John E. Branch Jr.'s Reviews > Hitch-22: A Memoir

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
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Sep 18, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir, autobiography
Read from June 18 to July 23, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

When I began freelance copyediting at Vanity Fair in 1999, Christopher Hitchens was one of the two contributors I most esteemed, the other being James Wolcott, and they’re still my two personal favorites. Until this year, I had read only one of Hitchens's books, God Is Not Great, and for some reason I wondered, despite the evidence of many of his columns, whether personal history was really one of his greater skills. Now I know it is. And I doubt whether he has any “lesser” skills.

In writing one’s memoirs (and despite the subtitle this could really be called Hitchens’s “memoirs,” in the sense of an autobiography), it helps to have lived an eventful life, and there Hitchens has it made. As his title indicates, there’s been a Heller-like catch in his pursuits, a dichotomy that has been a dilemma. He has felt himself equally drawn to activism and contemplation, politics and pleasure; one could even schematize the twin poles of his life as ethical and aesthetic activities. The result could have been a form of dallying in two directions, but Hitchens, who seems to have been blessed with boundless energy, commitment, and curiosity, has managed to pursue both poles wholeheartedly. Even circumstance provided him with what amounts to an advantage from the standpoint of having a tale to tell, though it’s not the kind of advantage anyone would choose. He was born to a military father and a mother who, it turned out, had romantic inclinations; after she ran away with a lover, things went bad, and she committed suicide. As for his own accomplishments: Hitchens worked himself into the PPE program (studying philosophy, politics, and economics) at Balliol College, Oxford, where he sharpened his speaking skills in Oxford Union debates. He graduated and went up to London in the early 70s, and a pattern begun at Balliol was soon firmly established, of avid reading and literary conversation (accompanied by such pleasures of the flesh as drinking and smoking) alongside political journalism and action. The latter was no home-precinct engagement but led him, for some years under the banner of International Socialism, to scenes of oppression, ferment, or revolution in much of the Western world, Africa, and the Middle East. (Wikipedia reckons the total is more than 60 countries.) He moved to the United States in 1981 and decided to take up citizenship here during the middle 00s, giving him in a sense two homelands. He even discovered along the way that, thanks to a detail his mother had concealed, he was Jewish, which made him, as he wrote in the late 80s, a nonbelieving member of two churches.

This is not to mention any of the figures he encountered, disputed with, befriended, and sometimes more. Of the immense cast populating his pages, an assortment that comes quickly to mind are Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Thatcher (who spanked him), Michael Chertoff (who was the head of America’s Homeland Security Department when he played a role in Hitchens’s naturalization ceremony), Salman Rushdie (whom Hitchens sheltered for a while during the earlier days of the price on Rushdie’s head), and Edward Said.

So much for events and persons. What matters more in the reading experience is not the who and what, when and where. A worthy life might still be lived in the shadows of a country churchyard; Emily Dickinson rarely left the house. Hitchens has it harder in a way; visiting a fair portion of the Western world and its near neighbors, and ranging through much of Western culture and its neighbors, as he has done, presents an organizational challenge when one comes to tell the tale. His approach, roughly chronological, is mainly sorted by subject and theme. (The strategy is transparent and simple, but worth noting by anyone interested in the art of writing. Nothing wrong with beginning at the beginning and proceeding from there as long as one knows what one is about.)

So in a couple of chapters, “The Fenton Factor” (for poet James Fenton) and “Martin,” Hitchens conveys much of what now counts as his earlier life, in London. One prize here is the “Friday lunch,” which took place from the mid-70s through the early 80s among friends and colleagues such as poet Clive James, historian Robert Conquest, and novelists Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, and occasionally Kingsley. The group was once somewhat feared and resented as a kind of literary mafia—“we were believed to ‘control’ a lot of the reviewing space in London”—and is still something of a legend. Their gatherings read like great good fun, with the usual quotient of word games, very smart silliness (limericks both serious and scatological), and flashes of wit: “Of an encounter with some bore with famous halitosis Clive once announced ‘by this time his breath was undoing my tie.’” While it’s partly true, as Hitchens guesses, that one had to have been there, most scribblers among his readers (myself included) will have been part of a similar circle in lesser realms and will know what it’s like. We don’t need to have been there; we simply wish we had been. Here, as throughout the book, one also finds Hitchens’s facility with an snappy allusion, such as this, which works almost as well without knowing the Joseph Losey film behind it: “Clive had given up alcohol after a long period of enjoying a master-servant relationship with it, in which unfortunately the role of the booze had been played by Dirk Bogarde.”

