Christopher Hitchens memoir, Hitch-22
Alex Eichler at The Atlantic with the round-up
Michael Totten at Instapundit’s place:
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ new book Hitch-22: A Memoir wasn’t supposed to be released until June, but my copy from Amazon.com arrived today. He sent me an uncorrected advance reader copy a few weeks ago, and it’s terrific.
Excerpt in Vanity Fair
Excerpt from Hitchens in Slate:
The fictions and cartoons of Nigel Molesworth, of Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and numberless other chapters of English literary folklore have somehow made all this mania and ritual appear “normal,” even praiseworthy. Did we suspect our schoolmasters—not to mention their weirdly etiolated female companions or “wives,” when they had any—of being in any way “odd,” not to say queer? We had scarcely the equipment with which to express the idea, and anyway what would this awful thought make of our parents, who were paying—as we were so often reminded—a princely sum for our privileged existences? The word “privilege” was indeed employed without stint. Yes, I think that must have been it. If we had not been certain that we were better off than the oafs and jerks who lived on housing estates and went to state-run day schools, we might have asked more questions about being robbed of all privacy, encouraged to inform on one another, taught how to fawn upon authority and turn upon the vulnerable outsider, and subjected at all times to rules which it was not always possible to understand, let alone to obey.
I think it was that last point which impressed itself upon me most, and which made me shudder with recognition when I read Auden’s otherwise overwrought comparison of the English boarding school to a totalitarian regime. The conventional word that is employed to describe tyranny is “systematic.” 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.) Thus, the ruled can always be found to be in the wrong. The ability to run such a “system” is among the greatest pleasures of arbitrary authority, and I count myself lucky, if that’s the word, to have worked this out by the time I was ten. 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. And then: “Hitchens, it’s not just that you have let the whole school down. You have let yourself down.” To myself I was frantically muttering: Now what? It turned out to be some dormitory sex-game from which—though the fools in charge didn’t know it—I had in fact been excluded. But a protestation of my innocence would have been, as in any inquisition, an additional proof of guilt.
There were other manifestations, too. There was nowhere to hide. The lavatory doors sometimes had no bolts. One was always subject to invigilation, waking and sleeping. Collective punishment was something I learned about swiftly: “Until the offender confesses in public,” a giant voice would intone, “all your ‘privileges’ will be withdrawn.” There were curfews, where we were kept at our desks or in our dormitories under a cloud of threats while officialdom prowled the corridors in search of unspecified crimes and criminals. Again I stress the matter of sheer scale: the teachers were enormous compared to us and this lent a Brobdingnagian aspect to the scene. In seeming contrast, but in fact as reinforcement, there would be long and “jolly” periods where masters and boys would join in scenes of compulsory enthusiasm—usually over the achievements of a sports team—and would celebrate great moments of victory over lesser and smaller schools. I remember years later reading about Stalin that the intimates of his inner circle were always at their most nervous when he was in a “good” mood, and understanding instantly what was meant by that.
Diana McLellan at WaPo:
“Hitch-22” (ghastly title) is a fat and juicy memoir of a fat and juicy life, topping 400 pages. As you plunge in for your Zelig-like wallow in the past century’s zeitgeist, you begin to shiver: My God, didn’t this guy leave anything out? Here’s the terrible and tragic 1973 suicide of his beloved Mummy, via pills, in an Athens hotel room with her dreary defrocked-vicar lover, violently dead by his own hand. Here’s a cuddle with a beau at boarding school. Here’s a dab of introspection on what some call his “bromance” with Amis. (Of course, he began to hate Martin’s father, the great author Kingsley Amis, when Kingsley got old and boring. Good thing that won’t happen to him!) Here’s his charmless admission that he prefers American girls to English ones because they put out without a lot of upfront argle-bargle. Here are the sophomoric word games played with his very highest-brow cronies, such as substituting the f-word for “love” in song titles.
His artless self-revelations convey a certain careless elan: “I find now that I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin [Amis] carnally. (My looks by then had in any case declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.)”
But the truth is, for the memoir of a Trotskyite George Orwell worshiper, “Hitch-22” (ugh) has a humongous memory hole. Where’s his wife of eight years, Eleni Meleagrou? He dumped her in 1989, when she was pregnant with their second child, for the elegant Carol Blue, whom he’d met at an airport. Where’s his old Washington soulmate, former New Yorker writer and Clinton confidante “Cousin” Sidney Blumenthal, whom he accused of lying during the Clinton impeachment trial?
It’s been said by unkind people that an honest politician is one who, once bought, stays bought. So is an honest journalist one who, once bamboozled, stays bamboozled? Call me naive — please! — but I’m floored that the great dirt-digger still clings to the certainty, peddled by Paul Wolfowitz and Ahmed Chalabi and long since discredited, that the late Saddam Hussein was unseated for his tyranny and his possession of weapons of mass destruction. Tyranny? Has Hitchens seen what we’re still sucking up to? Most tyrants, of course, aren’t squatting atop a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves. Even Alan Greenspan wrote in his 2007 memoir that it was “politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil.”
Maybe now that Hitchens is 60-something and says he drinks “relatively carefully,” he’ll run this one through his little gray cells one more time. By the way, “relatively carefully” to him is terribly spartan: just a Scotch and Perrier at lunchtime, followed by half a bottle of wine, and then the same again every evening.
“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he observes. It does. Pour yourself a stiff one, fasten your seat belt and enjoy this bumpy but never boring ride.
