on 11 August 2010
I chose this book as my holiday read. And what a good choice it was too. Hitchens is a man who usually polarizes people into one of two camps - you either love him or hate him. I try not to engage in such ideological flag waving, suffice to say, I would consider myself to be one of those who he seems to have left on 'the left' ....so to speak. His memoir takes us through his early years, with chapters devoted to his father and mother ( who i hadn't realised met with such a grizzly end). He treats us to his stint at Oxford, his experiences of the sixties, there are chapters devoted to other great loves in his life such as James Fenton, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and needless to say Edward Said.
Hitch elucidates upon how he first had misgivings about his ultra-socialist leanings, and he provides us with insight as to his dismay at the tendency of some 'comrades' to ignore the rather brutal underpinnings of the spread of the socialist revolution, and how the obvious warts were seen as beauty spots by 'the party faithful'. He has a chapter on his burgeoning love affair with all things American, which is a little rose tinted it has to be said. He seems to refuse point blank to consider that any behaviour of the USA might, in part, explain the attacks of 9/11, which for a man who easy fillets others for such naivety, is quite surprising. His chapter on Edward Said angered me a little, as the late great professor is no longer with us to defend himself to the charges Hitch lays at his door. But it is his memoir, so his rules. His attempt to defend his seeming volte face to the right, reads like the worlds longest excuse. He portrays it as if he was able to find that which Hans Blix wasn't and he refers to being a conscious part of history making as quite an 'intoxicating feeling'. Perhaps it is this which helps explain his apparent abandonment of his earlier principles. It seems to me that Hitch views himself in the same mold as George Orwell (who gets many a mention), as a chronicler of great and interesting times and an iconclast to long held fallacies in our world. The difference being that in Orwell's time, western civilization really was facing an existential crisis. It is this missing component in Hitch's world which explains his apparent desire to ratchet up the hyperbole of the 'threat of Islam' and odious regimes to the east of us, the need for 'civilized' nations to go about spreading civilized notions of 'democracy' and 'freedom'....all at the business of a gun of course.
Toward the end Hitch treats us to a detailed account of his awakening to his Jewish ancestry and how he never viewed zionism as a solution to 'the jewish question'. We see how he traced the footsteps of his jewish ancestors in Eastern Europe, which is tragic to read.
He has an unattractive tendency to ad hominen against those he dislikes, such as Clinton et al, the book would have been so much better if he had reined that in. All in all, I would recommend this book to his fans and opponents alike (of which I count myself as both). He had led a life the quarter of which would make most of us proud to recount, and no matter what his old friend Martin Amis might say, he has a great command of the language, all resulting in this wonderful book. To the man himself I forward him my best wishes and hope that he beats the big C, because like him or loathe him, Im sure we all hope theres a few glasses left in the old boy yet !
on 6 April 2012
While sending out review copies for my book about China, I warned readers they might find its content polemical, controversial, "politically incorrect," etc. Two reviewers replied `not to worry,' - they liked oppositionist perspectives and were admirers of Christopher Hitchens. I thought, `Christopher who?' Incredibly, I didn't know who Hitchens was (in 2011, no less), though I knew of his book God is Not Great, which didn't appeal to me because, pompously perhaps, I reckoned I didn't need to read an argument I already supported and a conclusion I had already arrived at. Like many, I familiarized myself with Mr. Hitchens through Youtube and found myself learning heaps about politics and history and more than I expected to about religion (I had never thought of religion as the original tyranny, for example). And then I chanced upon a copy of his memoir.
Hitch-22 is the best memoir I've ever read. Better than any biography, too. From a startling account about his mother's suicide to a Socratic declaration of how little he knows (the spur which kept him learning and reflecting on his positions and beliefs), Hitchens's crisp, articulate prose courses through 400 pages, drawing you in, propelling you on, causing you to reflect, and urging you to learn more about the many subjects, historical events, themes, and memes he scrutinizes and dissects. It also sends you to the dictionary, a healthy exercise, surely.
And it's not a conventional memoir. Apart from the section pertaining to his youth, there is little straightforward or chronological autobiography, and there is limited mention of things there should be: his wife and children, for instance. Instead, after describing his upbringing (vignettes of his loving but tormented mother Yvonne, awkward chats with his kindly but conservative father, "the Commander," and the bizarre rituals and norms of British public school), the volume morphs into a study of personalities, events, and subjects that shaped Hitchens's life and career as a journalist, writer, political commentator, radical, iconoclast, and public intellectual of the first order. So, in the beginning of the book, we get chapters like "Yvonne," "the Commander," and "Fragments from an Education," and in the middle and latter portions we get ones like "Salman," "Mesopotamia from Both Sides," and "Edward Said in Light and Shade (and Saul)." The final chapter, "Decline, Mutation, or Metamorphosis?" does not, as I thought it would, speak to the writer's battle with cancer (indeed, there is no mention of the disease that took his life just two years after this book was published), but instead to the volume's overarching theme, encapsulated within its apposite title.