Later chapters deal with a period of travel, his move to America, Rushdie, some personal matters, what he calls “the Jewish question” (actually more than one), and Said, before concluding with some more recent issues and thoughts, among which Hitchens’s discussion of his mortality tidily sounds again a note from his opening. Hitchens is aware of what lessons might be drawn from his work—one of his roles in life is teaching, and besides, as he recounts here, a young American man who had taken to heart Hitchens’s writings on Iraq died not long after in Iraq—and if he didn’t choose this straightforward structure with any sort of instruction in mind, it’s nonetheless a model one could really follow, whereas some great memoirs are nothing of the kind. No matter how much one might admire Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, hardly anyone could or should attempt to imitate it. But let me turn again to the nitty-gritty. Where Hitchens is most himself and most inimitable has nothing to do with the start-to-finish outline of his text, all to do with how he fleshes it out.

* * * *

As I think over the book some weeks after completing it, a handful of qualities in his writing and his personality come to the fore, along with the temptation to reread the entire thing. More is worth mentioning than I can easily address, so let me choose four features. The texture of his tales has been partly suggested by the Friday lunch, with its fellowship of fine minds. Quick character sketches are another part of that texture (and another model of their kind), which I leave readers to find on their own.

A random example of Hitchens’s capacity for synoptic judgments is Alexander Solzhenitsyn. What I remember now, from somewhere in the provinces, is hearing him highly praised while The Gulag Archipelago was coming out and a good deal less of any kind about him later (until his 1994 return to Russia), though I did eventually learn of something new in his views. Hitchens knew early on about that other side. He mentions in a section placed somewhere in the mid-1970s—that is, possibly before Gulag had even completely arrived in English—that “for all his indomitable moral courage Solzhenitsyn had already begun to show signs of being an extreme Russian nationalist and partisan of religious orthodoxy.” If you need one sentence as a précis of what you could learn about that titanic but peculiarly Russian figure, this is probably it. (In case it matters, Hitchens’s indexer overlooked the very footnote I just quoted, which also mentions Orwell, yet some other notes were indexed.) As another instance of the same kind of pith, another comment found on the same page demands its turn: “Enver Hoxha of Albania, possibly the most Aztec-like of all Europe’s remaining Stalinists.”

For an instance of the temper of his thought, consider this, from “Thinking Thrice About the Jewish Question…” (the ellipsis is his): “I think I have a very good idea why it is that anti-Semitism is so tenacious and so protean and so enduring. Christianity and Islam, theistic though they may claim to be, are both based on the fetishizing of human primates: Jesus in one case and Mohammed in the other. Neither of these figures can be called exactly historical but both have one thing in common even in their quasi-mythical dimension. Both of them were first encountered by the Jews. And the Jews, ravenous as they were for any sign of the long-sought Messiah, were not taken in by either of these two pretenders, or not in large numbers or not for long.” What little I know of memetics—the study of memes—tells me that the idea of anti-Semitism must offer something pretty potent to its adherents; perhaps Hitchens has hit on what it is.

Another good instance, an idea that Hitchens drew from a friend, but one he adopts and elegantly elaborates in (presumably) his own terms, comes from the same chapter. “Suppose that a man leaps out of a burning building … and lands on a bystander in the street below. Now, make the burning building be Europe, and the luckless man underneath be the Palestinian Arabs.” Again, I leave it to readers to find how Hitchens works this out; there are conditions and complexities to the matter.

An episode from 1989 involving Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, and the views of Edward Said dramatize the Hitchens approach to loyalty, in a section discussing friendship. Amis, who had arranged a visit to Bellow, had warned Hitchens not to turn the talk “toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” What happened was that a single issue of Commentary, headlined “Edward Said: Professor of Terror,” lay on view all evening, and during dinner Bellow suddenly broached the subject of anti-Zionism, quoting from what Hitchens calls the magazine’s “very coarse attack on Edward.” Hitchens calmly explains: “Bellow didn’t know that I was a close friend of Edward’s. But Martin did. Thus … I couldn’t allow him to see me sitting there complicitly while an absent friend was being defamed.” That’s the crux. As Hitchens writes, “if Martin had not been there, I might have held my peace.” But if he did so in Amis’s presence, “For all he knew, … I might even let the cock crow for him.” So Hitchens said a few words, which Bellow little minded, but which ruined the amity that Amis, “my very dearest friend,” had taken pains to establish.

Voltaire supposedly said that he might disagree with what someone has to say, but he would defend to the death his right to say it. Declarations like that are easy. Normally there’s no question of dying (and one recalls that Voltaire managed to reach old age); one faces instead these smaller, trickier dilemmas. Preserve the peace you know your friend wants, or let him see you fail to defend someone with whom he knows you disagree? (As this chapter on Said makes clear, Hitchens strongly differed with him on other points.) Though Hitchens’s account makes it hard to doubt his choice, there are those who’d take a different line, and who might advance sensible-sounding reasons for it. This matters because, as he says, “there are other allegiances that can be stress-tested in comparable ways.” I know whom I’d want as a friend.
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message 1: by Lukasz (new)

Lukasz Pruski Well, I have always known I must read Hitchens, but now I really know I do :) OK, as soon as I finish my silly Nicolas Freeling Project, and when the intersession comes. I am ordering the book.

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