It is strange to reflect that Christopher Hitchens died in late 2011; somehow the date just doesn’t seem right. This volume, however, which is his penultimate collection of essays (the final one being ‘Mortality’, the content of which was written as he was undergoing treatment for oesophageal cancer), does help to explain why it doesn’t seem so long ago. In every one of the articles anthologised here, Hitchens lives up to the advice he was once given as a much younger man and journalist: on being informed by an editor that his work was well argued but dull, he was told to write the way he spoke. And so he did, and all his wit, erudition and passion found its way onto the page, with the result that to read this book is to experience a sense of extraordinary freshness.
This passion is directed in various directions, but the titles of the sections or chapters provide clues: ‘All American’, ‘Eclectic Affinities’, ‘Amusements, Annoyances and Disappointments’, ‘Offshore Accounts’, ‘Legacies of Totalitarianism’, and ‘Words’ Worth’. The first covers subjects such as the Founding Fathers, American literary classics, and the idea of the ‘Washington Novel’, and leads perfectly onto the second section, which is all about writers and their life and work. The diversity and sheer range is clear: across these first two chapters, Twain leads to Nabokov to Jessica Mitford to P.G. Wodehouse to J.K. Rowling, with many more in between, and in every discussion, considerations of literature and politics are blended in a breathtakingly informative, readable and often very amusing way.
This discussion is a key trait of Hitchens’ writing: ‘Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere’, for example, an earlier collection of essays published in 2000, was entirely in this style, and was itself split into sections that suggested key elements of his personality. The first two were entitled: ‘In Praise of…’ (a possible allusion to the poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’ by W.H. Auden, one of his favourite poets, and covering authors whom he greatly admires); and ‘In Spite of Themselves…’ The latter includes articles on Kipling, Isaiah Berlin, T.S. Eliot and others, including Larkin. The final chapter is an ‘Enemies List’, containing articles such as ‘Running on Empty’, wherein he criticises Tom Wolfe (whom some suspected of fictionalising Hitchens in the character of Peter Fallow from ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, a link which Hitchens always claimed was untrue for several reasons), and ‘Something for the Boys’, which closes by saying that Tom Clancy’s ‘writing is to prose what military music is to music’.
This reassurance to readers that he hadn’t ‘gone soft’ was how Hitchens jokingly explained the ‘Enemies List’ when that book was published. But throughout his life, from when he first stood up to a bully who was picking on a fellow pupil in the playground, argument and the fight for what he believed was right was a constant part of his life. His attacks in print of Henry Kissinger for war crimes; Bill Clinton for triangulation tactics and mendacity in general but especially in the case of Monica Lewinsky; and Mother Teresa, for her fanaticism and her support for keeping the poor in poverty, were continuations of this sense of moral outrage. His hatred and contempt for Islamic fascism and the pusillanimity of the media in response to such serious threats to freedom were sequels to the same struggle. After his death, his friend Ian McEwan mentioned ‘Arguably’, and said that he could almost hear Hitchens saying it. It was simply who he was.
This mention of friends also leads to another important aspect of his life; he was a great hater, and described hate as a powerful motivator, but he was also by many accounts, a superb practitioner of love. His close friendships were with, as well as McEwan, Martin Amis, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie, whom he helped to protect and defend from the death squads inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah in response to ‘The Satanic Verses’. He had comrades (as he called many of them when not employing Wodehousian expressions such as ‘Old Horse’ or to Amis ‘My Dear Little Keith’) in many countries, as the ‘Offshore Accounts’ section suggests, especially among the Cypriots and the Kurds. He shared debating platforms with Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling. His dinner parties were legendary, drawing what he himself once called – affectionately of course – ‘all sorts’ to the apartment in Washington, D.C. which he shared with his wife Carol Blue and their children, for nights of discussion, roast lamb, alcohol and cigarettes.
