‘Something about the way people comfort themselves, or find their way towards peace, is so moving’, says Katie Roiphe. We’re sat in a quiet cafe in Brooklyn, New York. Ethan Hawke is behind us, chatting to a young woman at the bar, and the waitress asks us if we want more tea. It’s sunny outside, but we’re indoors, talking about death. ‘It was a very perverse thing to pick this subject, as everyone’s natural impulse to one extent or another is to run screaming in the other direction from death. So I feel exactly that – I really feel terrified, and the book terrified me even writing it.’
Roiphe is famous for pushing uncomfortable subjects – her 1993 book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus challenged the prevailing feminist panic about date rape and sexual assault among students. ‘I’ve written about marriage, about sex, about all kinds of things you might think are taboo’, she tells me, ‘but this new book is more taboo, the most taboo thing I have ever written about’. Indeed. The book, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, doesn’t just break the taboo of death – death; it spends almost 300 pages dissecting it.
The Violet Hour is as fascinating as it sounds – Roiphe takes six great literary figures and studies their dying moments. She interviewed family members, hospital staff and friends as well as looking at the writers’ own work to retell the stories of their last days. Each chapter looks at a different person: the critic Susan Sontag; the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud; the poet Dylan Thomas; the illustrator and writer Maurice Sendak; and the novelists John Updike and James Salter. Each figure deals with their death differently: Sontag refuses to give up on her chances of survival; Freud refuses to give up the cigars that are killing him; Thomas dives almost headfirst towards his death; Sendak was so terrified of dying alone that his housekeeper listened to his breathing on a baby monitor; Updike continued to write poetry in the face of death, finding beauty in his own mortality; and James Salter, who died shortly before the book was published, gave Roiphe a final piece of advice: ‘We make our own comfort.’ Each story is beautiful, each author fascinating.
Did Roiphe feel this same fascination, this morbid desire to look at death, even if we know it’s going to be painful to do so? ‘We really try hard not to think about the subject. A lot of energy is expended trying not to think about it, but then, at the same time, it’s fascinating. I think that part of the desire to avoid death contains within it this attraction to its study. There was something really pathological about it, and self-destructive.’
‘I wanted to look at modern ways of confronting the idea that there is no afterlife’
But The Violet Hour is not simply about looking at death. It’s a genuine attempt to understand it, perhaps even to accept it, something which, inevitably, is going to be impossible. Choosing writers Roiphe had studied and knew, but had no personal connection to, was part of that process. While attempting to retell their dying moments, Roiphe found that ‘the more I looked into these moments the less terrifying I found them’. Through the process of charting the most intimate part of these people’s lives – their deaths – Roiphe allows herself to come face-to-face with death without having to rely solely on her own personal experience.
However, it was her own relationship with death that finally brought Roiphe to this topic. ‘It was really when my father died that the issue became more pressing’, she tells me. ‘When a parent dies, that confrontation is very powerful, so it awoke all these things that were in my head.’ Roiphe herself was severely ill as a child, and following an acute bout of pneumonia had to have part of her lung removed. The book opens with Roiphe aged 12, in a hospital bed, with a 107-degree fever. ‘This is when I start writing this book’, she writes. It’s significant that she decides to open the book almost with an explanation – an admission of her guilt, the selfish reasons why she wants to look at death. The Violet Hour isn’t an unemotional, distant study of death (who would read that?). No, Roiphe perfectly balances the relationship between her own desire to confront her fears and each particular author’s experiences of that terrible, final hour. At no point does she interrupt; once you are in Sontag’s world, Roiphe doesn’t drag you out of it. Instead, Roiphe begins and ends with a reflection on her own reasons for wanting to study this final taboo: ‘It’s a relief to be able to talk about death. I get letters from people telling me all about their parents’ deaths, because I’m saying it’s okay to discuss what we don’t normally discuss.’