The laddish Hitch

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.

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11 thoughts on “The laddish Hitch

    September 9, 2010 at 14:18

    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,

    Spot on. This is also what makes him so effective in live debates: he disarms potentially hostile audiences by flattering them into submission. That and the air of supreme confidence whereby even when he’s talking twaddle – and it does happen – he delivers his twaddly points as if they’re well-established tenets which we must all assume to be true merely to continue discussions.

    But dear me the world will be a poorer place without him – let’s hope he sticks around a while yet…

    September 9, 2010 at 19:19

    what a great review – so much so that yet again you’ve made me purchase the book. At this rate I will soon be like one of those mad old people they find living in a house so filled with books that they’ve had to create a labyrinth of tiny tunnels to navigate around. Whilst wearing tissue boxes as shoes.

    As Brit says, lets hope that this book isn’t his swansong.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    September 9, 2010 at 20:55

    For those with a little time to spare, this makes interesting background on the Hitchens/Amis relationship.

    I caught it on PBS a couple of weeks ago and Gaw brought it to mind again. Sometimes, but admittedly rarely, there is something vaguely worthwhile on American TV.

  4. Gaw
    September 9, 2010 at 22:06

    Thanks for that, er, BTAPL. Fascinating stuff regarding Hitch which does explain more about he and Martin’s ‘unconsummated homosexual marriage’.

    But a shame that not all of it was that enlightening. I do find Amis at his worse when he’s trying to be portentous: he just can’t pull off historical or futurological sweep. A couple of examples from the start: He seems to take it for granted that Herzen was privy to some historical truths about how revolutions develop – but the point about Herzen, in a way, is that his ideal of revolution turned out to be one that ran into the sand (more’s the pity as it was relatively attractive – he was one of history’s ‘wrong but wromantics’). As for using Herzen’s insights to predict that the sexual revolution will mature in about 100 years time – I don’t think such a belief can be justified with anything other than hot air. Who on earth can possibly know?

    And then at the end, his stuff about England being irrelevant geopolitically – even if justifiable, is so hackneyed that it’s difficult to believe he can offer it as some sort of insight. And who cares anyway? I don’t see what sort of business it is of a novelist in the 21st century.

    Anyway, enough Amis-bashing (even though I could go on). Particularly as, despite all that rot, he’s always got something interesting to say.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    September 10, 2010 at 14:22

    Admittedly Gaw it a shame there wasn’t a way to access the interesting bit without all the surrounding tosh.

    While we are Amis bashing then its worth highlighting the particularly risible suggestion that the British press have conflated Amis M. and his late dad into some kind of century spanning super-novelist.

    As they say over here Martin, you WISH!

  6. Brit
    September 10, 2010 at 14:24

    I would say that the broad consensus in the press is that Martin has surpassed Kingsley.

    As they say over here, pull the other one.

  7. Gaw
    September 10, 2010 at 14:34

    It was amusing how Amis took credit for inventing the theory that he and his father are conflated by the press before going on to say he felt it his duty to debunk it. As he seems to be the only person who believed in it his debunking was a favour only to himself.

    September 11, 2010 at 15:21

    Thanks for linking to my piece on Hitchens. The person who did conflate K Amis and M Amis was Terry Eagleton who when Eagleton was smacking M Amis (quite rightly) for some Muslim bashing, he said that M had evidently learned from K’s politics – when K in fact spends his time in his letters moaning very entertainingly about what a tiresome lefty M is.

    They are totally different writers, especially in their treatment of women. Amis has some real and lovable women in his books, Amis’s are cartoons or blanks.

    September 13, 2010 at 18:11

    That last sentence was confusing! It should have read “K Amis has some real and lovable women in his books, M Amis’s are cartoons or blanks.”

  10. Gaw
    September 13, 2010 at 18:13

    Don’t worry Rosie, I think we worked it out given the context!

  11. Worm
    September 13, 2010 at 20:48

    two quotes about women from K Amis:

    ‘Like both the pretty women he’d known, and many that he’d only read about, she thought it was no more than fair that one man should cheat and another be cheated to serve her convenience.’

    Lucky Jim

    “I remember Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians – if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs.”

    Stanley and The Women

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