Mortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012; paperback 2013)
Christopher Hitchens died as he lived: writing badly. And raising a lot of questions. Why did intelligent people, some of whom write much better than he did, heap so much praise on him? “Characteristic of his elegant wit,” said the Times of this final brief book. The Irish Times called its author “unremittingly elegant, a master of elegant prose”. Elegant? Elephantine is more like it. As a sample of Hitchens’ execrable style, try this:
…kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system (part I, pg. 7)
Why did “bag of poison” become “venom sack”? Why not simply say “bag of poison” and then “the bag”? Because Hitch followed the adolescent – and irritating – rule of varying words for the sake of it or out of a mistaken fear of boring the reader. Fowler called that rule “elegant variation”. He was being ironic. Which is ironic, because Hitch was supposed to be a master of irony.
He wasn’t. He was a master of pomposity and plodding platitude. For me, he was the Tony Blair of journalism: an untalented and unoriginal man who enjoyed success far beyond his merits. True, there is some good writing here, but Hitchens wasn’t responsible for any of it. Nor was Graydon Carter, an editor of Hitch’s who wrote the introduction. No, the only good writing appears in the afterword by Hitch’s wife Carol Blue:
By the time I saw him standing at the stage entrance of the 92nd Street Y that evening, he and I – and we alone – knew that he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed. (Afterword, pg. 96)
Carol Blue knows how to play the instrument of English. Her late husband didn’t. She can conjure reality. He couldn’t. But she increases the puzzle of Hitchens’s bad writing not just by doing what he didn’t and couldn’t. Hitch liked Waugh and Wodehouse, but refused to follow their literary example and write well. He also failed to learn anything from three more very good writers, as Blue reveals here:
Slightly down the page he wrote what he wanted me to bring from our guesthouse in Houston:
Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. (Afterword, pg. 100)
How could Hitchens read those three and still write so badly? Elsewhere Blue offers a glimpse into something that helps explain it: the smugness and self-satisfaction of Hitch’s life and world:
At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find a space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice. (Afterword, pp. 94-5)
That “perfect voice” is part of the key to Hitchens’ success, I think. Americans appear to be suckers for a Brit with a posh accent and lots of self-confidence. Moving to the US was the best thing Hitch ever did for his career, because he could play the role of patrician intellectual and polemicist much better over there.
And once there, as he described in Hitch-22, he made friends with other pseuds and windbags, like the late Susan Sontag, also hugely self-confident, also hugely over-rated. She is also an example of how Hitch’s Jewishness was a factor in his success, I think. His maternal ancestry was much more evident in him than in his conservative brother Peter, a better writer and thinker who has fully rejected his youthful Trotskyism, not transmuted it into neo-conservatism as Hitch did. But Peter is pricklier and much less good as schmoozing than Hitch was. He hasn’t attached himself to a powerful clique and propagandized for it, so he wouldn’t have departed on a wave of eulogy and affection if he’d died instead.
I don’t think Hitch deserved the eulogy. The affection is another matter: that’s personal, not public. There was obloquy from some too, but although I disliked and disagreed with him I didn’t like the way he died. It’s wrong to want someone to have a painful and unpleasant death because you disagree with them. I don’t believe in free will and I don’t think that consciousness is responsible for our choices. It’s only consciousness that suffers, not the part of us that chooses.
Hitch bore his own suffering bravely and without abandoning his principles: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does” (pg. 91). That’s not funny or original, but he did at least try. He tried to write well about dying too, but he didn’t succeed. I found that a relief, because cancer is an unpleasant and frightening thing. That’s a final unintended irony of a literary life that will, I predict, look smaller and more misguided with the years.
Previously pre-posted (please peruse):
• Cigarettes and Al-Qaeda – a review of Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)
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