Thom Cuell at 3:AM Magazine:
“Either the wallpaper goes or I do.” “A certain butterfly is already on the wing”. “I haven’t had champagne for a long time.” We love to package celebrity deaths up with a final quote, a summing up of the subject’s life and character – a way to process the messiness of mortality into something clean and understandable. In 2016, this year of notable deaths, we are updating the symbolic language surrounding death for the social media age: there is the temporary Facebook profile filter – the digital equivalent of the Victorian widow’s weeds – the hashtag, the contrarian newspaper columnist’s cynical response, the street party. In her new book The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe looks at the reality behind these tropes, exploring the process of death through biographical essays on six writers who were notable for their engagement with mortality: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter.
Each of these writers worked in the shades of the prison-house; as Roiphe describes it, her chosen subjects are “especially sensitive or attuned to death… [writers and artists] who have worked through the problem of death in their art, in their letters, in their love affairs, in their dreams”. Through close examination of their final days, Roiphe aims to find some insight into the way the artist’s mind responds to impending mortality. Underlying her work are the questions of whether creativity can have a palliative function, and whether an artistic engagement with the subject can prepare us for the reality of death. Although fans of Roland Barthes (himself the victim of a bizarre, disputed death, run over by either a laundry van or a milk float, depending on who you believe) might query the close identification between the writer and the work, Roiphe hopes that “it is in the specifics, the odd, surprising details, the jokes, the offhand comments, that some other greater story is told and communicated”.