Friday, May 20, 2011

Hitch-22: A memoir by Christopher Hitchens

My review from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Hitch-22: A memoir
Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, 2011, £9.99

This is the story of a journey. Christopher Hitchens began his working life on the fringes of London left-wing journalism and became a New York intellectual who toured American television studios to support the Iraq war.

You can make a case that this was not a simple shift to the right: traditionally, it has been British Conservatives who have been sceptical of foreign entaglements when no direct national interests are involved and the left that has been more likely to urge internvetion. And Hitchens’ willingness to criticise sacred cows from Mother Teresa to Bill Clinton is thoroughly healthy and was a necessary part of making his way as a contrarian. But his support for George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz does feels like conformity to the opinions of his new hosts.

Indeed, the book as whole has a very American feel. It’s not just the spelling, which is an irritant to the British reader which could surely have been corrected: the readers he has in mind are American too, judging by the references he does and does not explain.

New York is an intoxicating city, but in some ways it is surprising that Hitchens has landed there. While his friend Martin Amis’s literary heroes were always American to begin with, Hitchens is a far more consciously English, even if his great hero P.G. Wodehouse did end his days on Long Island.

Hitch-22 came out last year, but a reading of the paperback edition takes place in the shadow of a discovery that he made after writing it. In the words of Hitchens’ new preface: “I suffer from Stage Four esophageal cancer. There is no Stage Five.”

In many ways the early chapters of this book are the most interesting; certainly they are the best written. As well as being one of the last men of letters able to describe the experience of being subjected to the miseries of a traditional prep school education, Hitchens paints sympathetic portraits of his parents. His father was a disappointed former Naval officer who embraced a rather cheerless variety of Conservatism. His mother, the beautiful and brilliant Yvonne, committed suicide in a pact with her new lover in an Athens hotel room when Hitchens was in his early twenties. By contrast, his brother, the journalist Peter Hitchens, barely features at all.

Hitchens’ days at university were torn between a desire to be a social and sexual success and a burgeoning career as a Trotskyite agitator. Ironically for someone who was later to become a very public atheist, his induction into the International Socialists resembles nothing so much as a religious conversion.

Then it is on to Hitchens’ New Statesman days. These chapters are dominated by his accounts of the wit and wisdom of his Martin Amis and James Fenton and, from an older generation, Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. Some of the stories are good, but there is no surer way of killing an anecdote than introducing it with “I heard a really funny story the other day...” and that is the cumulative effect of Hitchens’ lavish praise for his friends here.

The British reader may find Hitchens’ account of his time in America, which dominates the second half of the book less interesting. While his concern from human rights in Iraq goes back a long way – much longer than it does with most his later allies on the American right – some of the writing is mawkish. And his claim that he knows that weapons of mass destruction were discovered there is not credible.

In all honesty, much of Hitch-22 does not show him at his best. For that you have to turn to his journalism – witty, angry and wonderfully well read. But I did like the story here about the mother who bought Hitchens’ book Letters to a Young Contrarian for her son in the hope that he would become a contrarian himself. He refused to do so.

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