I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.
Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.
Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.
Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.
Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.
Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.
This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.
If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.
The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.
The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”
The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.
A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.
I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.
To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.
Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.”
That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.”
Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine.
With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.
Could anyone keep up with the Hitch? Was there another writer on the planet who could churn out a few essays, dispatch a book review, quell a bloated pastor, give a lecture in New York, get beat up by fascists in Beirut, and still find the time (and stamina) to empty a bottle or two — before getting down to do some serious work?
I ask because in practically every tribute printed in the days and weeks after Hitchens’s death last year, a prodigiously long lunch in the late writer’s company was dimly recalled, and the attendant week-long hangover spoken of in hushed tones of corporeal humility. To wit, Hitchens’s friend Christopher Buckley:
One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
The poet Craig Raine:
I stayed with him in Washington when he was married to Eleni Meleagrou. I was reading at the Library of Congress. As Eleni and I were having tea, Christopher came in, fresh from California, reeking of fags and booze. He had been debating with Alexander Cockburn. “Drink?” I said I never drank before a reading. “Gosh,” he said and poured himself a big brandy and Campari. For the next two hours, he put it away. Then we went to the Library of Congress. Afterwards we went to several bars. By 1 a.m. I was speechless with drink and Hitch was in spate…I don’t remember going to bed. I got up at 7 and found my way to the bathroom, wary as a seal, in case my headache exploded. Hitch was in his study, at his desk, a glass of brandy and Campari to hand, a cigarette immolating itself in the ashtray. He was writing a piece.
And finally the writer Benjamin Kunkel:
“An orange juice,” I said to Hitchens in the Old Town Bar, where when I arrived he’d been amiably baiting an occasional cartoonist for The New Republic. “I’m just getting over the flu.”
“Fuck off!” he replied — he later wrote a paean to the expression for Slate — and ordered me a Johnny Walker Black […]
I emerged from the Old Town Bar in a barely ambulatory state, Hitchens and I embraced each other on a street corner like parting lovers, and we never saw each other again. I asked him once if I could use his name in a pitch I wrote as a young freelancer on the make, and he said by all means: “May you flourish!”
You get the picture: a lunch with the Hitch was an unforgettable honor for which, if you couldn’t keep up (and who could?), you paid the price. This was his public image: the long-lunching orator, the scotch-swilling scrivener, the fag-smoking provocateur. After paying Hitchens a visit in Washington D.C. in 2006, the Danish journalist Martin Krasnik confessed to feeling almost physically in love with his host. I know the feeling: I met Hitchens at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. Filling in for Sherman Alexie, Hitchens had jetted up to New York from D.C. to deliver the Arthur Miller Lecture in Cooper Union’s Great Hall (the same venue where, two years later, I was lucky enough to attend Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for him). After a typically engaging talk, and an equally entertaining on-stage conversation with Salman Rushdie, Hitchens milled about among fans and friends off-stage. I caught him there and introduced myself. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I quivered. “If you say so,” he quipped. I went on to explain that I was from Denmark and wanted to thank him for his very vocal support of the Danish cartoonists back in 2006. He leaned in and put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let them fuck you around,” he said, before wandering off.
As an orator and rhetorician, the Hitch was notorious. Martin Amis recalls that when he was in Cyprus to be best man at Hitchens’s first wedding in 1980, he would spend his mornings decamped by the pool, whereas Hitchens would often show up in a suit and announce his immediate intention of going to the bar to find someone to argue with. “Ideally my day will include at least five arguments,” he told Martin Krasnik. It was a compulsion, as the proliferation of Hitchens’s appearances on political talk shows and news hours in the last decade of his life showed. There he was — debunking the inflated achievements of crooks like Jerry Falwell, picking fights with pious men of faith, or calling for the arrest and trial of war criminals like Henry Kissinger. (Once, as Kissinger was delivering a lecture in Pittsburgh, Hitchens used a fellow journalist’s press pass to enter an auditorium and heckle the audience with cries of “Toads! You’re all toads who’ve come to listen to a toad!” before getting himself thrown out by security guards.)
