I’m greatly enjoying Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchen’s memoirs. They’re worth reading solely for the sparkling tonic of his prose style, a distinctive aesthetic pleasure in itself. But, as one would expect, they also happen to be full of captivating ideas and observations as well as the usual expansive and apposite range of references.
The first chapter, however, where he anticipates what is tacitly assumed to be a still-distant death, makes for uncomfortable reading. Rarely can such a considered piece of writing have been so quickly rendered unintentionally ironic (he’s now begun referring to himself as ‘mortally sick’).
The book throughout contains so much of interest, about the wider world as well as about him. One thing that comes through strongly is the importance he places on friendship (as much as that he places on making enemies, which is saying something). This is not uncommon in the English public school boarder, who, in the absence of parents and in the face of the dictatorship of masters (Hitchen’s description), is forced to rely on his peers to an unusual degree.
I think this predilection influences the way he approaches his writing. One of the secrets of its attractiveness is its confiding, bar-propping approach to argumentation. He assumes sympathetic and informal companionability in his readers and addresses them with the confidence of this assumption. He is also considerate enough to give the impression that the erudition of his reader-pals is comparable to his own, a respectable and even noble form of flattery. Before you know it you’re at the bar, standing on the edge of his circle and leaning in to catch his every well-formed and lively sentence.
However, his palliness can also feel exclusive, finding expression in what Rosie Bell describes disapprovingly as his ‘laddish side’. She questions in particular his adulation – not too strong a word – of Martin Amis:
The [chapter] on Amis is a gushing eulogy on his brilliance and way with words even including this paragraph on Amis’s attempts at political polemic:- (p167)
‘I have often thought that he would have made a terrifying barrister. Once decided on mastering a brief, whether it be in his work on nuclear weapons, the Final Solution, or the Gulag, he would go off and positively saturate himself in the literature, , and you could always tell there was a work in progress when all his conversation began to orient itself to the master-theme. (In this he strangely resembled Perry Anderson, the theoretician of New Left Review . . . ) Like Perry, Martin contrived to do this without becoming monomaniacal or Ancient Mariner-like. There was a time when he wouldn’t have known the difference between Bukharin and Bukunin, and his later writing on Marxism gets quite a few things wrong. . . His labour on the great subject of Communism is also highly deficient in lacking a tragic sense, but he still passed the greatest of all tests in being a pleasure to argue with.’
If I was in the dock, the thought of Martin Amis defending me would have me sweating with fear as I anticipated the size of my cell and the nastiness of my cell mate, and would develop into the kind of terror that empties the bowels as the judge made scathing remarks on how the barrister for the defendant seems to be reading his brief from an auto-cue. Amis’s writings on nuclear weapons and Stalin are those of a smart sixth former who has swotted up the subject for a week or two to meet an essay deadline. That is sheer indulgence from Hitchens, and the same goes for the pages about the word games he and his mates played at their Friday lunches. The mates are great talents – Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Clive James, Julian Barnes – but you end up knowing them less and liking them less. There is no perspective on them, and this is from a writer who could give you in a page a sharp vignette of a terrified North Korean official, shaking with fear when asked an unscripted question.
These word games are like the doings of lovers – enjoyable for the participants, but no-one else wants to hear about them. He says that they help to put on intellectual muscle, but it’s possible to think that they encouraged a tendency to meretricious juggling and pyrotechnics – words for words’ sake – that you get from Kingsley Amis at his worst, Clive James rather a lot, Hitchens himself too much and Martin Amis everywhere.
T., who read Hitch-22 before me has the same reservations (but then I’ve yet to meet a woman who likes Martin Amis’s writing – or, indeed, Martin Amis, though they obviously exist, as Hitchens lavishly attests).
In mitigation, I’d say the praise for Amis quoted above is effectively withdrawn as soon as it’s delivered: Amis ‘writing on Marxism gets quite a few things wrong’ (not what you’d want in a brief) and ‘is highly deficient in lacking a tragic sense’ (not what you’d want in someone writing about Russia’s experience under communism, one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century). Hitchens’ usual critical clarity seems to have deserted him on this subject. But an excess of kindness to friends, occasionally to the point of blindness, is surely a minor flaw and may be excused as part and parcel of a larger quality.
Rosie ends her, on balance, very appreciative post with this – and I couldn’t express it better:
The saddest thing about Hitch-22 is the book jacket. This shows a flattering picture of him, handsome face, high intellectual forehead surmounted by a very full rug for a man of his age, the whole decorated with a curlicue of smoke from the fag in his fingers, in an irresistible combination of brilliance and loucheness. Then I look at the photos of him after the chemo, hair gone and cancer-aged by ten years and I want to cry.