Hitchens, you see, far from being an absolutist (one of the charges from his reactionary, absolutist detractors), has always been acutely aware of his myriad contradictions. Ever since he began his rabble-rousing at Oxford (by day; by night he socialized with profs and dons) he has been cognizant that he has kept two sets of books.
Like many intellectuals, Hitchens was drawn to the Left through Marxism (he was a committed member of the International Socialists), but unlike other big thinkers, he quickly saw the contradictions of Marxist ideology, the shortcomings and failures of communist states, and the fascist nature of anti-fascists. But Hitchens's outright rejection of the Left was the culmination of a process that occurred over decades. For anyone who has ever wondered or felt confused about just which notch on the political spectrum they occupy, Hitch-22 offers consolation. "Mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator," our Anglo-American narrator writes. "Change only the name and this story is about you."
Reading this book taught me too many things to list and whetted my appetite for more. Apart from Bill Clinton's Mayor Quimbyesque "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," (and Clinton, remember, was impeached for lying under oath) I wasn't aware of just what a lying sack of bovine fecal matter he was. I also did not fully comprehend the challenge to freedom of expression (and freedom in general) that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie represented. I did not really understand the severity of the situation in Iraq (or precisely how evil and fanatical Saddam Hussein and his sons were). But most of all, and although I've had my suspicions for a while and have been tiptoeing back to the centre of the political spectrum, I never completely realized precisely how brainless, extreme, and absurd the Left really can be. See members of this bleeding-heart's society demonstrating against armed intervention so that fascist states and military juntas can continue threatening their neighbours and torturing and murdering their citizens; see them advocate for freedom of expression while denouncing books and perspectives their perspective deems "offensive"; watch as people who call themselves liberal criticise all US foreign policy as crass and corrupt imperialism believing nothing the United States government does is motivated - not even in part - by morality; note the expression of satisfaction on Leftist faces when the planes hit the towers and thousands die. "Well, hey. America had it coming."
"If Hitchens didn't exist," Ian McEwan said, "we wouldn't be able to invent him." The cynic thinks this is overstatement: the endorsement of a friend in exchange for reciprocal endorsement. But the cynic who reads Christopher Hitchens should have their cynicism replaced by clarity, perhaps perspicacity. They should come to the understanding that McEwan's statement represents something approximating the truth.
At the risk of stating the obvious or sounding hagiographic, what a pity Christopher Hitchens is no longer with us. He did what the media routinely fails to do. Not only did he use reason and logic to point the way toward what to think, but how to think. He got us to question what we knew or thought we knew. And now that he's gone, who's going to replace him? I reckon someone of Hitchen's intellect and drive comes along once every twenty or thirty years, maybe longer. There was Socrates.... There was Orwell.... There is Chomsky. The feeling I got while reading Hitchens's commentary was something approaching awe, and I felt foolish - nay, ignorant - for not having known who he was. Without question, I will read his book, Arguably (reviewed opposite my own in the San Francisco Book Review). I'm sure the pages will practically turn by themselves. Will I agree with everything Hitchens says? Of course not, and I doubt he would have wanted it any other way.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World.
on 26 September 2013
This is a memoir first published in 2010. My copy is the 2011 edition that includes a forward by Hitchens having earlier that same year been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. He died in December 2011.
Christopher Hitchens was an author, journalist, essayist, pamphleteer and superb orator. His debating skills, honed at Oxford, were sharp, insightful and could leave his opponent feeling like they had undergone ten rounds with Cassius Clay.
To my utter shame I didn't start taking an interest in Christopher Hitchens and his writings until around 2005. My introduction to Hitchens was through my love of the works of George Orwell. I stumbled upon Christopher Hitchens biographical essay `Orwell's Victory ', (known as `Why Orwell Matters' in the USA), in a second hand bookshop. Not only was `Orwell's Victory' a superb piece of literature and a cracking read but it had the effect of wanting to know more about Mr. Hitchens.
Hitch 22 details his relationship with his parents, loving, beautiful but distant mother and uncommunicative, stoic but heroic father. Names are dropped within the book like so many autumn leaves; Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Richard Dawkins, Martin Amis etc etc. But, this is not an attempt by Christopher Hitchens to show off or communicate to the outside world about his highly influential friends. Each name is `dropped' to illustrate a point or to help frame a chapter and give it context.
There have been many superlatives used to describe Christopher Hitchens, erudite, witty, passionate and rhetorically astute. It is not only hard to think of new ones but it is difficult to disagree with any of them.
