomposing, why not go ahead and destroy it while you can? Why not dive into the wreck? This doesn’t mean that Thomas lacked the famously-quoted “rage against the dying light” that he’s known for: Roiphe describes how, gravely ill and a few days away from death, he took the hostess of a party upstairs and had sex with her while his mistress continued to mingle downstairs. It’s clear pushback against death, in the same way that Updike long used cheating on his wives as a rote (and unoriginal) way of cheating death. Still, Thomas’ rage is knotted with resignation, and it complicates an ending which, in Roiphe’s words, was “both a great shock and utterly anticipated.”
At some point in reading — most likely in the chapter about Updike — you bump up against the limited parameters of the book. Of the writers featured, five are men and only one is a woman; all of them are white (two are not American). They exist in extremely specific vacuums; this is not a book about death in America. Whose lives resemble the lives of these intellectuals, and whose deaths resemble these deaths? Reading it in a year when it is ever more apparent that black men and boys are routinely shot and incarcerated without reason, living under a very different kind of inevitability, you want some acknowledgement of this. You want acknowledgment that most Americans experience drastically different deaths than those in the book: deaths unattended, isolated, non-ritualized, and often, devoid of dignity. To be able to die on your own terms, and to have the luxury of a lifelong meditation on mortality, is a privilege.
Sontag died a very controlled death, undergoing a series of aggressive and risky treatments during the final stages of her illness. It was a kind of hopeful death, though she would have never used the word hope, since hope implies the possibility of non-hope. She refused to talk about death, to entertain the possibility of it. Even when she is journaling at the age of 16, her tone borders on something beyond teenage arrogance: “How is it possible for me to stop living…How could anything be without me?”
James Baldwin, in The Fire This Time, writes that “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life . . . But white Americans do not believe in death.” Everyone dies, but not everyone dies the same way. To write comprehensively about the shadow that death-fear casts over our lives — e.g., to address mortality at all — you must address this. We may all be afraid of attracting an incurable disease; we’re not all afraid of getting shot for walking down the street. Death may be a blanket condition, but the way we experience mortality isn’t.
Freud also underwent a quietly controlled death, though in a different way. Like Thomas, he seems to almost regard grief as foolish. When his daughter dies in her mid-twenties, he writes to a friend that “We know that death belongs to life, that it is unavoidable and comes when it wants.” His own death is as rational as his writing. “He chose and controlled something most of us are not privileged to choose and control,” Roiphe writes, “He imagined for himself this death.” It’s a slender acknowledgement for a much larger theme — the performed control of deaths — and the book suffers for not having more admissions like it. Sure, art informs the way we live and die, but so does the race, class, and the cultural narrative we are born into.
Shortly before The Violet Hour came out, Lorin Stein praised the book as a “revelation” in The Paris Review Daily, and it’s hard not to think that this is the kind of book intended perhaps solely for a reverent Paris Review-and-chill audience. Roiphe, who has a long-chronicled worship of writers like Salter and Updike, once defended their worldviews in an essay in the Times’ Sunday Book Review, writing “Why don’t we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?”
It’s no knock against Updike, Salter, Sontag, Sendak, Thomas, or Freud that they were able to write and shape their own deaths. It is, however, a knock against Roiphe that in the past she has compared the lust of middle-aged white men with the Wright Brothers, and that this is the kind of limited metric applied to a subject as cavernous as death. The dust jacket promises to “help us look boldly in the face of death” but, after being given a tableaux even less diverse than Mad Men, how could it?
Fiction asks questions; often I read non-fiction in hope that it will answer. As in the hours after death, those left behind must engage in the fond, and often frustrating, potluck business of excavating a narrative — walking around, blindly picking up lemons, sorting through closets, sitting around and retracing verbal clues: he said this because he was hinting, she fed the dog because she knew. It’s a rending and necessary endeavor, this appetite for resolution. Necessary to talk about, and necessary to write about. At her best, Roiphe’s ambition is the most literal (and perhaps literary) form of biography; that which is written “backward, a whole life unfurling from death.”
Dying is clumsy. The cast of supporting characters is often more mundane than biographically glittering: in the moments preceding death, it is the mistresses, the nurses, the assistants who play the most vital and intimate role. Roiphe writes pointedly about the negotiations between Updike’s ex-wife, Mary, and his new wife, Martha (Roiphe might’ve aptly drawn a New Testament parallel to the relatively tender Mary and the uptight Martha, but then again, maybe she didn’t need to—her distaste for the latter is pretty evident) and the awkwardness that Updike felt around his children and grandchildren. There is bumbling: death can be elegantly anticipated but, in the end, it still remains to be met. In the last moments of these intellectual giants, many things are revealing. But that doesn’t mean they’re all redemptive or enviable. I’d hope for the loyalty of some of their companions, but not Thomas’s self-destruction or Sontag’s silence or Updike’s fraught familial relationships.
As a reader, it’s hard to know what the takeaway is. I have — ever since, late in college, when I fell out of Christianity — been bereft of a vocabulary for speaking about death. It’s difficult to read about the subject without trying to paw at some new language. If mortality is not an arm reaching, like Da Vinci’s Adam toward god, then what is it? But Roiphe manages to even dryly skirt the question of an afterlife until the literal afterword of the book. Even then, here is the breadth of that address: “To me, religion has never been consoling.” This is not because all of the writers she is describing are atheists (most, but not all, are), but because she is. All this elegant and meticulous research, and then these moments where you feel cheated by Roiphe, by what she is unwilling to explore. Omission may be dazzling when it comes to details, but not for the big picture. You want the complication of context.
In the last 5 pages, there’s a clipped scramble at resolution. She writes of being touched by the beauty of each of the writers’ deaths. She writes about a “mad love.” It feels half-hearted, though. It doesn’t feel like enough.
Sarah Edwards is from North Carolina and lives in Brooklyn.