In his acclaimed poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas exhorts us to resist death when it comes knocking, to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ But did he take his own advice? We find out in The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe, a curious and captivating look at the end days of five famous writers, namely Dylan Thomas, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Maurice Sendak, and the seemingly inextinguishable Susan Sontag. Selecting writers who she feels were ‘especially attuned to death,’ albeit in extremely different ways, Roiphe considers whether their personal insights can bring us consolation and courage.
It’s been said that Dylan Thomas downed eighteen whiskeys the night before he collapsed into a coma. Having produced a mere six poems in six years, the booze was poisoning the wellspring of his talent along with his failing body. Hurtling towards self-destruction, his apparent premonition of his own death and intense subliminal pursuit of it is pointedly contrasted with a later description of his passing, ‘His body died utterly quiet.’
Sigmund Freud took a less inebriated approach. In fact, even in the face of great physical pain, he refused painkillers, on the grounds that he needed to consider and analyse his own death. ‘I prefer to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly,’ he said. Done for by his beloved cigars, Freud had developed terminal throat cancer. His cool acknowledgment of oncoming death was matched by the need to control all aspects of it, and Roiphe considers whether he achieved this uncommon feat.
Freud’s rational acceptance would have been incomprehensible to Susan Sontag. Diagnosed with cancer three times throughout her life, she fought each battle tooth and nail, her determination to stare down death becoming part of her legend. Sontag described it as intoxication. ‘Dying is an amazing high,’ she wrote, always confident of being able to return from the brink.
Her fierce resolve to be victorious over death contrasts sharply with John Updike’s decision to turn it into poetry. A famously autobiographical writer, Updike’s last months were spent sharing his experience with his readers. As Roiphe says, ‘If style could defeat death, Updike would have.’
Maurice Sendak however, believed that the Grim Reaper had walked beside him his entire life, his obsession with death reflected in the shadows of his artwork. The beloved illustrator owned John Keats’ original death mask and liked ‘to stroke the smooth, white forehead.’ Drawing his family members as they lay dying, Sendak felt that death was ‘a friend waiting for him.’
Finally we meet James Salter, at this point 89 years old and approaching the sunset of his life, his wise words and equilibrium confirms Roiphe’s hope that her book invites the reader to ‘look at a death and be less afraid.’
With death as companion, foe, and uninvited guest, this beautifully written and researched book shows us the unique nature of each passing.
Complement with Dylan Thomas’s sonorous recital of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe is published by Virago, 320 pages.