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-indulgentby Alexander Linklater / May 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…