on 6 August 2010
The Hitch is a public figure now, so this book will sell whatever I say. But don't expect too much. It's a collection of essays, some quite interesting, some less so, that tend toward autobiography. If, like me, you know some of the protagonists and were there at some of the events, the accounts Hitchens offers can be quite fascinating. But the chapters record a political evolution from naive student Trotskyite to posturing socialite Neoconservative that will grate on you if your views differ from the offered line by so much as a hair.
Given that unwelcome fact, the book has its merits. The book is written with a certain polish and includes some deft phrases. And the cameos of British boarding school life, of Oxford undergraduate demagoguery, of shabby London literary life, and of variously loathsome political and revolutionary figures worldwide, are often sharp and vivid. The energy the Hitch has invested in meeting, like Forrest Gump, all the big names of his time is impressive to behold. But the effect, in the end, is more depressing than inspiring. All that sound and fury has resulted in a scattershot volume that lacks the crafted coherence of a classic.
Hitchens has emphatic views that brook no opposition. As his best friend Martin Amis once said, resistance is futile. With the Hitch it's my way or the highway. In the end, after a mind-numbing recital of famous and infamous events and names of our time interspersed with repeated drum-rolls of self-righteous grandstanding, all leading up to a tedious review of his Jewish roots that exhausts all patience, this reader hit the highway.
This set of memoirs from once-socialist, rabid atheist, anti-Zionist, anti-Islamist author and journalist Christopher Hitchens makes for compelling reading and, despite disagreeing with plenty of what Hitchens has to say, I came away from this book at least respecting that the author had arrived at his various political positions honestly and with (at least some degree of) humility. That is not to say that Hitchens is not at times arrogant and self-indulgent (as well, of course, as being a serial name-dropper), but it does take a good deal of courage to admit (to all and sundry) that much of one's youthful ideals were, in retrospect, misplaced.
As well as writing with a compelling and witty mixture of affection and rebellion on his upbringing by (eventually) estranged parents in the forces, Hitchens focuses in the main on the key elements that shaped his (mercurial at times) political thinking on issues such as Vietnam, imperialism, socialism, interventionism, religion, Islamism, Irish republicanism and the Israel/Palestine question. Hitchens' support for the Iraq war is, of course, well-known and it is on this subject that he is at his most defensive. Whilst I fundamentally disagree with him on this issue, his case for the removal of Saddam Hussein is well argued (albeit blindingly obvious) and clearly expressed 'from the heart'. What I would take issue with him on though is his characterisation of the UK anti-Iraq war marches (since they were not just confined to London, Christopher) as being filled with 'Muslim Brotherhood' and 'the rump of British Stalinism', the absence of his addressing the political duplicity of the US and UK governments, and his (frankly mawkish) focus on a single US soldier (one of many honest well-meaning such soldiers, I have no doubt) who gave his life in the war, with barely a mention of the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who also lost their lives. A touchy subject, obviously.
Nevertheless, my respect for his views remains in what is a well-written and compelling set of political memoirs.
In politics, there are sometimes rare people who seem to reach their pinnacle just before their death and hence are saved an ignominious downfall.
An example that springs to mind is British Prime Minister Disraeli, who said of himself that he'd "climbed to the top of the greasy pole", but was lucky enough never to have to slide back down it (like many before and since).
Hitchens in this book has gone out as he wanted to and I feel that his diagnosis with cancer will see to it that this book stands as a good summary of his career and life.
In it he explores first of all his parents (including his mother, who committed suicide), then moving through his school and university days and moving onto his work all over the World as a journalist.
The narrative is fairly chronological, though it gets quite blurred towards the end of the book and makes the strange omission of talking about his wife (bar one passing reference).
Although I think it's what Hitchens wanted, I don't think it does nearly enough justice to his life and work.
A lot of themes are left unexplored and questions go unanswered - the most obvious one's being the stories behind the photos in the book (e.g. the rather suggestive picture on page 340 of him "With Angela Gorgas"), why he doesn't ultimately want truth to prevail over the falsity of religion and why he disagrees so intensely with George Galloway.
But maybe this was intentional - to leave some mysteries in his wake. In truth, up until the penultimate two chapters, this book satisfactorily answers a lot of questions about his views on Iraq and his relationship with his brother and I actually found this book ended a literary dry spell I was having.
I suppose we aren't meant to know all his secrets, but at least this book gave Hitchens the opportunity to reveal some interesting insights into his charactor, albeit on his own terms...
on 10 March 2015
"A gin soaked popinjay!" or words to that effect is what George Galloway said on Hitchens a few days after his death, which is a fair and accurate enough point, but I know who I'd rather be sharing one with.
This is a really compelling memoir with plenty to get your teeth into. As ever this flawed man never shies away from airing his thoughts. Whether you agree with him or not he always makes for interesting reading. We learn how he went from an Orwell obsessed leftie, transforming into a bizarre flag waving, neo-con who relocated to the US with a border line insane refusal to see America's incredibly flawed and damaging foreign policy.
He tells us about some of his other engaging wanders into other parts of the world during the Cold War etc. His Cambridge years make for good reading too and his thoughts on Judaism seem strangely at odds to what he was saying in "god Is Not Great". He beams about a flirtatious encounter with Thatcher, he insists that you should only drink expensive alcohol and his thoughts on the working class poverty from a train window are revealing.
on 8 April 2016
Miss this writer and performer dreadfully when reading his excellent memoir, just fantastic. Well written, interesting, thought provoking and plain brilliant. Whether you agree with Hitchens or not, whether you find his views on religion in particular extreme or not, one thing for certain, the main is an amazing thinker, and a great writer. Loved this.
on 12 October 2011
This series of studies meets the requirements of a credible memoir and is far more than simply an entertaining review of his life and experiences. There's more to it than that. It's more a journey of the soul. Maybe he doesn't realise it but his body of work to date as presented in this book says a great deal more about the truth of the man than any of his penetrating insights and provocations accompanying the issues he's attended to over the years.