Hitch 22 is 422 pages of the English language in perfect harmony. His writing style is the language equivalent of the Taj Mahal or the Potala Palace in Tibet: beautifully constructed with no superfluous building materials.
on 8 July 2010
My copy arrived on that same day that the news of his latest battle with malevolent authority was revealed, he will face it, I know, with the same courage he has always exhibited, at the risk of sounding quasi-religious it goes without saying that I wish him well, for purely selfish reasons, his writing warms my heart and brings some order to my cluttered mind.
The book itself is neither really a complete memoir or a political tome, it is however beautifully composed, as you'd expect from the finest living polemic wordsmith in the English speaking world, by his standard it's almost light-hearted in places, there are many wonderful passages of kindness, friendship and affection. His comes across as fiercely loyal to his old friends, not to say very proud of them. Evidently, he still retains that naughtiness beloved of men behind closed doors amongst chums, you can almost hear him tell the bawdiest yarn, for the sole purpose of making you pistol your drink through your nostrils. It is, as if he were over a very fine summers day, recalling the moments in his life, that he thinks we might want him to recall, on his terms though, he has, in a life that has attracted as much scorn as veneration, somehow, managed to keep his personal life beyond prying eyes.
Very wisely, he steers clear of any revelation regarding his marriage(s) or says much about his children, this is such a welcome change from books of this nature, some people will of course jump on this as weakness, or what clever folks like to term a lacuna, but I think not. One of the many grand aspects of any Hitchens book or indeed essay, is the likelihood of his readers picking up on other authors that he quotes so readily, that perhaps one has not read much, if at all, in a few beautiful lines in context, he sells the concept of other books well worth reading. Mr Hitchens, like all great writers, Mr Hitchens is clearly a great reader too.
on 13 June 2010
Before reading this I knew Hitchens was a controversial figure - but I wasn't familiar with why (to be honest i thought he must have been a wealthy brattish tory - i'm glad i was wrong (although wealthy tories also write good books)).
As a 39-year-old comprehensive school-educated middle-manager, this very readable book took me on a fabulous trip of what happened to someone who was in the right place at the right time (i think i read recently that people born in 1949 had the best of all worlds). Hitchens has experienced at first hand some of the more fundamental developments in human history of the last 40 years. He writes about his experiences with genuine warmth, insight and honesty without pretentiousness. It's the most enjoyable book I've read in a while - and having just finished it I feel more connected to some of the big issues being played out in the world and I'm motivated to read more deeply & widely.
on 8 February 2014
I sat on this for two years before finally reading it. It's not an easy read, and I didn't agree, or like, everything in it. BUT - and it's a big BUT - the author is rightfully angry, and so was I after I finished it.
Two areas in particular hit me. The first was the chapter on Salman Rushdie - I'd forgotten just how badly he was treated. His books were burnt in a British city, and a foreign theocrat, claiming the allegiance of millions, pronounced a death sentence on him. And the result was a queue of people of people from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Chief Rabbi claiming to "understand the hurt" suffered by "the Muslim Community" (actually a tiny self-selected bunch of trouble-makers representing no-one but themselves) - who hadn't read, of course, the Satanic Verses. The Right, of course, just considered him an uppity immigrant and moaned about the cost of the security required to protect Rushdie - just in case you've forgotten, the Japanese translator was killed, the Italian translator stabbed, and the Norwegian publisher shot - and the Left were at best ambivalent, following the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" principle; since the touchstone of the Guardian-type Left is hatred of the US, and fundamentalist Islam hates the US, then they can't be all bad, can they?
It's this latter aspect which is the other key issue - the relativism used by the "Post-modern Left" to justify almost anything if it's anti-Western; "stoning women to death? Nothing to do with fundamentalist Islam - just typical of religion, innit?" Funny old world - I've never known my 90 year old Methodist neighbour to issue a fatwah against anyone...
To quote Hitchens:
"Most depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation"
Amen to that.
I'm writing this after learning that Hitch has been diagnosed with throat cancer. I wish him a full recovery. But the front of this book illustrates exactly how this cancer was acquired; and Hitch had not given up smoking, as widely reported.
How do I know? Because I stood talking to him recently as he smoked two cigarettes (holding his coffee cup at one point as he lit a second immediately after finishing the first). 'I thought you'd given up smoking' I said. 'I have' he replied. 'Mmm, Marlboro Lights only I suppose...' I conceded. He was lovely to talk to, very natural. He didn't look in the greatest of health though.
For posterity, here's a few of the things we chatted about: Boris Johnson (a 'phoney' he said); how much we both disliked Shirley Williams; the time he debated Anne Widdecombe ('the Catholics are still complaining about it'); Charlie Chaplin (having to move to America, just like Hitch did); Prince Charles ('Have you come far?' Hitch asked us, 'That's apparently how Prince Charles greets people'); Dawkins' visit to Bath; Hitch's book not being in the window; dreadful British coffee ('See why I moved?'); Obama (a 'lucky' President); living in Washington, and more. It was the best ten minutes of my year, and I mean that very sincerely.
