Christopher Hitchens’s autobiography is at its best when it echoes his essays. Unfortunately, the rest of the time it’s largely pointless and self-indulgent
Rebel with a cause: Christopher Hitchens on a picket line in the 1960s
Hitch 22: a Memoir
by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, £20)
In 1988, Christopher Hitchens wrote a characteristically scintillating essay for the American magazine, Grand Street, which was, uncharacteristically, about himself. Though his public arguments have always been driven by a powerful urge to self-advertise, this article has remained, until now, his only directly autobiographical piece of writing. In it he turned the business of self-disclosure into a warning about the pitfalls and deceptions of identity politics.
Entitled “On Not Knowing the Half of It,” the essay told the story of how his younger brother, Peter, had discovered that their late mother had been Jewish—a fact unknown even to their father. Hitchens then uses this as material with which to examine the problem of “thinking with the blood”; of the curiosity of ethnic identity and of its relevance, and irrelevance, to one’s political ideas. He describes his irritation at an editor who had suggested that this discovery would make his life easier, because “Jewish people are allowed to criticise Israel.” Had it really come to this, he wonders, that who you are might either justify or undermine your arguments?
“Enough of such sickly self-examination,” he bridles at his own personal recollections, as if conscious of a Marxist tap on the shoulder reminding him that the inner life is, at best, no more than grist to a greater mill. Revelation was subservient to argument. He had a point to make: about history casting off tribalism, and progressing.
Twenty-two years later, there might have been a different kind of point for Hitchens to make in publishing a full memoir. He is the most disputed, admired, reviled and known-about English political journalist still living: and his counter-intuitive journey through the last days of the intellectual left may be seen as a paradigm of its demise. What emerges from this structurally incoherent morass of reminiscence, however, is a dismaying sense that Hitchens should have stuck to his original injunction against self-examination.
The biographical monographs he has previously published—most especially those on Orwell, Paine and Jefferson—incisively captured key moments of politicisation in his subjects: the prose surgical, the analysis definitive. When it comes to turning the light on himself, however, it’s as if a half-naked old colonel has been discovered burbling to himself in his dressing room. The prose has become meandering and purposeless. Hitchens has been the recipient of many heinous accusations over his career, but never the crime of sloppy writing.
Towards the end of the book, there is one powerful chapter that hints at what might have been. Here, Hitchens reprises his most controversial arguments in support of the Iraq war. Against a background of visits to the country and connections to Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents dating back to 1975, Hitchens revisits the subject of a recent article he wrote for Vanity Fair, about a young American soldier called Mark Daily, an intelligent idealist and patriot who had volunteered for active duty in Iraq out of a sincere belief in the American mission and who had died in Mosul in 2007. Letters that Lieutenant Daily wrote home revealed that he had drawn some of his beliefs from articles written by Hitchens.
This event brings on a rare moment of soul-searching, and his account of coming to terms with the soldier’s grief-stricken but dignified family is by far the most moving and gripping episode in all the 422 pages of this memoir. He explores his own moment of crisis—and confronts the consequences of his ideas.
There’s the hint of a story here about political ideas, and their role in action, that would have been worth the telling. There are few figures better-armed than Hitchens to describe, even to embody, the journey of modern Trotskyism from the explosions of 1968, to the convulsions of 1989, via the ideological disarray of war in the Balkans, and into the new polarisations of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Yet his self-interrogation over Mark Daily’s death is the only glimpse we get of an autobiography of ideas.
Elsewhere, we are left with dead ends, non-sequiturs and half-arguments. Hitchens describes 1968, for instance, as the end of a revolutionary tradition rather than the resurrection of one—a potentially fertile theme that is left entirely unexplained or developed. “I cannot tell you,” he tells us, how much the distinction between Leninism and Stalinism matters—and, true to his word, he doesn’t. He declares that the labour movement which created the NHS is everything to him—and scarcely mentions it again. Though the chapter on Iraq bristles with his familiar energy, it stands thematically unsupported within a disorientating chronology in which, for example, he comes to discussions of events which took place a decade earlier in Bosnia after he has dispensed with his thoughts on Iraq.
