Books blog: A holiday read about the fear of death

Dylan Thomas

Some people take weird books to read on holiday. For example, I was in Devon last week with my family and sat on the beach reading a book about death. Specifically, it was titled The Violet Hour, written by Katie Roiphe, and subtitled “Great Writers at the End”. The people selected were Susan Sontag, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, James Salter (someone I hadn’t heard of) and Maurice Sendak, a writer and illustrator of children’s books.

Roiphe does not have a religious mindset and nor do those whom she writes about. That, in a way, was what interested me: how do reflective writers, who are also atheists, prepare for death? It’s a foolish question actually; people generally die as they live. For example, if you are a stoical, cerebral, analytical chap like Freud, you will take these features to your deathbed in Hampstead in 1939 – including enduring 16 years of operations for mouth cancer, while refusing any pain-killer stronger than aspirin.

Dylan Thomas, unsurprisingly for a heroic toper, drank himself into insensibility and a fatal coma while on a lecture tour of the US in 1953. Susan Sontag refused to recognise that her third bout of cancer in 2004 was terminal, and fought death all the way. Interestingly, both she and John Updike read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich on their deathbeds. I read it aged 18, an age when you feel immortal, energised by the paradox of Tolstoy’s marvellously life-affirming creative genius, even as he imagined the internal anguish of a dying man.

Roiphe is honest about her motives for writing her book: to enable her to work through her own fear of death by focusing on “writers and artists who are especially sensitive or attuned to death, who have worked through the problem of death in their art, in their letters, in their love affairs, in their dreams.”

This is a fantasy. No-one ever “works through the problem of death”, whether Christian or otherwise. We all fear this greatest of mysteries. Only faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ can offer true consolation at the end; this is the only antidote to a natural existential dread. In St Luke’s Gospel at Mass yesterday I read Jesus’s words, “There is no need to be afraid, little flock”: perhaps a better message to read on the beach.