Literary Quote of the Month

“For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences,” … Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Memoir Monday and... The Violet Hour: Great Writers At The End by Katie Roiphe


From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter—an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.

In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates the last days of six great thinkers, writers, and artists as they come to terms with the reality of approaching death, or what T. S. Eliot called “the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”

Roiphe draws on her own extraordinary research and access to the family, friends, and caretakers of her subjects. Here is Susan Sontag, the consummate public intellectual, who finds her commitment to rational thinking tested during her third bout with cancer. Roiphe takes us to the hospital room where, after receiving the worst possible diagnosis, seventy-six-year-old John Updike begins writing a poem. She vividly re-creates the fortnight of almost suicidal excess that culminated in Dylan Thomas’s fatal collapse at the Chelsea Hotel. She gives us a bracing portrait of Sigmund Freud fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna only to continue in his London exile the compulsive cigar smoking that he knows will hasten his decline. And she shows us how Maurice Sendak’s beloved books for children are infused with his lifelong obsession with death, if you know where to look.

The Violet Hour is a book filled with intimate and surprising revelations. In the final acts of each of these creative geniuses are examples of courage, passion, self-delusion, pointless suffering, and superb devotion. There are also moments of sublime insight and understanding where the mind creates its own comfort. As the author writes, “If it’s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it?” By bringing these great writers’ final days to urgent, unsentimental life, Katie Roiphe helps us to look boldly in the face of death and be less afraid.


There have been numerous "death and dying" memoirs lately; When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande to name just two. Here comes another book on "death". The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe has gotten wonderful reviews: "Profound", "Poetic", "Tender", but still I hesitate to add this to my own TBR list. Am I tired of reading about "death" no matter how beautifully written in can be? I offer this in Memoir Monday because it has garnered wonderful reviews. Published by The Dial Press at the beginning of March. I still might add this to my wish list.

1 comment:

thecuecard said...

It does sound like an interesting book. I wonder a bit what she says in the book about James Salter. Hmm. You're right there seems quite a few memoirs on dying these days. I think I want to read Paul Kalanithi's book first before any of the others.

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