Christopher Hitchens’s “autobiography,” Hitch-22, is out in the U.S. tomorrow. The reviews so far have been pretty positive.
I’ll be buying it, simply because he’s always interesting and witty, even when he’s wrong. In this respect he’s the Orwell of our generation. I thought I’d collect some of the major reviews (and excerpts) here if you want opinions before buying. Since the book came out in the UK on May 20, most of these are British:
The portrait of Hitchens to emerge from this book, then, is at odds with his self-image. He thinks of himself as an ironist, permanently alert to the contradictions of the world, a master of negative capability. In fact, he’s a born polemicist, only fully alive when marshalling all his forces to advance a particular cause. His critics accuse him of being a professional controversialist, taking up positions merely in order to be given the opportunity to defend them in print and on television. But few traces of such opportunism are detectable in this memoir. On the contrary, it’s the absence of cynicism that’s so striking. He’s an ideologue, as full of passionate intensity when defending George Bush Jr as he was when attacking Richard Nixon.
The Rushdie fatwa brings out the combative best in his writing; his call for “a bit of character and guts and integrity,” his willingness to put himself in the firing line, his lack of patience with anyone who doesn’t feel like joining him. His musings on Islamophobia and the need for executive action against Saddam Hussein read too much like essays – until he tells the story of Mark Jennings Daily, a young Californian who went off to Iraq to fight, and die, for a war in which he believed because of Hitchens’s writings.
But there is far more in this engaging book than fury. Hitchens is a vain man but he has much to be vain about: intelligence, wit, style, charm, a prodigious memory and a fluency in debate that brings packed houses to wherever he expounds his views. He declares his favourite word in the English language to be “library” and he has indeed read and remembers a very great deal. Auden, Dawkins, Clare, Orwell and Joyce are cited on the first two pages. Yet this is not a bookish life: Hitchens has been out and about wherever the action is: Prague, Poland, Sarajevo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, sometimes arrested, often duffed up. This is no coward’s tale.
More striking than the way in which the content of his opinions has changed, however, is the continuity in the manner in which he has held those opinions. He likes to think of himself as a rational sceptic, but he isn’t really: his views are more visceral than that, his lurches from one deeply held position to the next driven mostly by gut instinct. Fine orator and fluent writer though he is, he’s never been much of an analytical thinker, and his style of argument proceeds more by a series of emphatic, emotive and stylish assertions (he magnificently denounces Argentina’s General Videla as looking ‘like a cretin impersonating a toothbrush’), by appeals to common sense and common feeling, than by logical reasoning.
Since Hitchens cares so deeply about literary judgments (his oeuvre is almost devoid of references to painters, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers), let it be said that, at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the writing in Hitch-22 is mostly gorgeous. But the book feels too long and too uneven: some chapters are lean, others are bloated. In the latter, Hitchens is like a jazz saxophonist who crams too many notes into his solos. Names clog the pages: “My later friend Jessica Mitford . . . my Argentine anti-fascist friend Jacobo Timerman . . . my beloved friend Christopher Buckley.” My patience gave out when I reached the chapter about Martin Amis, in which the speed of the name-dropping—and the intensity of the backslapping and self-satisfaction—becomes insufferable. We are supposed to be impressed that the young Amis recited, from memory, “a spine-tingling rendition of Humbert Humbert’s last verbal duel with Quilty,” and that “Martin has done the really hard thinking about handjobs.” If an enemy of Hitchens were to write about a friend in such gushing terms, Hitchens would annihilate him.
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.”
Alas, Hitchens’ mother didn’t live to see very much of this. She killed herself in Athens in the early 1970s, as part of a suicide pact with her lover. Hitchens’ account of the death and the task he faced arranging her funeral in Greece, dealing with corrupt officials and clergy, displays a tenderness and emotional depth that isn’t always present in the rest of the book.
It was only much later that Hitchens discovered that his mother, and therefore he, was Jewish. In some ways it seems surprising that Hitchens makes so much of his Jewishness. A true nonbeliever might be expected to regard it with genuine indifference. In any case, these two revelations of maternal suicide and ethnicity would be more than enough for many a memoir, but Hitchens gives us far more than that.
Here’s Hitchens discussing his book in a two-part interview (total: 15 minutes) with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s well worth watching, especially for the bits on his mother (first video) and on Iraq (second video).