The first half of his account demonstrates a troubled passage from adolescent anger and frustration driving his need to take on global causes and perceived perpetrators of wrongdoing under the badge of international socialism. This requires a deal of patience from the reader. He seems to want to get it all out at a frenetic pace so it takes a lot of concentration to keep up with his rather disordered deviations by way of, thoughts and memories scattered across the page, subjects started that are dropped or merged into tangential references, nuances, quotations,etc. Quite typical of an academic in full flow,one thought fusing into another, perhaps saying too much in no particular order and giving away sentiments that question his attitude as arrogant, egotistical, immature, and very much up his own rear end. His choice of friends and their puerile word games do him no favours.
However, I found the second half of Hitch a fantastic read especially his take on America, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and his moving account of the Jewish("Finkler") question. Once he'd discovered his true identity and genetic origins a light seems to flicker through that energises his perspective. This jolt seems to transform his narrow political sparring into a higher level of discernment. Issues are scanned with a greater intensity and sensory absorption. The social, moral, psychological and religous motivations of his subjects give greater weight to his judgements.
I see no point in trying to label him as a left or right political polemicist as I feel this book is a layered journey that more than proves his credentials to being intuitively on the correct side of most issues. Above all he is a torch bearer for truth and humanity. The later chapters reveal an ability to communicate more depth and a beautifully written narrative that has emmotional contact with this reader and I'm sure many others. Sure, he can be difficult to like and his repressed and traumatic rite of passage is no doubt the main cause of his conflictions. However,the good guy comes through in the end.
on 7 July 2015
Whilst certainly not a leftie or socialist of any kind myself, I've always had profound respect for Christopher Hitchen's intelligence, charisma, prose and arguments. This book is a wonderfully fascinating and compelling compendium of stories, opinions and thoughts of one of the most important intellectuals of modern times. I never cease to be amazed by the courage Christopher showed in his life; willing to argue any matter he believed in, or against. Never afraid to go against the grain, but never a sensationalist or attention-seeker or pop celebrity. He is (or should be) an example of intellectual honesty to all those on the left who follow the cookie-cutter obligatory mantras of that side.
The old question of who you would invite to a dinner party, living or dead, if you could only choose three -- well, Chris, sorry, Christopher Hitchens would be the first on my list. This book clearly demonstrates a very active and deep mind. I can say this as a fan who most definitely did not agree with many of his convictions (Marxism for example) -- but he still meant very much to me.
I could listen to him talk for hours and always feel like I could learn something. That is the feeling I also received from this book. Not just an educated and very well informed and well-read individual, I always found him interesting as a person, so the story of his life, his formative years, how he gained and lost convictions, and his thoughts on Iraq, alcohol, death and love - was something I couldn't resist not knowing more of. This is a man who knows how to write, and I found myself inspired, smiling and weeping at various points of these memoirs.
on 17 January 2012
I've long been a follower of Hitchens' writings through his VF and other columns, and admire the way he made the art of writing appear to be so effortless. However I'd not read any of his previous books, nor was I aware of just how amazing a life story he had. Hitchens will be sorely missed by an incredibly wide and varied social network and readership. I'm just glad he took the chance to write this memoir before his too-early passing. Highly recommended.
This memoir is arranged in themed chapters, rather than in straight chronology: a long chapter on becoming American, for instance, ranges from the '70s right through to 9/11 and beyond, to the author's gaining of US citizenship in a ceremony specially arranged by Paul Wolfowitz. There is a chapter on his mother (suicide? concealed Jewish heritage?), another on his father (stiff upper lip), a slab on Iraq, a chunk about '60s communism in the west, life at university... Hitch has met and locked swords with everyone, it appears, and the book could serve as a who's who of the past half-century: the extensive index drips with names famous in culture and politics.
This is a scintillating and witty read. Hitchens drives his prose like a juggernaut and appears incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. The trenchant political stuff sometimes takes a lot of chewing, and is at times harrowing (almost casually so, hinting at much worse stories held in reserve). As a bleeding-heart liberal, I had no ready answers for Hitch's hawkish case for invading Iraq: had it been his stark yet humane argument that was used to drag us to war, rather than shaky claims about WMDs, there might have been more public support; although it's clear that the US government in particular was only too happy to have this ostensibly left-wing big-hitter intellectual on side.
Hitch is disarmingly honest about frequently, as he calls it, "keeping two sets of books": holding opposing or ambivalent opinions and presenting different faces to different audiences. This doesn't so much undermine his credibility as demonstrate a constant and open-minded struggle to approach truth, or the least worst untruth. He is prepared to drop dearly-held convictions if the case demands it, a heartening trait and an example to others.
For all that, there are odd omissions: I think Hitchens' first wife and at least one daughter go unnamed, for instance, and we learn almost nothing of his romantic and family life. (His brother Peter, another voluble political commentator but from the other end of the political and theistic spectrum, does get some late coverage.) There is surprisingly little about his latter-day engagement with religion (as its opponent). This is not, then, a formal autobiography, but a selection of reminiscences and reflections, substantial but not exhaustive. Indeed, Hitch seems to have packed so much into every day that a complete autobiography would probably run to several volumes! "Hitch-22" is the product of a powerful and experienced mind firing on all cylinders.
on 28 December 2014
Fascinating autobiography of the great journalist and essayist Christopher Hitchens, especially his young life where we meet his mother. After reading his book 'Mortality' describing his approaching death I had to find out more about him and this book is full of the same insight and wit. I would love to have met him but this book is as close as I could have got to that experience. What a writer and what a brilliant man.