Hitch22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books £20, 448 pages, FT Bookshop price: £16
There came a point in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir when this reviewer nearly abandoned the chase. Alighting, as Hitchens inevitably does, on his irremediably mawkish – and mutually elevating – friendship with Martin Amis, the author offers the following: “I find now that I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin carnally.”
This reviewer has zero compunction about men having sex with each other. But even to hint at this particular (mercifully unrealised) coupling is to tempt patience. Having waded through another paean from one ageing bad boy of English letters to another, I felt the book already had some making up to do.
Even fans of Hitchens – a club to which I have not paid dues but sometimes visited as a guest – might chafe at some of his confessions. Details of a writer’s sex life, including ones as “polymorphous perverse” as those of Hitchens, are not necessarily gratuitous. But in a book that omits many credible expressions of self-doubt – and which therefore largely fails to shed much self-knowledge – such intimate disclosures come across as unearned and excessively stylised. My least favourite is the revelation that the author had “mildly enjoyable” sex with “two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government”. Oh, all right, tell us who they are. On second thoughts …
Hitchens’ life is by no means uninteresting. The journey from conservative English Home Counties obscurity to the alluring setting of 1960s Oxford University was a vertiginous ride, in Hitchens’ telling. His account of his mother’s hidden Jewish identity, a fact Hitchens only discovered much later in life, tells you volumes about what it was about postwar England that was so worth rebelling against.
Just as dizzying is his fitful intellectual odyssey as an often dissolute journalist and author in 1970s London, and as a transatlantic man of letters who exchanged grim early 1980s London for New York and then Washington. Yet the book’s long meanderings into the subject of friends and enemies acquired along the way, including, in the latter camp, the late Edward Said, singularly fail to engage as a memoir.
Having heard about Hitchens’ mercilessness as an opponent, I offer these reflections with a dose of trepidation and a measure of regret. As author Christopher Buckley says on the book’s jacket with forgivable exaggeration, Hitchens is the “greatest living essayist in the English language”.
Few writers can match his cerebral pyrotechnics. Fewer still can emulate his punch as an intellectual character assassin. It is hard not to admire the sheer virtuosity of his prose, yet it is rare to mistake it for wisdom or good judgment. With Hitchens one simply goes along for the ride. The destination hardly matters.
Alas, it is good judgment, or its absence, that prevents one from fully appreciating this ride. Self-reflection is a key ingredient of autobiography, yet it is a quality in which Hitchens is sometimes wincingly deficient. Take this observation about Ronald Reagan’s cold war henchmen, who personified “the very ugliest bit of the new American empire … of uniformed bullies and power-sucking pseudo-intellectuals”.
Contrast it with his undiluted defence of the invasion of Iraq and an un-ironic reference to the “Saddam-Al Qaeda alliance” long ago revealed to be an imaginary figment of – well, why not? – power-sucking pseudo-intellectuals. Hitchens can rarely resist submitting those with whom he disagrees to a kind of literary water-boarding. But on his own misjudgments, he is largely silent.
Sketching out his formative years, where he combined a life of vigorous Trotskyite protest with the best Bohemia could offer, Hitchens even strays into boorishness. Explaining how he, and so many of his contemporaries, came to abjure the culture of “conventional politics”, Hitchens declares: “A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should f***ing well have been there, and felt it for yourself.” Coming from a writer, this is a strange abdication indeed.
The journalist-activist somehow emerges at the other end of the “boring, constipated seventies” as a supporter of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Nothing intrinsically wrong with Thatcherism – or even Trotskyism, if generously interpreted. But to switch from one to the other within a few years with such unflinching ardour?
Elsewhere Hitchens encapsulates the problem with sectarianism of all stripes while only commenting on his own: “I had become too accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one.”
Alas, Hitchens shed the trappings but retained the impulse. Once a Trotskyist always a Trotskyist. Just ask Bill Clinton (a pet hate whom Hitchens incredibly suggests may have been a “snitch” for the Central Intelligence Agency during his Oxford days). Or Mother Teresa, whose low motives Hitchens so mercilessly divines. Or indeed God, Hitchens’ most enduring target.
To be fair, Hitchens comes close to acknowledging his abiding sin of sectarianism, even if – in a passage discussing some of the capers of his youthful Trotskyism – he strays uncharacteristically into understatement: “A training in logic chopping and Talmudic-style micro-exegesis can come in handy in later life,” he suggests.
The author’s most recent cause – a zealous brand of American patriotism – also comes with a whiff of militancy. Having spent his life in search of an authentic revolution, Hitchens has finally found it (he took the oath of allegiance in 2006 just after the high noon of George W Bush). “Even if not without convolutions and contradictions,” he writes at the end of his book, “it became evident that the only historical revolution with any verve left in it, or any example to offer to others, was the American way.”
Such is Hitchens’ intellectual journey. From one certainty to the next, he has leapt across the stepping stones of life, only rarely dipping a toe into the murky waters of doubt. Hitch-22 has its redeeming qualities – perhaps most vividly in Hitchens’ telling of his mother’s quiet determination to turn him into an English gentleman. Yet the book mostly fails to accentuate whatever redeeming qualities its author has. Indeed, the further it progresses, the harder it is to escape the feeling that its subject deserves a much more nuanced biographer than this.
Edward Luce is the FT’s Washington bureau chief