Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
Few matters of great political or cultural import have escaped the lacerating gaze of journalist, columnist and author Christopher Hitchens over the past four decades. British-born and Oxford-educated, and now a United States citizen, Hitchens has worked as a foreign correspondent and contributor to publications including The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair and Slate, in between producing 11 books (on Thomas Jefferson, Mother Teresa and atheism, among other topics).
His turn of phrase is rightly legendary. He once described Mother Teresa as a “thieving tyrannical Albanian dwarf”, and he is no kinder to the objects of his contempt and dislike in his memoir. His account of a meeting with Argentina’s murderous General Videla is one of Hitch-22’s finest passages: “I possess a picture of the encounter that still makes me want to spew: there stands the killer and torturer and rape-profiteer . . . Bony-thin and mediocre in appearance, with a scrubby moustache, he looks for all the world like a cretin impersonating a toothbrush.”
Hitch, as he is called by those who know him, writes lovingly, almost romantically, of his dear friends the writers Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Peter Fenton – whole chapters are titled ‘Martin’, ‘Salman’, ‘The Fenton Factor’, and the book is dedicated to Fenton.
Though there is no suggestion that any of the friendships have been more than platonic, Hitchens is frank about the commonplace nature of homosexual encounters in British boarding schools, and his own participation in such adventures, having been dispatched to prep school at the age of eight: “The three great subjects of Beating, Bullying and Buggery are familiar enough to me in their way . . . “, and of the latter, “[t]he unstated excuse was that this was what one did until the so-far unattainable girls became available.” In the end, though, Hitchens concludes that the entire schooling experience was emancipatory, and in fact, the whole book, with one notable exception, is suffused with a sense of his appreciation of life.
Parts of the book are somewhat sluggish – I could have done without quite such an exhaustive recollection of his worthy experiences as a young political activist in Europe and Cuba – and the level of detail in relation to his public life, and his friendships, serves to highlight what is starkly absent from Hitch-22: any account of his relationships with his first wife or his current wife, the writer Carol Blue, or with his three children from the marriages. He explains this away, rather weakly, in a preface, where he notes that he can claim copyright only in himself, so as to imply that he lacks the right to share his family’s stories. But then, he calls it a memoir rather than an autobiography, so fair play.
(In a cogent review in the Guardian, Blake Morrison points out that Hitchens’ objective is intellectual historiography rather than emotional catharsis, which I think is on the money. He has never been one to talk about feelings.)
One aspect of his private life from which he doesn’t flinch is the suicide of his mother, Yvonne, when he was 24 (the aforementioned exception). It occurred as the result of a pact with her lover, with whom she had fled to Greece after the breakdown of her marriage to Hitchens senior, a Royal Navy man referred to by his son as The Commander. In the opening chapter, which bears her name, he movingly describes his last conversation with her and his journey to Athens to deal with the aftermath of her death. Characteristically, this is followed by an intellectual examination: ‘A Coda on Self-Slaughter.’
All beloved Hitchens topics are canvassed – atheism, God, Islam, his conversion from Trotskyism to conservatism, his support for the Iraq War, the Jewish Question – in service of a text that, depending on the depth of your existing knowledge of Hitchens may not greatly enlighten you as to the man, but will certainly leave you more informed than you found it.
4.5 / 5 stars: A rich romp through the mind and memories of one of the intellectual heavyweights of our time.
There is a sad addendum to the publication of Hitch-22: while on tour in the United States in June to promote the book, Hitchens fell seriously ill and was shortly after diagnosed with oesophageal cancer – the same disease that claimed his father’s life. In subsequent interviews, and in this extraordinary piece on vf.com, Hitchens has indicated his condition is terminal, though he may have up to five years to live. There is no sign that he feels sorry for himself, though; he said in an August interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that his long-time heavy smoking and drinking – the cover of my copy of Hitch-22 features a close-up photo of the author mid-cigarette – made him a “candidate”. On a lighter note, he instructed Cooper to disbelieve any rumours he might hear of deathbed conversions.