Despite these shenanigans, Hitchens was inspired and formed by his descent, in the early 1970s, on literary London, where he met a glittering generation of fellow English writers — novelists, essayists, poets, playwrights, journalists — with whom he formed lifelong friendships based on mutual admiration and a shared brew of private jokes and word games. It was there in the pubs and bars and editorial offices that Hitchens first got a whiff of his career as a political man of letters. As he tells it in Hitch-22:
If ever anyone was “hooked,” it was me. The network of streets and lanes and squares roughly between Blackfriars Bridge and Ludgate Circus and Theobalds Road and Covent Garden had me in thrall. So they do still, in their way. This was the district that stretched from the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkwell Green to the British Museum Reading Room where the old boy had done his best work. Extending itself a bit to the north and colonizing Charlotte Street up to Fitzroy Square, it became the area where Anthony Powell had located some of his more louche scenes of pre- and postwar literary interpretation. Looping around itself and doubling back via Shaftesbury Avenue, the neighborhood might be said to “take in” Soho, with its little grid of streets and alleys, containing the offices of Private Eye and New Left Review, and then Gerrard Street, now “Chinatown,” in which Dr. Johnson’s “Club” of Burke, Gibbon, Reynolds, and Garrick had met (and near the corner of which I was later to take my last glimpse of my mother). In these and other purlieus was manufactured the journalistic small-arms ammunition that was to be hurled against the gigantic (but inaccurate and poorly commanded) batteries of Fleet Street’s Tory newspaper establishment, located farther east as a sort of bulwark to the City of London.
Since his death, people have wondered why Hitchens never wrote a novel. After all, he was a great lover of fiction and poetry who for many years reviewed books regularly for The Atlantic; and as the passage above illustrates (though I’d like to quibble with the word “purlieus”), his command of prose was something worth envying. But the consensus among his friends — the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in particular — was that sitting alone by yourself conjuring up imaginary people and events was not something that suited Hitchens’s temperament: he wanted to be near the action, on the front lines, fighting in the streets. They might have added that a novelist, in order to just sit there all day, must be tirelessly self-conscious. The interior life (the novelist feels) is where the real action is; everything outside of that, everything beyond the fictional, is somehow not enough. As Martin Amis puts it in his memoir Experience, real life is “thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…”
Christopher Hitchens was not this kind of writer; he rarely sallied forth into the realm of the personal. Even his memoir Hitch-22, with the exception of the moving and painful portraits of his parents, is less a memoir than it is a tribute to his vocation, and to the many people he met pursuing it (he was a great teller of anecdotes). Put it like this: the Hitch was not a subject of urgent interest to the Hitch. Everything else was. In the foreword to Unacknowledged Legislation, his formidable and essential collection of essays on “Writers in the Public Sphere,” he claimed for himself Orwell’s desire to “make political writing into an art.” And just to illustrate his success in this regard, let’s take a gander at the final paragraph of his book on Orwell, Why Orwell Matters (2002):
If it is true that le style, c’est l’homme (a proposition which the admirers of M. Claude Simon must devoutly hope to be false) then what we have in the person of George Orwell is by no means the ‘saint’ mentioned by V. S. Pritchett and Anthony Powell. At best it could be asserted, even by an atheist admirer, that he took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief. It may also be hoped that, to adapt the words of Auden on the death of Yeats, Time itself deals kindly with those who live by and for language. Auden added that Time ‘with this strange excuse’ would even ‘pardon Kipling and his views’. Orwell’s ‘views’ have been largely vindicated by Time, so he need not seek any pardon on that score. But what he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.
The critic James Wood read this passage aloud at Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for Hitchens, and justified his selection by claiming that, like all good criticism, this bit was really about the critic himself.
Detractors of Christopher Hitchens might want to keep that passage in mind as they go about their business of reproaching him for his “views” on, for instance, the war in Iraq. You could disagree with those views, like his close friends Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie did, but the principle of anti-totalitarianism on which those views were founded seem to me worth a good deal of respect, and even admiration. In any case, a man who wrote so well and so thoughtfully, and with such Hazlittean “gusto” — his words, in writing and in speech, had that “double relish” — cannot easily be reduced to the summation of his political views, which often contradicted themselves anyway. James Wood wrote of Orwell not long ago that “contradictions are what make writers interesting. Consistency is for cooking.” The same applies to the Hitch: as Martin Amis pointed out in his eulogy at the Memorial Service, Hitchens was so argumentative, was such an auto-contrarian, that it often seemed as though the only person he thought it worthwhile to argue with was himself.