Hitchens was addicted to all of those, but for him it seemed to work. His editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, told stories of how they would have several drinks at lunch or in the evening, and while the rest of the company struggled to remain upright and began to contemplate a serious hangover the next day, Hitchens would stumble to his typewriter (and later computer) to write a column which was almost invariably well-argued and word-perfect. He was able to write better drunk than most writers can when they’re sober. As well as writing, he did a great deal of public speaking, appearing on platforms to discuss anything from journalism and the media, to free speech, to religion, and even, at the Hay Festival, stand-up comedy. In this capacity too, all the traits were there: the flowing sentences, the wit and humour, the intellectual combat.
Much of this makes it into the ‘Amusements, Annoyances and Disappointments’ chapter. It contains an article urging ‘very polite but very firm’ resistance to waiters in restaurants constantly pouring out extra wine in the middle of meals, an article about the history of the blow-job, and one notorious but often misinterpreted discussion of ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. For the last one, which I especially urge you to read, just remember the main point: he isn’t asserting that women aren’t funny, he’s just explaining why they may not have to rely on humour in the way that men do. To every topic he brought knowledge and humour, as well as a commitment to language.
I still haven’t mentioned an earlier work, ‘god is Not Great’, the book in which he argues, in accordance with the subtitle, ‘how religion poisons everything’, and while I consider it to be superbly written and argued, and agree with almost every point made in it, I feel in a sense vindicated and reassured by the fact that I could get to this point in an essay before mentioning it. To most people who have heard of him, Hitchens is identified by his atheism (or ‘anti-theism’, a term he coined), and his links with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, ‘The Four Horsemen of the (Counter-) Apocalypse’. After the fatwah of 1989, and especially the September 11 attacks in 2001, Hitchens devoted more of his time to combating the forces responsible for jihad, as well as those who apologised or tried to rationalise it with reference to ‘grievance’ or ‘despair’ (a position he thought to be almost beneath anyone’s contempt). In this matter as in many others, whether you agreed or disagreed with him, his skill with words was indisputable.
My aforementioned reassurance derives from the fact that his other merits are more salient when reading ‘Arguably’; he always dealt with contemporary politics at least peripherally, but he also wanted to write more about literature. Especially given the context of contemporary political language, which is often trite and euphemistic, he wanted to devote more time to the writers whose words he felt really held their value. Many of the articles here refer to developments in the Middle East, and the importance of supporting Denmark at the time of the Islamic caricature fiasco, but more of them are about writers, and are dedicated to his own form of literary criticism. The concern over language and free speech is honoured explicitly in the ‘Words’ Worth’ chapter.
This literacy was augmented greatly by Hitchens’ memory; he had a mind full of the poetry and prose of others, which he could access immediately as if from a seemingly inexhaustible archive, much to the envy and awe of friends and foes alike. In my view, it is these pieces of criticism that should have greater prominence whenever ‘the Hitch’ is mentioned. Too often the boring preamble of ‘renowned atheist, supporter of the Iraq War, polemicist…’ or words to that effect, have been employed in an attempt at an introduction, and even opened many an obituary when news came of his death. But while they are true, and important as they are, I agreed more with Martin Amis when he said that Hitchens will be remembered as a ‘literary phenomenon’ more than anything else. His infectious admiration of a ‘gold standard’ of writing has encouraged me to discover for myself the works he praises, from Bellow to Waugh and others, and my mental ‘to read’ list has been greatly expanded (again! But this does, and should, constantly happen). I also feel inspired to read more of the Hitchens corpus; I’ve read twelve of his books so far, most of them the more recent ones, but now I want to track his development from earlier days.
The writing style itself is also extremely readable, and seems to approach the aim of George Orwell (a writer he considered one of the bravest, most prescient and most honest) to ‘make essay writing into an art’. In both the writing under discussion, and the discussion itself, it is proven that ars longa, vita brevis. The life, even if full and active, and lived by a pen that was always scribbling and a mouth that was rarely kept shut, was still short, given the vast context of time. However, subverting Wilde’s self-description, Hitchens made his life and work the same thing, and this enabled him to put his genius into both. Also, through this collection, a distillation of all he was, the art lives on, and he has attained a form of immortality that a thinking person can believe in.