Panache to Burn: Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22

August 30, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 3 7 min read

The word is out – Christopher Eric Hitchens, 61, lifelong litterateur, pamphleteer, bon-vivant, journalist, polemicist, iconoclast, “anti-theist,” author of over a dozen celebrated, debated, loathed and admired works of non-fiction, including a freshly published memoir, is dying.  The news has traveled pretty widely and quickly, which is perhaps a sign of something encouraging: we are often told that literary culture is eroding from indifference.  Indifference, thankfully, isn’t something to worry about when Hitchens is concerned.  I am struck by how many of the reviewers of his memoir begin by “declaring an interest” – sort of a “before we get started, here’s my tale of the Hitch” type thing – and, as a devoted fan, it’s very heartening to find that they are often stories which are gracious and agreeable.  It takes a certain kind of person who can be interviewed about his chemotherapy, looking about as good as could be expected, and still have his colleague and interviewer describe the hours spent together as “delightful.”

coverHitchens is and has always been the kind of writer who, when considered, seems to demand that one take sides – pro, con, either way works fine, provided there’s no squeamishness or side-shuffling, moral or otherwise.  This could be just as fairly said for any polemicist from the sublime (say, Cornel West) to the squalid (Glenn Beck), were it not for the fact that even his enemies would admit that at least he knows whereof he speaks.  And then there’s the fact that this love it, hate it, dialectical standard (the Hitch-22 of the title) has pretty much been his modus operandi for a little over sixty years. Hitch himself has written about being annoyed with the boredom and anomie of his demise – you’ve got to admire that kind of stoic panache.

Well, for one thing, Hitch has certainly always had panache to burn.  Delving into his memoir as a fan and admirer many things are apparent, not the least of which the fact that the man has done some living.  Even a cursory glance registers a life about as examined as it gets: the traveling (several dozen countries and not a few war zones), the friends (Amis, Rushdie, MacEwan, and that’s just the inner circle), the output (two biographies, pamphlets, several large collections of decades of material).  If anyone has the right to consider his time not wasted, it’s Hitch.  What of his memoirs, then, his own recollections and ruminations on his years of travel, disputation, omnivorous reading and relentless writing?  As a devoted fan, I have to say that the usual standard of writing is there, as is the wit and the incisive participation within the roil of history, but I regret to say that some of what might make his memoir truly outstanding is somehow obscured.

coverI come to praise Hitchens and not to bury him, so I’ll start with the strong points.  First of all, Hitchens is an annotated man.  Naturally, none of us are without our orbiting texts, especially in a postmodern world, endlessly obsessed with referents and signs and coded histories.  Hitchens, however, has the unique ability to accomplish what some philosopher claim is the greatest accomplishment of all: to make one’s life, by living, into a work of art.  His annotations come alive.  At certain points, Hitchens denies any real talent for fiction writing.  He’s too modest – the portraits he draws of his stern, repressed father and his vivacious yet gradually desperate mother are done in loving, honest, moving detail.  And as he begins to take you through the various episodes of his life, his introduction to Orwellian thought-crime in English boarding schools, watching and participating in glorious, sordid hackery in the pubs of Fleet Street, first seeing America through the eyes of a coast-to-coast bus trip, literally standing side by side with Salman Rushdie through the ordeal of the fatwa, you begin to feel like you are in the grasp of a fine novel.  There is more than a little resemblance to Bellow’s Augie March, for whose 50th anniversary edition he provided an introduction and who remained a favorite writer

Hitchens’ Bellovian ability to not only remember the many people he meets but to give them back stories and tasteful daubs of prosaic color are intriguing, even when one isn’t necessarily up on his 20th Century labor history.  A friend of mine has been reading it on his iPad, with automatic Wikipedia at his fingertips for every proper noun, the better to get instant précis on the large and detailed ensemble cast.  The footnotes are rich with anecdotes with a snap and shine all their own.  In one chapter on his time in Argentina he not only describes the horror and sheer brutality of its fascist regime but also sees fit to include a lovely, illuminating account of a visit paid to none other than Jorge Luis Borges himself, the master of the Aleph.   What a novelist he might have made!

One thing which is unavoidable when talking about Hitch is the fact that for him, the political is personal.  Not in the way people generally mean it – in fact, Hitch pours scorn on the kind of thinking which leads people to say “Speaking as a _____, I feel that…” and assume this is a kind of argument, or moral position, since it is after all merely a recitation of external properties: skin pigmentation, ethnic heritage, sexual identity, whatever.  It might sound a bit grizzled or cranky to make the counter sally about how it’s not what you think, but how you think that matters.  For Hitchens, what he does on the world stage, the causes he supports and the principles he holds, are a part of not only participating in the perpetual movement of history but also of being fully engaged in the world – honestly, critically, challengingly.  It’s his way of taking things to task. After he attends to the burial of his mother, in Greece, during a coup against the U.S. backed government, he throws himself into covering the chaos and miasma for his newspaper.  After he buries her, he makes sure to put flowers on the grave of George Seferis, the poet and national hero of independent Greece.  One personal tragedy is a small parallel to a larger, national loss.  For all his bravura and outspokenness, his opinions are not made of idle boasting.

