Katie Roiphe is a well-known essayist often appearing in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other literary journals.
Her latest book looks death straight in the eye, describing the departure from this life of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and writer-illustrator, Maurice Sendak, with an epilogue based on a conversation about death with the 89-year-old novelist, James Salter, who died shortly after.
I was expecting a harrowing, depressing read, but death is not necessarily a depressing subject.
Sontag, who wrote Illness as Metaphor while being treated for an aggressive form of breast cancer, claimed her closeness to death made her feel giddy and invigorated, and that having been close to death and not dying left her feeling “fantastic”.
Roiphe’s chosen subjects are so interesting, and her writing so spare and polished, that her clear-eyed account of how five very different writers faced their end is both fascinating and thought-provoking.
Roiphe begins by describing how her experiences as a 12-year-old, hospitalised with pneumonia and a 107-degree fever, prepared her for this task: “In intensive care there are tubes or snakes in my arms; there are good and evil nurses. An intern sticks a needle into an artery to measure my oxygen levels. In the next bed a baby’s heart stops. This is when I start writing this book.”
The most dramatic piece is the account of Susan Sontag’s third and final brush with cancer. Sontag used her considerable intellect and ferocious willpower to fight her illness against all odds and win.
Her 1978 book, Illness as Metaphor, got rid of the prevailing myth that some people had “cancer personalities” that made them prone to the disease.
When Sontag was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1998, once again she became an expert on the condition, actively pursued aggressive treatments, and once again won her battle.
As Roiphe comments, this victory over death reinforced Sontag’s lifelong idea of herself as exceptional, and it is the path she chooses to take with her third cancer, myelodysplastic syndrome, a virulent form of blood cancer.
Her doctors understand they are dealing with an exceptional woman, but even she begins to have doubts as it becomes apparent the treatment is affecting her mind. Between the excruciating pain and the painkillers, the legendary willpower is eroded, and her friends gather as the inevitable ensues.
Freud died in 1939 from a particularly painful form of mouth cancer, but refused to take any painkiller stronger than aspirin.
He said: “I prefer to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly.”
He had written and thought about death more than most, and knew when the time came. His doctor had instructions to administer morphine when Freud admitted he could no longer carry on, and his end was quiet and dignified.
Dylan Thomas’s story is a contrast. His last chaotic binge featuring 18 whiskeys has been written about so often it is hard to imagine anything more can be said. But by putting it in the context of his earlier life, Roiphe sheds new light.
She shows, through looking closely at his poetry, that his life had been dominated from an early age by a heightened fear and apprehension of death which, she claims, mysteriously turns into a craving for it, hence his self-destructive behaviour.
John Updike, who died of cancer at 75, wrote poems as he was dying. Roiphe gives a sympathetic account of Updike’s philandering, which leads to awkward scenes as his first and second wife and two sets of grown-up children gather at the bedside.
I liked the quote from David Foster Wallace (himself a suicide at 46): “Updike persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair.”
This stimulating, wide-ranging book is full of such nuggets.
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