How five artists dealt with that carriage that kindly stopped for them.
In this absorbing and affecting book, Roiphe (In Praise of Messy Lives, 2012, etc.) chronicles how Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak dealt with what Freud called the “painful riddle of death.” She chose them because she always “felt some heat coming off their writing.” The last thing Sontag wanted to do was die. She was ferocious in her fights against three cancer attacks. She finally succumbed to cancer of the blood but not before enduring as a last resort great suffering and pain from a blood transfusion procedure using near-lethal doses of chemotherapy. She didn’t die; she just wore out from trying so hard to live. Roiphe notes that her hospital rooms always looked like her office at home. Freud approached his impending death from necrosis in his mouth, brought on by years of smoking his beloved cigars (he never quit), with a scientific stoicism. He finally gave up, and his private doctor performed euthanasia. Updike had been writing about death (and sex) since he was young; he often had death panics. When he accepted the fact that his lung cancer would kill him, he turned to poetry, urgent to finish Endpoint. “If style could defeat death,” writes Roiphe, “Updike would have.” Ferociously alcoholic, Thomas turned his preoccupation with death into ragingly beautiful poetry. His death at 39, Roiphe writes, was “both a great shock and utterly anticipated.” Sendak, who kept Keats’ “original death mask” in a guest room, was also obsessed with death and, Roiphe notes, wrote about it constantly in his books. He died at 83 from a stroke. As he told one interviewer: “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” An epilogue about James Salter, who died just before Roiphe finished her book, completes this beautiful and haunting work.
Never overly sentimental, this is a poignant and elegant inquiry into mortality.