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Mortality by Christopher HitchensMortality, 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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Front cover of The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson by Louis BarfeThe Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books 2012)

I don’t like TV and would be happy never to see it again. But I can’t deny that it’s introduced me to some good things. One of them is the humour of the Mancunian comic Les Dawson (1934-93). This biography is pedestrian and occasionally PC, but it’s a good introduction to Dawson’s life and career. One notable thing about that career is that the politically correct don’t have to wring their hands much over it. Dawson’s motto was “Be Nice”. The main source of his humour was himself, his short, fat physique and his alleged difficulties with life. Other comics constantly joked about race in the 1960s and ’70s, but Dawson avoided the topic on TV series like Lez Sez and only occasionally sinned by being homophobic. Unlike his fellow Mancunian Bernard Manning, he never told jokes that began: “A nigger, a paki and a poof walked into a bar…”

And when Dawson told jokes about his mother-in-law, he did so with her full approval, according to Barfe. This was his routine when he appeared with Shirley Bassey in 1979:

DAWSON: Well, I’m glad you noticed that I’m not my usual ebullient self. I never slept a wink last night, Shirley. I kept getting this hideous recurrent nightmare that the mother-in-law was chasing me with a crocodile down the banks of the Nile. I was wearing nothing but a pith helmet and Gannex spats. I could smell the hot rancid breath on the back of my neck. I could hear those great jaws snapping in anger. I could almost see those great yellow eyes full of primeval hate devouring me.

BASSEY: That’s terrible.

DAWSON: That’s nothing. Wait till I tell you about the crocodile. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 182, Shirley Bassey, series 2 show 4, tx 10th November 1979)

It makes me laugh even in print. The routine is also a good example of Dawson’s mock-erudite style, which is another difference between him and his rival Manning. Dawson didn’t lift other people’s material either. He didn’t have to, because he was intelligent and inventive enough to create his own. He had his influences – the phantasmagoric Beachcomber, for example – but his humour was unique and no-one has ever replaced him.
Front cover of Les Dawson's Lancashire by Les Dawson
Another important influence on him was his home-county. His book Les Dawson’s Lancashire (1984) is a good introduction both to the reality and to his surreal humour. And he found an illustrator worthy of his inventions: John Ireland. Lancashire also inspired his famous drag double-act with Roy Barraclough, the gossiping Mrs Cissie Braithwaite, played by Barraclough, and Mrs Ada Shufflebotham, played by Dawson:

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.

ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.

CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?

ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.

CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?

ADA: See it? We were never off it. Our Bert were bent double. He’s not been right for years, you know. There’s no Vaseline over there you know. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 174, The Dawson Watch, series 1, 2nd March 1979)

Part of the joke was that Dawson used his normal voice for Ada, despite wearing woman’s clothes and hitching occasionally at a roaming breast. But Ada doesn’t just speak Lanky: she unspeaks it too. The two women are supposed to be former mill-girls, which means that they had learnt to lip-read amid the din of the looms. So Ada will occasionally mouth her gossip rather than say it. This is funny whether or not you know the character’s background, but knowing it enriches the humour. That’s part of what makes this book valuable: the more you know about Dawson, the more you appreciate his comic skill. He was a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man and though he won a mass audience, his comedy reflected his intelligence and his wide interests.

He wrote books too, but Les Dawson’s Lancashire is the only one I remember clearly. There’s a photograph here of Dawson in what’s called his “book-lined study”, but the books visible are cheap bestsellers (including Child of the Sun, a novel about the scandalous cross-dressing Emperor Heliogabalus). If Dawson had been taller and slimmer, or had received an education worthy of his intelligence, he might never have become a comedian. And if he had, he might not have been as good. This biography can’t prove how good he was, but it does make you appreciate him better on screen and in print.

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