Andrew Sullivan at The Times:
In fact, the blunt Brit is now almost a stock figure. Last week saw the final American Idol featuring Simon Cowell as a judge. Cowell is better known in America than, say, the Supreme Court’s chief justice or three-quarters of Barack Obama’s cabinet. At some point in a distant Wildean past, a British musical judge might be expected to be wittier than his peers. Cowell is witless, inexpert, inarticulate and touchy. He just possesses a series of ugly prejudices and crude hunches and the ability to tell someone to their face that they’re rubbish. In Britain, who really cares? In America he’s a legend.
Or contrast Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant reality show in America with the British version. In the US, he’s far ruder and the recipients of his bile much less socially prepared for it. And so the Brits have found a niche in fostering embarrassment among Americans by saying things Americans in general are far too polite to bring up.
Christopher Hitchens cannot be reduced to this. His first common identity in America was leftism, just as mine was conservatism. He seems to have read everything and met everyone, as his addictive new memoir, Hitch-22, proves. His prose is almost as enjoyable as his company. But he only reached his apotheosis in American culture by attacking the one thing Americans have historically shied from attacking: God. Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana were not enough. He needed the Big One to become the Loved One.
The best in this genre occurs when the sentiment is genuine. Hitch really does believe that religion poisons everything. It’s not an act. His visceral, furious response to 9/11, like my own, had not a scintilla of inauthenticity about it. What he has, apart from real skill and extraordinary discipline (drink only makes him work harder), is the courage of his own curiosity.
The nostalgia is sometimes fetid. On his favourite high horse, Mr Hitchens might dismiss another writer’s coy tales of long- ago gay flings at Oxford with future Conservative cabinet ministers as “kiss and hint” writing. The boozy Friday lunches in London with his clever friends, and their shared fondness for puerile, obscene word games, will leave most readers bored and mystified. Mr Hitchens admits that it was funnier at the time (and probably funnier still for those robbed of their critical faculties by copious amounts of alcohol).
But amid the dregs are shards of brilliant, piercing writing. The account of his uncovered Jewish ancestry (concealed by his lively, miserable mother, who killed herself in a hotel room in Athens, with her lover) is more than poignant. His willingness to go to the barricades to defend his friend Salman Rushdie after the fatwa in 1989, and his beloved America after September 11th 2001, is unaffected and appealing. Having lambasted bourgeois values such as freedom and tolerance, Hitch now (a bit late in the day, some might think) understands why they matter.
The ardour is not always matched by insight. In particular, the smoke of incinerated straw men obscures any serious discussion of religion (superstition practised by hypocrites, in his view). And for what is meant to be a no-holds-barred memoir, the author goes lightly on some of his failings. Broken ideals get plenty of self-satisfied scrutiny; broken hearts and marriages rate barely a mention. The impression left is of a writer frozen in a precocious teenagery, whose ability to tease and provoke the grown-ups is entertaining but ultimately tiresome. If Mr Hitchens can stay off the booze and do some serious thinking, his real autobiography, in 20 years’ time or so, should be a corker.
Allen Barra at Salon:
In place of revelation, there is lots and lots of gossip. Hitchens, to take him by his own accounts, is the Zelig of modern Anglo-American letters; he seems to have been everywhere, talked to everyone and made friends in every corner of the world, whether or not anyone else was there to record the conversation.
People seem to want to tell Christopher Hitchens their secrets; like Nick Carraway, he is “privy to the secret of wild, unknown men.” Also some that are very well known: Gore Vidal, we learn, would take “rugged young men recruited from the Via Veneto … from the rear” where they were then taken into the next room where “Tom [Driberg, the journalist] would suck them dry.” (We are not told whether this occurred while Hitchens was still in his Oxford phase.)
Name-dropping, which has become a distressing trait in Hitchens’ work in recent years, is now approaching critical mass. Long stretches of “Hitch-22” read like literary bouquets to Hitch gathered by himself. He names and quotes the usual suspects — Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, long ago identified by Hitchens as partisans. Joining their ranks are “my Argentine anti-fascist friend, Jacobo Timerman,” “my Kurdish friends,” Susan Sontag’s son “my dear friend David,” “my dear friend and colleague Jeff Goldberg [who] said to my face over a table at La Tomate …,” “my friend and ally Richard Dawkins,” “my beloved friend James Fenton,” and “my then friend Noam Chomsky” (even former friends with well-known names make Hitch’s cut). Regrettably, the late great Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James didn’t quite make the list; he passed shortly after Hitchens arrived at his deathbed.
When he isn’t writing about his friends in “Hitch-22,” he is usually writing about how proud he is to have such friends. He was “proud” to be mentioned several times in Martin Amis’ memoir and “absurdly proud” to have a poem by James Fenton dedicated to him. He is, however, “offended” at the idea that he might have been Tom Wolfe’s model for the English journalist in “Bonfire of the Vanities” — in which case he shouldn’t have mentioned it or I would never have known there was such a rumor.
Willa Paskin at New York Magazine:
Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens have been close friends since the seventies, but their relationship is having a moment, thanks to both simultaneously publishing work celebrating the other. Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow contains a big-brother character modeled on Hitchens; the Hitch’s memoir, Hitch-22, contains a chapter about Amis. This long-term bromance has been fruitful for both men, emotionally and intellectually — but not, perhaps, comedically! Both books refer to a game Amis and Hitch play “that involves substituting phrases like ‘hysterical sex’ for ‘love’ in the titles of movies, songs, and novels.” Some of the results of this word game include “Stop in the Name of Hysterical Sex,” Hysterical Sex Story, and A Fool for Hysterical Sex — exactly the type of not-very-funny pun that might make you laugh hard, but only if “you’d been there.” Amis and Hitchens, hugely accomplished authors, but, also, just like us!
David Frum and Hitchens do a podcast at FrumForum
UPDATE: Hitchens announces that he has cancer at Vanity Fair
UPDATE #2: David Brooks in NYT
UPDATE #3: Hugh Hewitt