The diagnosis of esophageal cancer in June 2010 forced self-consciousness on Hitchens. The product, Mortality, a slim but courageous volume of dispatches from “the land of malady” originally published in Vanity Fair, came about reluctantly. In a moving afterword, Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow, tells us that “the first time Christopher went public and wrote about his illness for Vanity Fair, he was ambivalent about it. He was intent on protecting our family’s privacy. He was living the topic and he didn’t want it to become all-encompassing, he didn’t want to be defined by it. He wanted to think and write in a sphere apart from sickness.”
The delightfully Hitch-like solution is to treat his illness as he would any other subject: with verbal flourish and twanging wit. “I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation,” he writes of his diagnosis, “taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.” And though this new land is “quite welcoming in its way,” it has its predictable lacunae of comfort: “the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.”
True to character, and as though his superb mental acuity were impervious to incorrigible bodily decline (made throat-cloggingly visible by the book’s author photo), Hitchens artfully cleaves his way through thickets of illness-related delusion. He dispenses with self-deceptions and “facile maxims” shortly after his diagnosis (one of his last articles was a tear-up of Nietzsche’s claim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) and, like J.P. Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne — a novel Hitchens admired — refuses the false comfort of religious belief to the very end: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
Best of all are the jibes and swings that illuminate the many ironies of the illness business. While at a hospital in Texas, for instance, Hitchens persuades the chaplain’s department that it is “slightly idiotic not to boast of a thirteenth floor but instead to skip from twelve to fourteen.” He even proposes a “cancer-etiquette” book after a tiresome encounter at a book-signing (a female reader, mistakenly assuming that Hitchens is interested in her cousin’s diagnosis with cancer, frustrates the author and the many other people in line to get their books signed). “I have hardly been reticent about my own malady,” Hitchens allows. “But nor do I walk around sporting a huge lapel button that reads, ASK ME ABOUT STAGE FOUR METASTISIZED ESOPHAGEAL CANCER, AND ONLY THAT.”
There is so much to admire in this short volume that, paradoxically, you occasionally forget it was composed en route to death — so coolly does Hitchens face the approach of his own end. I for one find such acceptance of death incomprehensible (when I have a cold, I lay sniveling and whining in the fetal position for a week, calling piteously for refills of Nyquil and whisky), and stubbornly share Nabokov’s urge to “take my rebellion outside and picket nature.” But to think seriously or at length about one’s death — well, as Philip Larkin put it: “it rages out / in furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.”
Larkin also said that courage is no good, yet the moral import of Mortality is precisely the courage displayed by Christopher Hitchens as he fought, not against the cancer (he knew he was dying: “the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five”), but to keep writing for as long as it was mentally and physically possible. Being brave lets no one off the grave — but Mortality, as an act of writing, is an act of defiance.
Defiant unto death: how suitably Hitch.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The streets of Boston call out for tales of explorers and settlers — especially the streets surrounding Harvard Square. Even though the cobblestones of the colonial era are now paved over, the promise of settlement and self-improvement is evident everywhere. The buildings set in copper-colored brick that manage to be both imposing and cozy and the pastoral setting within Harvard Yard carry with them the promise that education transforms environment. By entering the sacred ground of the university, you are entering a realm where books, information, can make the difference between a mediocre present and an extraordinary future. It’s interesting, therefore, with so much mythical promise in its most famous institution, that so few narratives about Harvard have ever been told from the non-elite, unassimilated experience.
Such a void is, finally and wonderfully, filled by Andre Aciman’s brilliant new novel. Harvard Squareis a novel of education and isolation, sad and funny and sure to provoke nostalgia for anyone’s college years. Though the narrative is framed in flashback, the majority of it takes place in the late 1970s, as our unnamed narrator, a Jew from Alexandria, struggles to complete his PhD in English literature at Harvard. (Aciman shares much of his narrator’s backstory.) He has already failed his graduate exams once, and though he wishes to complete his degree and become a professor in the States, he finds himself easily distracted by the lives around him, the neighbors he meets but dares not befriend, and the many beautiful young students to whom he’d never utter a word. While poring over his books at Café Algiers (a Middle-Eastern coffeehouse in Harvard Square, a real institution to both students and locals), he meets Kalaj (short for “Kalashnikov”), a hot-tempered, passionate cab driver from Tunis with a rapid-fire wit and temper, coming out in streams of French, Arabic, and English, depending on how much coffee or wine’s he’d had.