A very pointed and revelatory moment in Hitch-22 is when he remembers what thrill it was, as a Socialist of a very specific kind (with a term for it all its own – the noble name of soixante-huitard, or 68’er) to see that the newspaper he reads along with everyone else is revealing what his own dialectical education and critique has been arguing all along: revolutions in Europe, the miasma of Vietnam, assassinations, civil rights, Cuba, torture by an ostensibly Labor government, yes, the times, they sure are a’changin’.  It seems almost quaint these days, when we no longer seem to believe in grand narratives or in revolutionary change, but Hitch is very comfortable in laying down the line:

I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries, to experience a furious disillusionment with “conventional” politics.  A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think.  My reply is that you should fucking well have been there and seen it for yourself.  Had the study of life and literature and history merely domesticated me to waste and betray my youth, and to gape at a spectacle of undisguised atrocity and aggression as if it should be calmly received?  I hope never to lose the access to outrage that I felt then.

He never has.

Many reviewers seem to have given a bit of the game away by offering too much of his- and the book’s- biographical heft.  I’d rather not do so, if you’ll excuse me – it’s well worth referring you straight to the source.  Hitchens is quoted often enough in the world of politics and letters but it’s usually he who is best suited to telling his own story – surprisingly not always the standard for writers.  He was born into a somewhat frustrated lower-middle-class British military family, left to deal with the remnants of an England which had suffered and survived the Second World War with honor and fortitude, only to find that there wasn’t much to celebrate within the rubble.  As an American, I was heartened to see how the country he discovered, traveling through it as a young man in the 60’s and 70’s, still seems, after the syrupy nostalgia of a boomer generation’s endless and self-congratulatory revisiting of it, exciting and fresh and endlessly innovative.

covercoverIronically, what Hitch-22 lacks is what one would think a memoir might really consist of: what Carl Jung referred to as “memories, dreams, reflections.”  So much of his writing is of world-historical importance; everything political he’s done because it was something he knew he could not keep silent about.  I find this admirable in many ways. The problem for a long time reader is that Hitch-22 re-evaluates the issues (Iraq, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall) which have engaged him (and us) for a long time.  But when the issue at hand is still pretty fresh, as in the war on terror, it becomes a little redundant.  I sort of understand why he had to explain- again – how he made such a dramatic turn in leaving his decades-long post at The Nation, to find new allies to more fully give his support to the Iraq War.  As a person who happened to oppose the war and is also an abiding Hitchens fan, I salute and respect his gutsy moral fervor.  What I didn’t need from his memoirs is yet another explanation of his relationship with the likes of Ahmed Chalabi and Paul Wolfowitz.  The case could easily be made that to hear his memoir is to hear the story of his intellectual development, thus, all the pages about the war are just as important as everything else.  Fair enough.  But it stands to reason that any interested reader might be fully capable of pursuing Hitchens’ voluminous writings on the matter (The Long Short War, roughly a third of the collection Love, Poverty and War, innumerable pieces in Slate as well as many other places) pretty easily.  A reader of a memoir might be more inclined to want to know a bit more about what makes the man himself tick.  I don’t want to sound like the over-bearing, ugly American in insisting on this but it’s a lot of pages on something which is, in Hitch’s moral universe, very much a covered topic.

What we don’t get too much of is some of the more universal human events: very little on his children, for example, or the experience of falling in love.  He’s been married twice, both times in very long and apparently complex relationships.  It’s not a craving for gossip which makes one feel a bit let down that we can’t have Hitchens writing with his usual scholastic aplomb about these kinds of moments.  We do get some very enjoyable tales of word games with his friends: having Martin Amis and Rushdie coming up with dirty limericks or substituting words in song titles for playfully obscene lingo is great and all, but there have to have been more interesting conversations to recount than just that.  One gets the feeling that Hitch is holding back a bit too much.  When we are privy to some of his private reflections, the effect is devastating.  A section of the Iraq chapter, previously published in Vanity Fair, contains a very true and profoundly tragic story of a soldier who was inspired to go to Baghdad in part because of reading Hitchens.  He attends the burial at the invitation of the family and reads Shakespeare over the grave.  This is Hitchens at his best – politics is never just an abstract concept or a trend, it is a way of life and – sadly all too often, of death.  If there were any doubts about his commitment to the former in the face of the latter, this book can dispel them.  It’s very much to be hoped that he can continue to keep his, however much of it he has left.  We need more of him.  Here’s hoping that he can manage to stick around long enough to continue to give as much as he can.

is an editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baffler, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and other places. A longtime resident of Boston, he has recently moved to New Orleans.