Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

To Die and Go We Know Not Where

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

To Die and Go We Know Not Where

Article excerpt

Six authors have been plucked from the crowd to discuss a topic few want to face, says Sunny Singh

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

By Katie Roiphe Virago, 320pp, £16.99 and £12.99 ISBN 9780349008523 and 8516 Published 5 May 2016

In art as in life, and since time immemorial, we humans have confronted yet failed to answer some basic questions: what is death? What does it mean to die? Is there a good or perhaps even a right way to depart from life? And perhaps more practically, at least for the living, what does it mean to grieve for the dead?

In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe, an eminent American provocateur, attempts to confront these questions through a seemingly forensic examination of the final days of six writers: Susan Sontag (pictured above), Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter.

Roiphe claims that she "picked people who are madly articulate, who have abundant and extraordinary imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into a way that most of us can't or won't". She briefly mentions the writers she could have chosen - but didn't - careening wildly from Honoré de Balzac and Franz Kafka, past Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Christopher Hitchens and Primo Levi. However, there is no explanation of why she chose these writers, beyond some inexplicable whimsy.

Despite this authorly caprice, some familiar archetypes appear: Sontag the fighter, Freud the stern analyst, Thomas the voracious devourer of life hurtling towards death. On occasion, Roiphe offers beguiling detail: Sontag's son racked with doubt over his dying mother's wishes; Thomas lying bloated in a hospital bed, his passing watched by New York's literati; the pettily cruel competition - so familiar even to us lesser mortals - between Updike's wives, even at his death bed. …

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