And what a figure to follow when you feel all alone: with Aciman’s florid descriptions and sharp, vivid dialogue, Kalaj quickly becomes the most compelling American cultural critic since Alex Perchov in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Kalaj criticizes everything about American culture, lambasting everyone for being “jumbo-ersatz,” all artificial, worthless, and consumed in bulk. And yet Kalaj is not a naysaying Bartleby, but rather possessing of a keen wit and a charisma that puts everyone around him to shame. The narrator is immediately drawn to Kalaj as his brother in unassimilated arms, except that Kalaj expresses himself in all the ways the narrator thinks he cannot. He may not have a degree, or even a full-time job, but he’s not a phony. “He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned. He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone. I tolerated everybody without loving a single one.”
In a neighborhood of overeducated elites, Kalaj is the wise fool whose skills can’t be learned by going back to Widener library. Kalaj knows how to win arguments, find cheap booze whenever necessary, make a fun afternoon on a few dollars, and most importantly, how to bait women, to pick them as if in a game of penny poker. With Kalaj, “seduction was not pushing people into things they did not wish to do. Seduction was just keeping the pennies coming. If you ran out, then, like a magician, you twirled your fingers and pulled one out from behind her left ear and, with this touch of humor, brought laughter into the mix.” Kalaj scoffs at the lauded literary history of Massachusetts, the art of leaf peeping, the isolation of Walden Pond. He finds beauty, and pleasure, in engaging with his fellow immigrants, in debating at Café Algiers with the narrator about woman, music, wine, what makes a man a man. Café Algiers becomes, in Kalaj’s words, Chez Nous, a respite from the university just a few streets away. “It was not always easy to step out of Café Algiers after such an interlude in our imaginary Mediterranean café by the beach and walk over to Harvard,” the narrator recounts. “But, on those torrid mornings with the blinding sun in our eyes, it seemed constellations and light years away.”
And yet the narrator never gives back to his teacher Kalaj — for, like all students, the teacher is merely a footnote in the greater education. While Kalaj’s charisma drives the story, Aciman gives us almost no details about what Kalaj wants except to impart his own wisdom; we only know him by what he means to the narrator. Kalaj drives his cab around Boston, clearing enough money to keep the nights at Café Algiers going, yet he pursues nothing permanent — even after the narrator sets him up with an adjunct professor gig teaching French at Harvard, he eventually argues himself out of the position. All the while, the narrator fears being found out for clinging to Kalaj as a convenient friend, a fellow immigrant in a strange town, making “fallback fellowship in a fallback city filled with fallback lives.” The narrator switches codes constantly, between touting his Harvard pedigree to attract potential girlfriend, and committing Kalaj’s philosophies of seduction to memory. Kalaj’s curriculum cannot be reconciled with the narrator’s professional goals. After breaking up with a woman he’d just begun to love, the narrator wonders:
Why had I even started with her? To be with someone instead of no one? To be like [Kalaj]? Or had I already always been like him, but in so different a guise that it was just as easy to think us poles apart? The Arab and the Jew, the ill-tempered and the mild-mannered, the irascible and the forbearing, the this and the that. And yet, we came from the same mold, choked in the same way, and in the same way, lashed back, then ran away.
In this friendship, simpatico and yet fundamentally unequal, Aciman has built a bildungsroman on what a university education might mean: equal parts lazy-day reading on rooftops, fevered debates in crowded cafes, one-night stands and unkept promises, half-learned lessons in masculinity, both academic and anarchistic. It should be no surprise that the novel is not called “Harvard,” but instead takes its name from the slightly larger realm of the square itself, encompassing both the academy and its side alleys. And Aciman seems to understand this better than anyone: that wisdom might be sought anywhere, so long as the mind is impressionable and there are long, argumentative, passionate teachers to hold forth. I had plenty of terrific professors in college, but never one quite like Kalaj, and upon closing Harvard Square, I had to wonder if I was at fault for never seeking out the teachers whose office hours were harder to find.