I first read Christopher Hitchens in college, when I was gifted a copy of The Trial of Henry Kissinger. This was in the post-9/11, Bush Administration days when I was reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, marching in rallies, and attending lectures like the one where I picked up a large, yellow, homemade button reading I KNOW KISSINGER IS A CRIMINAL and quickly pinned it to my messenger bag. The childhood naiveté I had recently shed left me vulnerable to Hitchens’ moral confidence and chilled outrage, and I adopted a more adult naiveté, where solutions took the form of boycotting logos, starting zines, going to poetry readings in campus common rooms and calling on the Hague to bring a former American official to trial on war crimes.
My affinity didn’t last. Hitchens had a book out about how Mother Teresa was some kind of monster. This seemed odd, but not damning. My greater concern was Hitchens’ great complaints about Bill Clinton — which I actually could have accepted had they not been followed by his support of George W. Bush, a man who couldn’t match Clinton in competence, intelligence, or even folksiness. And yet here was Hitch, mobilizing a mind fortified by philosophy, history, literature and poetry to defend a dangerously incurious and incompetent president. I gave Hitch’s line on Iraq no quarter because it coincided with the Bush line, and ultimately concluded that Hitchens was someone who didn’t mind a few thousand people dying if it meant that we could forcibly shove The Enlightenment into new acreage.
I don’t recall when I came back. I remember being impressed that Hitchens had himself waterboarded, and that he was unflinching in characterizing it as torture. Most likely, I probably heard him make a sly, British evisceration of George W. Bush and thought to myself that finally his fog had cleared. I also enjoyed the discomfort of hard right wingers who had to furiously un-embrace Hitchens as he quickly became the most famous atheist in the world. The thing about women not being funny was silly, and empirically untrue, but by the time it appeared I found myself trying to explain that there was more to Hitch than this single misfire. While I never took much interest in the shots at religion that occupied his later years, the collection Arguably was my favorite book of 2011, and I thought his short pieces on cancer were extraordinary. My encounters evolved into a mature enjoyment, like the late-life correspondence of Jefferson and Adams, with Hitchens writing both sides.
A little more than a year after his death, my Hitchens Trajectory took me to the audiobook edition of Hitch-22, which I owned in paperback but never “read” until finding the 15-CD recording of the author narrating his memoir. It was not a tough decision, from there, to pick up Mortality at Union Station in Washington, DC, and, re-reading the essays about his diagnosis and attempted treatment of esophageal cancer, follow the story to its end.
Hitch-22 opens with the discovery of a magazine photo caption naming the author as “the late Christopher Hitchens” (emphasis his), which happened well before he knew of his disease. Mortality begins with a couple of classic Hitchens lines: “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” That morning, it happens, followed a launch party for Hitch-22, and preceded book-promotional appearances on The Daily Show and at the 92nd Street Y. Hitchens managed both, despite vomiting “with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show.” His response to John Stewart’s question, “How are you sir?” was a wry and well-disguised, “It’s a bit early to say.”
Hitchens’ ability to simultaneously present a stiff upper lip and a rakish wit was instilled in him early by the curious combination of his parents. His father was meek and quietly suffering, a duty-bound military man who, throughout his life, was more sinned against than sinning. Despite the impression that he took firm control of very little, Hitchens refers to his father as “Commander Hitchens” or “The Commander.” By contrast, his mother Yvonne cuts a more adventurous figure, almost vivacious in her cosmopolitan yearnings and unpredictability. It was Yvonne who advised her son that “the one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” The alchemy of his parents’ union is clear in their oldest son, who ultimately found himself in situations like the evening in which a serious foreign policy debate with emerging conservative leader Margaret Thatcher ended with him bowing low and her smacking him on the ass and calling him a “Naughty boy” (starting around the 4:00 mark in the clip below):
Early chapters about his parents are some of the only homefront scenes we get. On the whole Hitch-22 is not a penetrating personal memoir. There are no love stories, aside from a a tender retelling of crush on another boy during his days in English boarding school, where homosexuality, or at least homosexual behavior, was the norm. The next closest thing to romance is an off-putting incident in a brothel on a research expedition with Martin Amis. In general, Hitchens’ memories are filtered through his work (or at least his working lunches). He shows pride in his son when the boy insists on accompanying him on a dangerous assignment in Iraq. A chapter on his friendship with Edward Said is primarily a recounting of their political divergence. His most beloved relations are his friends: Salman Rushdie, Martin and Kingsley Amis, James Fenton, and the like. Much of their time was apparently spent inserting dirty words into famous titles, or renaming Shakespeare plays in the fashion of Robert Ludlum novels:
…someone idly said they wondered what a Shakespeare play would be called if it were Ludlum who had the naming of it. At once Salman was engaged and began to smile. “All right, Salman: Hamlet by Ludlum!” At once — and I mean with as much preparation as I have given you — “The Elsinore Vacillation.” Fluke? Not exactly. Challenged to do the same with Macbeth, he produced “The Dunsinane Reforestation” with hardly a flourish and barely a beat. After this it was plain sailing through “The Kerchief Implication,” “The Rialto Sanction,” and one about Caliban and Prospero that I once knew but now can never remember.
I feel compelled to mention here the particular enjoyment of having this read aloud by Hitchens himself.
Of course, such a reading was not possible with Mortality. And had these essays been read aloud, few of them would have resonated in the full-bodied baritone of Hitchens’ usual speaking voice. One of the chapters is, as a matter of fact, about the temporary loss of his ability to speak. This is not to say that Mortality presents a kinder, gentler Hitchens. More than one of the other chapters finds Hitchens taking his usual shots at the faithful — those who characterized his cancer as punishment from a vengeful God (who clearly deserve the full measure of Hitchens’ ridicule), as well as those who told Hitch they were praying for his health (who deserve more charity, Christian or otherwise, than he affords them in this book).
But allow him his bile in this case, because for a man dying before his time, leaving behind friends and family and work that he clearly takes great joy in, Hitchens is surprisingly un-angry in these pages. He is ruminative and illustrative about the many unpleasantries of his condition, and hopeful about the possibilities cutting edge science holds out for a cure (and appropriately upset about the debate over stem cell research). His illness manifests in a slight sloppiness in parts; a phrase doesn’t turn as sharply as it might have, or an argument goes on a little too long. It’s hard to tell if the jumbled assembly of notes and observations that make up the last chapter were a wise inclusion; they hardly seem like what Hitchens would want as his last word.
Whatever the case, there is no trace of sentimentality or despair in Mortality. The gauzier reflections are saved for the foreword by Graydon Carter, Hitchens’ editor at Vanity Fair, and the afterword by Carol Blue, his wife. Hitchens himself is too occupied with reporting on the strange territory in which he is to spend his closing days to descend into woe, approaching it like another new experience, even while knowing it will likely be his last. Mortality serves as closing evidence that if one follows the directive to never be boring, life will return the favor.
– Michael Moats