With no narrative through-line of political or literary development, Hitch 22 relies on the assumption that its readers will want to follow its author’s arbitrary recollections of family, friends, opinions and travels. He gives over whole chapters to [James] “Fenton,” “Salman” [Rushdie], and “Martin” [Amis]. But the more he writes about them, the less he seems to reveal. Fenton, he declares, was a marvellous poet who liked long walks and “the ancient buildings and antique trees and botany of Oxford.” Did that sentence really fall from the pen of Christopher Hitchens?
The friend on whom he lavishes the purplest ink is Martin Amis, and there are mortifying hints that he has used Amis’s own masterpiece of memoir, Experience, as a model. Hence, perhaps, the leaps in theme and chronology, the lurches between private and public worlds, and the grizzly fumbling for comic self-exposure. Mutual masturbation at public school, or homosexual encounters at university—with future cabinet ministers in a Thatcher government—are referred to at once coyly (he withholds significant names) and tastelessly. He and his Oxford contemporary Bill Clinton, he reveals, were at different times involved “with a pair of Leckford girls who, principally Sapphic in their interests, would arrange for sessions of group frolic.”
The baroque flourishes of the idiom seem to have arisen from a graveyard where parodies of PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh were long-ago buried. Hitchens throws off his autobiographical inhibitions, only to flounder in an unfamiliar goo of selfhood. His problem is that self-exposure in memoir is not just a matter of yanking down your literary trousers. It requires knowledge of what interests the reader; it requires self-knowledge; and, above all, it requires aesthetic shape and wit. But where Martin Amis may be the stylistic master of the cruel ego, Hitchens exposes himself as a clumsy apprentice of the horrible id.
It’s tempting to wonder what Amis will make of the Hitch’s descent into a style that refers to the “burgeoning refulgence of our love,” and which reprises effortful jocularities such as “Martin has done the really hard thinking on hand jobs.” The nearest these two came to falling out was when Amis published his 2002 book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, in which he criticised the failure of the western left properly to own up to its complicity in the communist nightmare. Hitchens responded by accusing Amis of political naivety—of not knowing his Bukharin from his Bakunin. But now Hitchens has exposed a naivety of his own, adrift in a form of self-expression in which he is simply inexperienced. Perhaps Amis should return the insult he famously received in his old friend’s review of the Stalin book: “Don’t. Be. Silly.”
A couple of years ago, in order to produce a profile of Hitchens for this magazine, I spent several days with him in Washington DC, grateful for his hospitality, and making no disguise of my admiration for his writing and arguments—the difficulty of his positions being part of the attraction. The idea was to discuss his personal history in the light of his political journey, to see if one made sense of the other. Those talks are the most memorable and enjoyable I have had with any writer.
Many of the accounts in this book I recognise from what he talked about then. But here they entirely lack the brilliance and avidity of his conversation. In early chapters, he describes his mother, and her terrible death, with deep emotion. More surprisingly, he also writes passionately about his father, a brave but disappointed naval officer in whom it is easy enough to discern some of Hitchens’s fighting spirit—and mistrust of introspection. But there is no developmental theme to bind these personal reflections to anything in his wider life.
Towards the end of Hitch 22—a title that remains anomalous throughout—Hitchens returns to the problem of Jewishness that he addressed in “On Not Knowing the Half of It.” Expanding from his original essay, the personal and political meanings of the subject seem not to enlarge, but rather to dissipate. He has somehow contrived to say less in a book than he did in an article.
If this is a warning about the pitfalls of memoir, it is also a reminder of the power of the essay. For, along with its generic peers, the pamphlet and the monograph, the essay is the form in which Hitchens has long been a genuine master: when there was an argument to be had, and a point to be made.
Alexander Linklater’s profile of Christopher Hitchens appeared in Prospect’s June 2008 issue
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