The Fragrant Moralist

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens

Books Literature
Media gadfly: Christopher Hitchens

Billed as a memoir, Hitch-22 is a hodge-podge of autobiography and Christopher Hitchens’s musings on political and cultural antics of the last 50 years. The question that first struck me when presented with this book is: who would want to read it? Hitchens is, by the standards of Anglo-Saxon journalism, a skilled turn and he’s had an interesting intellectual journey from British Trotskyite to American neo-con sidekick, but my guess is that most of those who’d be willing to part with money to read this are those who are regular consumers of his columns.

If you’ve followed his work, I doubt there’s much here that will be new. I’ve never sought out Hitchens’s writing, but even having haphazardly digested his work over the years, there was a great deal that was familiar. As a sort of greatest-hits treasure trove, Hitch-22 will have an appeal for his admirers, but if you don’t want to read any further I can sum the book up as too long, far too long and meandering but with half-a-dozen cracking anecdotes, the best of which is Hitchens being spanked (with a rolled-up parliamentary order-paper) by Margaret Thatcher (he insists he has witnesses).

Apparently, his editor (or editors) didn’t bother to read through the manuscript. Despite the inclusion of salacious material, Hitchens masturbating his school friends, doing “two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government” at Oxford where he was also possibly the recipient of Bill Clinton’s sloppy seconds, much of the book becomes tedious. Hitchens (unusually for a grizzled Fleet Street pro) doesn’t know when to stop.

Amid the vast expanses of what J. D. Salinger so pithily termed the “David Copperfield crap”, Hitchens nevertheless provides a moving portrait of his father, a distinguished former naval Commander who is the most admirable figure in the book, and his mother who seems to have suffered from a bad case of the Madame Bovarys and who ended up committing suicide. However, I’m sure I’m not the only person to be totally unaffected and uninterested in Hitchens’s mid-life discovery that he is part Jewish and the page-filling genealogy this begats.

Much space is devoted to Hitchens’s famous literary chums James Fenton, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. Friendship is a glorious thing, but again the editor should have stepped in to curtail Hitchens, particularly in his accounts of their word-games, which might have been hilarious at the time when they were all pissed, but which lie unhappily on the page (with the exception of retitling Shakespeare’s plays à la Robert Ludlum: The Elsinore Vacillation, The Rialto Sanction).

Hitchens is well read (especially by the standards of journalism) and there is almost a mania for quotation and learned allusion. I don’t know whether this is simply his temperament or whether he’s trying to play the sophisticated Brit for the folks in Kansas, but if you do the scholar strut, you’ve got to get it right. 

The phrase pecunia non olet doesn’t come from Juvenal, but from Vespasian. That an old Trot doesn’t know where the term permanent revolution comes from is sad (no, it’s not Parvus). Hitchens, in his enthusiasm for Portugal, writes: “In Portuguese bullfights, the bull is not tortured or killed.” It’s funny, but in the Portuguese bullfight I watched, the bull had these javelin-like objects stuck into him (perhaps they had slipped the bull a powerful anaesthetic beforehand). I could go on.

Hitchens’s career has been largely based on his tendency to fire his ire at targets of unrighteousness, to be a writer of wrongs. He does offer one or two mea culpas in regard to his judgment (he really has no choice in the matter: who is this dashing, secular go-getter called Saddam Hussein?). So Hitchens brings in a line from Keynes, that when facts change maybe your opinion should too. But in Hitchens’s track record, it’s not that surprising new facts have emerged; he was simply wrong. 

Hitchens still refers to the American involvement in Vietnam as “imperialist”. Condemn the war all you want as stupid, brutal, unjust or even evil, but it’s just idiotic to suggest that the Americans lost 50,000 lives and billions of dollars because they wanted a captive market for Coca-Cola and to get their hands on some cut-price bamboo. Similarly the Viet Cong are characterised as “valiant’, a strange epithet for a group who gleefully liquidated anyone who disagreed with them, much in the way that the religious fanatics of whom Hitchens so disapproves do. But then, God bless them, the Viet Cong were secular.

This is, finally, the great boon of being a media gadfly, you have all the joy of condemnation, without any of the tiresome business of responsibility. Hitchens might have occasionally left his armchair and incommoded himself in some godforsaken dumps and risked his neck in hazardous regions, but it was for the purpose of getting copy and not distributing medical supplies.

It’s like being a critic, you can poke fun and carp, without the labour of creation. Indignation is the best business to be in because you look so good, so pumped up on ethics, garlanded with fragrant morality as you slate others for the paucity of their principles or their low behaviour. And then if some of those you sympathised with, say Saddam or Mugabe and his cronies, let you down, you can always turn the indignation on them and earn some more money.