Morbid from an early age, I have an extensive library of books about death, from the medical to memoirs. Dr Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die is the gold standard if you are curious about what happens to the human body in a number of typical death scenarios such as cancer, old age, a stroke and a heart attack. The undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch writes extremely well about the business of burying, remembering and mourning the dead. Of more recent publications, I didn’t much care for Christopher Hitchens’s characteristically belligerent deathbed essay, but Philip Gould’s When I Die was clear-sighted and brave. Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from a brain tumour, was deeply affecting and beautifully written. Fascinating though these accounts are, this spring I moved the entire death section onto a little-visited shelf on the back staircase. I didn’t think I’d be consulting these volumes again, at least for a while.
The reason? Last year I finally got round to reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. After this, there’s really no need to read anything else about the Reaper. It’s no surprise, then, to find that two of the six writers whose final days are examined in The Violet Hour