I wasn’t going to bother with Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, because I read some excerpts in the Sunday Times and they were all about him and Martin Amis, displaying the laddish side of Hitchens which I don’t like. I don’t like Amis much either, as his prose is always turned up to eleven, with full strobe lighting, so after a page or two I want to hide in the chill out room.
However I picked up the book, and found that like most things by Hitchens it was hard to put down, though very uneven. It isn’t so much a womb to cancer-ward autobiography as a series of essays. The one on Amis is a gushing eulogy on his brilliance and way with words even including this paragraph on Amis’s attempts at political polemic:- (p167)
I have often thought that he would have made a terrifying barrister. Once decided on mastering a brief, whether it be in his work on nuclear weapons, the Final Solution, or the Gulag, he would go off and positively saturate himself in the literature, , and you could always tell there was a work in progress when all his conversation began to orient itself to the master-theme. (In this he strangely resembled Perry Anderson, the theoretician of New Left Review . . . ) Like Perry, Martin contrived to do this without becoming monomaniacal or Ancient Mariner-like. There was a time when he wouldn’t have known the difference between Bukharin and Bukunin, and his later writing on Marxism gets quite a few things wrong. . . His labour on the great subject of Communism is also highly deficient in lacking a tragic sense, but he still passed the greatest of all tests in being a pleasure to argue with.
If I was in the dock, the thought of Martin Amis defending me would have me sweating with fear as I anticipated the size of my cell and the nastiness of my cell mate, and would develop into the kind of terror that empties the bowels as the judge made scathing remarks on how the barrister for the defendant seems to be reading his brief from an auto-cue. Amis’s writings on nuclear weapons and Stalin are those of a smart sixth former who has swotted up the subject for a week or two to meet an essay deadline. That is sheer indulgence from Hitchens, and the same goes for the pages about the word games he and his mates played at their Friday lunches. The mates are great talents – Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Clive James, Julian Barnes – but you end up knowing them less and liking them less. There is no perspective on them, and this is from a writer who could give you in a page a sharp vignette of a terrified North Korean official, shaking with fear when asked an unscripted question.
These word games are like the doings of lovers – enjoyable for the participants, but no-one else wants to hear about them. He says that they help to put on intellectual muscle, but it’s possible to think that they encouraged a tendency to meretricious juggling and pyrotechnics – words for words’ sake – that you get from Kingsley Amis at his worst, Clive James rather a lot, Hitchens himself too much and Martin Amis everywhere.
His account of his parents are him at his most sensitive and serious. Hitchens is a good literary critic and with his full heart and brain he reads his parents closely, the low-spirited father, the lively mother, then like a good literary critic he steps back and sees them in their historical and cultural context. His mother, the life-force, gasping in dull English provincial towns, socially ambitious for him and also wanting a bit of fun and dancing, his father, the Commander, once a naval officer in World War II, bitterly disappointed with the Britain that was not a meritocracy for the likes of him but a plutocracy that was destroying much what he valued. Both are tragic figures – his father who felt that his dutifulness was unrewarded in work or marriage, his mother because of her frustration and ultimate suicide. Except for the suicide, this is the every day tragedy in George Eliot or George Gissing, that of unfulfilled lives.
No-one could say that of Hitchens’s life. He hardly mentions his wife, Carol Blue, but whenever he refers to her dry wit and understatement I wish I was having a drink with her this minute. She’s also clever, glamorous and beautiful, so like this as in many things, Hitchens has had a best of times, doing the work he loves and has a talent for, with a host of friends and a place in the heart of things.
His has been the intellectual rock-star trajectory, as typical of its time as practising chords for those with musical ability and then heading up from the dirty clubs to the stadiums. It’s the Byronic swagger of our day, and you would have to be a leftist saint not to envy it. At Oxford, Hitchens was getting the political gigs and his first proper shag was with a groupie who had pinned photos of him on his wall. For a full analysis of his place in the left political scene, I would read Andrew Coates’s piece here.
So what got him into left wing politics? A sense of economic injustice doesn’t seem to have been the driving force and he says of his mother’s sympathy towards his activism (p18) : “Her politics had always been liberal and humanitarian, and she had a great abhorrence of any sort of cruelty or bullying: she fondly thought that my commitments were mainly to the underdog.” It’s been the chance to bring down the overdog that has fuelled Hitchens, whether the British foreign minister that he and his activist chums shouted down at what was supposed to be a debate at Oxford or Saddam Hussein with his Neronian excesses of vanity and creative cruelty. He wants to topple these people from their high thrones, and he admires anyone whether it’s an American grunt or a Kurdish nationalist who will put their lives on the line to do so.
Like other British rock stars he eventually broke America and indeed fell in love with it, aligning himself with its government’s actions after 9/11. The big story about Hitchens is that of his changing sides from the polemicist who damned the First Gulf War to the polemicist who ardently supported the invasion of Iraq, to the point of accusing all those who opposed it as fellow travellers of clerical fascism. (For analysis of this and how it could lead him into misrepresentation for the sake of partisanship, read Guttenplan’s excellent piece in The Nation). Hitchens wanted effective action.
He says in his chapter, Mesopotamia from Both Sides (p311):-
I never quite lost the surreal sense that I had become in some way a pro-government dissident and that of all the paradoxes of my little life, this might have to register as the most acute one. But it was the demonstrators in the streets. . . who struck me as the real conformists of the scenario. Accused of becoming a sell-out by working for the interwar Yugoslav republic Rebecca West’s guide. . . Constantine in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, confesses that, yes: “For the sake of my country, and erhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.” I, too, began to find that I could see things from the point of view of the governors and that I was on the side of those striving to build up a new state in Afghanistan and Iraq. In any case, the opponents of the war were themselves aligned with the view of other governors and states, many of them much more smelly than George W. Bush.
In Hitch-22 there are other pieces of interest eg his version of how he and Said fell out and some gossip about Gore Vidal. Except for the pieces on his parents it’s not Hitchens at his best. On the whole, I don’t think he is up there with Swift, Hazlitt, Cobbett, and Orwell as one of the great English essayists and polemicists. We’re reading and quoting Orwell sixty years after his death and I can’t see that happening with Hitchens. But he is cleverer and wittier than most, and it’s a bad blow that it looks like his writing career is going to be cut short. His recent piece on his own cancer is as fine and vivid as anything he has done.
The saddest thing about Hitch-22 is the book jacket. This shows a flattering picture of him, handsome face, high intellectual forehead surmounted by a very full rug for a man of his age, the whole decorated with a curlicue of smoke from the fag in his fingers, in an irresistible combination of brilliance and loucheness. Then I look at the photos of him after the chemo, hair gone and cancer-aged by ten years and I want to cry.