Wednesday, September 8, 2010


CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is for many of us, myself included, the premier “public intellectual” of our time. Which isn’t to say he can’t be maddening nor pompous at times, nor that I agree with him on all political subjects, nor that he’s above reproach. Yet I’ve been magnetically drawn to his writing for going on two decades now, and he’s altered my opinion or schooled me on a number of subjects. I encountered him first when I was dabbling in token Leftism in college and had a subscription to THE NATION (cancelled after the 6-month trial period), but I remember being most dazzled by him when I first read his “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” essays in Harper’s Magazine around 2000, which was subsequently turned into a fantastic book-length screed documenting the Vietnam-eta war crimes of Kissinger. He really sold me, let’s say that – and it takes a lot for me to get worked up to boiling by any frothing, angry Lefty, most of whom I learned to slowly back away from very early on. One has to write pretty damn well, and have an uncanny ability to marshal all the salient facts to your side of the ledger before I’ll pay attention – but Hitchens, I have to say, is the singular best political writer I know of, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt every time, before coming to my own conclusions.

In 2000 I went to see Hitchens speak at a small socialist bookstore in San Francisco called MODERN TIMES about the Kissinger book, and marveled how he witheringly shouted down a couple of garrulous hardcore lefties who were trying to change the subject to their pet causes (indigenous peoples or Palestine or something-or-other). It’s when it was confirmed for me that this guy suffers zero fools, let alone gladly, and why it was so interesting to watch him make his own much-celebrated break with the Left over this past decade. While his memoir “HITCH-22” is about a lot of things - it’s a life-spanning memoir, after all – the later-in-life self-realizations about his socialist years and how he rationalizes them, or not, are quite fascinating and believable in his hands, rather than in those of his many critics.

This is a man who easily sells the reader a nearly unbroken line of conscience that stretches from his early days in the Trotsky-loving International Socialists to his recent notoriety as one of the prime intellectual voices agitating for and defending the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. I find it hard to find much fault with Hitchens’ central organizing principle of full and total opposition to totalitarianism, both political and intellectual in nature, and in all its guises. He’s an atheist; he’s a passionate celebrator of literature and great canonical writing; he’s a lover of good food and drink; and he’s one of those people who flummoxes small minds on both the Right and the Left. So of course I wanted to read his memoir, if only because, having devoured nearly all of his writings over the past decade and backward into the 1980s, it’s one of the only things of his I hadn’t yet read.

Let me make an admission, too. I didn’t “read” “HITCH-22”. I listened to thirteen hours of it as an audiobook, with Hitchens himself doing the narration in his droll and sometimes cutting English voice. I’m extremely happy I did. While I couldn’t go back and scan sentences I wanted to re-read, I certainly gained for having heard the intonations and the exclamations of the author himself, in his own voice. It’s an excellent way to “read” Hitchens, and I highly recommend the audiobook if you’re at all interested in this memoir.

The book follows a somewhat linear path that starts at birth and ends in the present, with many detours along the way. Particular points of long departure are the most dearly-felt ones. HItchens’ evocative account of his schoolboy days in stereotypical headmaster-driven 1950s/1960s England are revelatory, mostly in that some of the jokes that people make about what must happen among teenage boys in all-boy schools - even in repressed England – are confirmed here, with Hitchens taking no pains to deny his own part in “buggery”. This entire section, and his angry renunciation of the command-and-control aspect of the English school, is excellent. Hitchens was also very much present as the 1960s were giving way to “The Sixties”, and described it all very well. His political conscience was formed during this era, and his piece on he and his fellow Socialists’ visit to Cuba is definitely revealing as well.

There’s a ton of detail and rumination about some central characters in his life – his traditional English military father, whom he calls “The Commander”; his Jewish mother Yvonne, whom Hitchens did not find out was Jewish until long after her suicide; his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said; and yet almost nothing about his wife and his children – which, by the way, I completely and fully respect. The only review I read of this book, in the NY Times, called Hitchens out for this – as if someone could be made to shape a personal memoir to some book reviewer’s need for particular juicy details. No, Hitchens has his own code of silence on certain matters – and really, how much more exciting do you think his domestic life would be compared to, say, his near-death at the hands of Bosnian Serbs in Sarajevo, or his trip to North Korea, or his meditations on religion (which this atheist loves every minute of)?

“HITCH-22” is about as strong a memoir as I can imagine, given the trifecta of great writing, an interesting “life well lived” and a strong, well-articulated set of beliefs. About the only thing slowing Hitchens down – who ironically decided to write this book after seeing a museum exhibition in which his own death was mistakenly reported – is his current battle with cancer of the esophagus, which he announced a couple of months ago as this book was being published. There aren’t many writers, to say nothing of political writers, that I’d be sorry to see shuffle off the stage, so do your best to not say a prayer for Hitchens, and instead raise a glass for free thinking, authority-questioning, love of literature and unceasing opposition to small-mindedness .