Jun 06, 2021 - 6 minutes
While I disagree with Chris (he hated this nickname) on some things, I feel like I owe him a review. He bored me with the first half of his book, and so it is only fair that I do my best to carry that punishment forward.
Let us begin with a butt story. Margaret Thatcher once slapped Christopher Hitchens on the butt, calling him a “naughty boy” as she did so. There were many witnesses to the event, according to Hitchens, and to everyone in the room this public bum-whacking came as a shock. In a column some days prior, Christopher had briefly mentioned that he thought Mrs Thatcher was ‘sexy’. She was clearly aware of his literary transgression, and decided to put him in his place. Different times.
I’ve always had a hard time understanding the person who Christopher was, and now that I know more about him, I understand him slightly less. Hitch-22 reads like a long, drawn-out conversation over drinks and cigarettes. Some parts were fast paced and highly enjoyable, such as his days as a school kid or his spectrum-surfing sexual adventures as a vigorous young man. It’s clear that Hitchens cared more about telling his story than he did about keeping it concise. I felt a sense of urgency in his writing, which is not a surprise, knowing that he succumbed to cancer only a year after this memoir was published. That’s perhaps what kept me going when the going got boring. I felt that it would be impolite to leave in the middle of such an outpouring of memories and emotions; from a dying man, no less.
And what memories they were! As a journalist and an early member of the International Socialists, Hitchens travelled recklessly from one war zone to another. Where there was genocide, there he was. In 1977, for instance, he interviewed the former Argentinian dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. Of that experience, Hitchens said he was “swallowing vomit” as he shook hands with the vile man. Videla, a former president of Argentina, was imprisoned for — among other things — selling the children of the rape victims that he had been keeping in his private prison.
Christopher had opinions about everything, in a way that pissed you off and nourished your ignorant brain. What I admire most about the man is that there’s no way you could stick him in any political box and say “well, that fits nicely”. He supported the 2003 Invasion of Iraq (in “Mesopotamia from Both Sides”), for example, but was against the illegal land theft and genocide in Israel and occupied Palestine (in “Thinking Thrice about the Jewish Question”; thrice presumably because he himself is of Jewish descent). This is undoubtedly what his critics hated the most — they just couldn’t pin him down to any well defined group. To some of these topics he has dedicated several chapters in the book.
Most adorable, for certain, were Christopher’s stories of friendship. Some of his closest friends are people you might recognize, and what a life that is, to be surrounded by such masters of language: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and James Fenton, to name a few. Hitchens speaks of them with delightful intimacy in the chapters “Martin”, “Salman”, and “The Fenton Factor”. These are but tiny glimpses of what Hitch-22 has to offer.
Hitchens died on December 15, 2011. During his memorial, his friend Stephen Fry said “One of the great pleasures of knowing Christopher was having him disagree with you”, and I think that is a lovely photograph of the man.
A few months before he died, Christopher Hitchens wrote several essays that would later be published in a book called “Mortality”, wherein he reflects on his imminent death, his fears, and on his voice in the world. I remember watching a debate of his that took place only a few weeks before his passing — he crushed his opponent, as usual, even as the cancer in his body was clearly and visibly crushing him. To reject the sympathies of his friends and enemies and face death with such courage and vulnerability is something I aspire to.
Christopher writes: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
He’ll be missed.
“Plainly, this unwillingness to give ground even on unimportant disagreements is the symptom of some deepseated insecurity, as was my one-time fondness for making teasing remarks (which I amended when I read Anthony Powell’s matter-of-fact observation that teasing is an unfailing sign of misery within) and as is my very pronounced impatience. The struggle, therefore, is to try and cultivate the virtuous side of these shortcomings: to be a genial host while only slightly whiffled, for example, or to be witty at the expense of one’s own weaknesses instead of those of other people."
“The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not its regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not. (The only rule of thumb was: whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.)"
“Later in life I came up with the term “micro-megalomaniac” to describe those who are content to maintain absolute domination of a small sphere. I know what the germ of the idea was, all right. “Hitchens, take that look off your face!” Near-instant panic. I hadn’t realized I was wearing a “look.” (Face-crime!) “Hitchens, report yourself at once to the study!” “Report myself for what, sir?” “Don’t make it worse for yourself, Hitchens, you know perfectly well.” But I didn’t."
“Most boys decided quite early on that, since their penises would evidently give them no rest at all, they would repay the favour by giving their penises no respite in return. The night was loud with the boasts and groans that resulted from this endless, and fairly even-matched contest between chaps and their cocks."
“So there it was: Cuban socialism was too much like a boarding school in one way and too much like a church in another."
“Martin never let friendship take precedence over his first love, which was and is the English language. If one employed a lazy or stale phrase, it would be rubbed in—no, it would be incisively *emphasized—*with a curl of that mighty lip and an ironic gesture. If one committed the offense in print—I remember once writing “no mean achievement” in an article—the rebuke might come in note form, or by one’s being handed a copy of the article with a penciled underlining. He could take this vigilance to almost parodic lengths. The words “ruggedly handsome features” appear on the first page of 1984, and for a while Martin declined to go any further into the book. (“The man can’t write worth a damn.”) He was later to admit that the novel did improve a trifle after that."
“Like hell itself the school was endorsed and blessed by priests, in case any stray consciences needed to be stilled. That Catholic chaplain of ESMA, father Christian von Wernich, was three decades later convinced of direct complicity in murder, torture, and abduction."
“Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the man of all men who could make one feel embarrassed to be employing the same language (English being only his third), detested music: “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds… The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in smaller doses and flay me in larger ones.”"
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