STARRED REVIEW
March 2016

How literary greats cope with life’s end

By Katherine Hill
Review by
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.”
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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.

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The Violet Hour

The Violet Hour

By Katherine Hill
Scribner
ISBN 9781476710327

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