Life before death

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books £10.99/ Twelve $22.99, 106 pages

He wrote very, very quickly. In the preface to Mortality, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, recalls a lunch at which Christopher Hitchens drank whiskies before, wine during and two cognacs after – then returned to the magazine’s offices and rattled off a perfect piece of 1,000 words in half an hour. The fundamental constraints, especially those usually attendant on booze, did not apply to him.

Why, and how, the speed? In part, it was simply that there was too much else to do: too many books to read, events to cover, friends and enemies to make and, above all, conversations, rolling on for hours, to have. There were too many matters of the moment, at home (in the US) and abroad, to put into a mental filing system more extensive than any journalist has ever had, and more instantly accessible. I heard him once put down a hostile questioner at a literary festival, who had quoted a line of a poem at him, by correcting the line, finishing the poem and capping the feat with a cat-like grin and a “No one messes with the Hitch!”

But most of all, he was just cleverer, always more “on” than the rest of the literary-journalistic-political-media circuit, more ready to explain, recall, jest, correct ... and fight, always ready to fight, in pursuit of what he saw as the true meaning of events. He did what his hero Orwell said he wanted to do – he made political writing (and broadcasting, and lecturing, and debating) into an art. The range of his curiosity was limitless: for decades an acquaintance, he asked me a few years ago for some of the voluminous publications of a tiny Marxist group with which I was associated in my twenties, wishing to write about it. Ashamed of my association (which a belated epiphany, springing from a reading of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, had destroyed), I never got round to it; and now I am ashamed of that too.

The curiosity always had a purpose: in that, he was as much a hunting dog as any tabloid hack rooting for scandal. Almost everything could make a piece, for almost everything held the promise of an illumination, if understood and written right. And for his last piece, the central event was his own death.

There were, of course, certain vital differences, the largest being that the end of this piece would also be his own. Thus there had to be more explicit ground rules laid down, of which the most important was: no self-pity. “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’.” Even so, he cannot help reflecting that the form his fatal illness took – cancer of the oesophagus – was a particularly torturing one, depriving him as it did, at intervals and increasingly as the end neared, of the use of a voice that had enchanted, entertained and clarified on several continents – “to a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice ... now if I want to enter a conversation I have to attract attention in some other way and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically’.”

The illness became apparent when he was at the height of his powers, on a book tour, scheduled to appear on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to debate with his friend Salman Rushdie before a grand audience. It struck in the morning in a hotel room: restored temporarily, he is told of shadows on the X-rays, and then swiftly realises he is on a transition, as if being rowed pitilessly across the River Styx by the fell boatman Charon – not, in his case, to an Inferno but to become “a citizen of the sick country ... quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly ... a generally egalitarian spirit prevails and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work.”

Several themes recur in this last piece (in fact, several pieces, first appearing in Vanity Fair). One is a reflection on religion, spurred by his rejection of even the thought of a deathbed conversion: why, he asks, would any God, in the all-knowingness commonly ascribed to him, accept such a patently self-serving piece of hypocrisy? (In that connection he recalls one of the last murmurings of the dying Voltaire who, when asked to abjure the devil, responds that it was no time to make unnecessary enemies.) Hitchens’ wit doesn’t desert him till the last few fragmentary notes made in the last few sinking days; nor does his sense that he has, after all, been somebody, made it big in the most competitive arena of the most competitive country in the world, one not his own.

The other large theme is a long (relatively: this is a short work) reflection on the saying, ascribed to Nietzsche, that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Reporting from the most testing of grounds for this contention, Hitchens, in the last of many sparkling denunciations of fashionable clichés over the years, says it’s nonsense. What doesn’t kill you usually weakens you; and then, often, you die. Those facing agonies often scream for death – “and so we are left with something quite unusual in the annals of unsentimental approaches to extinction: not the wish to die with dignity but the desire to have died”.

The great pity of his burning the candle at both ends was that it clipped 20 years or more off a writing life (he was 62 when he died) – although, as he says here, doing so meant “finding that it often gives a lovely light”. Not everyone was entranced. He was excoriated on the left for his view that the removal of Saddam Hussein from the leadership of Iraq was a democratic as well as a strategic necessity. The religious were appalled by his 2007 book God is Not Great – which was, to be sure, an often indiscriminate attack, the mildest Anglican conflated with the wildest fanatic. And in writing so much, he gave himself no space for a really large achievement – such as, for example, an evaluation of the global left over the past half-century.

Yet he set a standard of what it means to be a public intellectual. It so happens that the last words of the last piece are a quotation, and a fearsomely apposite one. It comes from Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (1993), in which the author invites the reader to envisage living forever: “Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own ... such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.” Hitchens, in his mortality, showed himself as whole and free as one in his line of work could aspire to be.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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