This book is his selective memoir, full of good things. The chapters on his parents I found very moving; some of the later ones on American international politics slightly less interesting (but only because I'm more interested in British politics) and the 'Jewish' chapter I found dry; but everything is shot through with his verve and style, and there are some superb turns of phrase.
It also includes the best and funniest use of an asterisk I've ever seen.
Hitch-22 is immensely readable and will likely inspire you to read not just more Hitch but some of the many, many books he references (how DID he have the time to read so much - and live?!). I found it handy to have a dictionary close at hand too.
on 28 December 2012
I greatly enjoy some of Mr Hitchens previous works and bought this with high expectations. The very best of the book is when the author deals with his relationship with his parents. Some of the commentary about his mother is deeply moving and I recognised some of the characteristics of his father in my own, (also a naval man).
It's less impressive and frankly less interesting when he is recounting his youth as a dopey trotskyite and a bit grating when he continues to defend the neo-con ground abandoned by virtually everyone else about the Iraq invasion. I am not quite sure why he is so dogmatic on this. He had no skin-in-the-game like Messrs Blair and Bush. You sense a man trapped by his own logic unable to see a way out. Perhaps one more position shift so late in life was just too hard to contemplate.
Hence a three-star review.
Hitchens was, I think, the finest essayist of the age and a great polemicist, thus I was eagerly awaiting this book. I enjoyed it too. Born in naval Portsmouth, birthplace of Dickens, then to public school (in Britain it means Private), he had different relationships with his parents which each occupy a chapter, his father revealingly called 'The Commander'. His Mother to whom he was close was unhappy, then left to a tragic death; a psychobiographer will no doubt delight in this. 'Naturally' for public schools are intimately acquainted with Oxbridge and Hitchens was in any case bright, he then went to Oxford, rooming with James Fenton and fleetingly meeting one Bill Clinton on a Rhodes scholarship. His life there was full of activity and japes and he was once memorably tagged as "an SWP Baliol boot-boy." Good on Oxford in the 1960's, it is a world now gone, one tutor the great philosopher Gilbert Ryle evidently saw it as infra dig to take sides on the great issues of the day, earning The Hitch's lasting contempt. Then journalism with the TLS and the New Statesman ('The Staggers' to we Private Eye types) where he encountered lifelong friends Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and especially Martin Amis - he said time with Hitch was "ever May" - and theirs was seen as a sort of love match. McEwan has said that moving to the USA in the late 1970s was the making of him as a writer and he is probably correct. There are accounts of his metamorphosis there, culminating in his supporting the 2nd Gulf war and breaking friendships with Chomsky and even Edward Said, with whom he'd written a book on Palestine. Then there's the moment that made me uncomfortable, his becoming a U.S. citizen (I know,childish of this Briton but I felt betrayed by it) and his finding new friends among the NeoCons, such as Paul Wolfowitz. It's an amazing tale with two wives, cherished children and who suspected the dying fall of the end would so soon be followed by his own succumbing too young to oesophageal cancer. It's a fascinating life and a compelling read, even if there's not quite the richness or zip of Amis's own 'Experience' where Mart's novelist's gift for expressing his inner life makes for a more profound and rewarding read; his own reading was prodigious and his learning was both wide and deep. One can see why Hitchens never tried to write a novel or indeed any creative writing, but he was a superlative journalist even if this book does not quite match his peerless essay collections, 'For the Sake of Argument' and 'Prepared for the Worst.' He was always better looking out than looking in but I know him better if not, quite, his soul. It is said you can measure someone by the quality of his friends and plainly he was a quite amazing character, - I met him briefly and he was kindness and charm themselves - an impression confirmed on Charlie Rose when he hosted a discussion with McEwan, Fenton and Amis immediately Hitchens died: all testified he was an gigantic personality, a huge talent and a friend they cherished. Quite a testament.
on 30 June 2016
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was among the leading lights of the English '1968 generation' of student radicals opposed to the Vietnam war. His political position was both more extreme and more intellectual than most: a Trotskyist able and willing to defend his position in any company. Forty years later, during and after a career as a foreign correspondent and polemical columnist, he came to support the US war against Saddam Hussein while a new generation of leftists opposed it. How had his convictions changed so much? Explaining the answer, this book is part autobiography, part apologia, showing that Hitchens' consistent stance was opposition to totalitarianism in all its forms, whether as dictatorship, capitalism or religion. Some of the causes he supported have lost their interest now, but Hitchens' life exemplifies the importance of critical thinking as a cure for the indolence that allows the assertive to have their way.