Books of The Times
In Memoir, Christopher Hitchens Looks Back
By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: June 1, 2010
Christopher Hitchens was in boarding school and barely out of short pants when he first learned that “words could function as weapons.” He was small, bad at sports and got picked on. He worried he was becoming “a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag.” So one day he turned on a tormenter. “You,” the young Mr. Hitchens declared, “are a liar, a bully, a coward, and a thief.” His stunned tormentor slunk away.
Here was a Harry Potter moment — cue cello and then full orchestra — in which Mr. Hitchens, a presumed Muggle, the product of a staid middle-class British family, was revealed instead to be a kind of wizard. He would grow up, a process recounted in his electric and electrifying new memoir, “Hitch-22,” to confront wartier bullies. Here he is, later in the book, on Henry Kissinger: “liar, murderer, war criminal, pseudo-academic, bore.”
Mr. Hitchens soon learned a second cheerful lesson about the potent art of rhetoric. While studying at Oxford in the late 1960s (he was in the room on the famous night that Bill Clinton didn’t inhale), he discovered that “if you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you never need dine or sleep alone.”
These twin discoveries — that words have moral force and that they can bring intense pleasure (not merely sexual but intellectual) — form the strains that underpin both Mr. Hitchens’s life and his high-spirited memoir.
“Hitch-22” traces Mr. Hitchens’s coming of age as a public intellectual and as a man, and charts the long and serrated arc of his thinking about politics, from his early days as a militant member of the International Socialists to his gradual drift toward positions, like his support for the Iraq War, that have made some on the left scratch their heads.
Anyone who’s closely read Mr. Hitchens’s work — including his best-selling manifesto “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007) — or seen him do battle on cable news programs, knows that he has a mind like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent’s arguments with a flick of the wrist. He holds dear the serious things, the things that matter: social justice, learning, direct language, the free play of the mind, loyalty, holding public figures to high standards.
His mental Swiss Army knife also contains, happily, a corkscrew. Mr. Hitchens is devoted to wit and bawdy wordplay and to good Scotch and cigarettes (though he has recently quit smoking) and long nights spent talking. He is also devoted to friendship. “Hitch-22” is among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one’s friends — Mr. Hitchens’s close ones include Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and the poet James Fenton — I’ve ever read. The business and pleasure sides of Mr. Hitchens’s personality can make him seem, whether you agree with him or not, among the most purely alive people on the planet.
“Hitch-22” does a sleek, funny job of rolling out his life story. He was born in 1949 in Portsmouth, into a less-than-bookish family: his father was a career navy man. Mr. Hitchens was precocious. According to family legend, his first complete sentence was “Let’s all go and have a drink at the club.”
His parents scraped to send him to boarding school at the tender age of 8. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country,” his mother said, “then Christopher is going to be in it.” Mr. Hitchens strode through boarding school, and then through Cambridge and Oxford, stuffing himself with learning (novels, mostly) that generally wasn’t on the syllabus. “I was probably insufferable,” he concedes.
The Cuban missile crisis terrified him and taught him to pay attention to the world. “If politics could force its way into my life in such a vicious and chilling manner, I felt, then I had better find out a bit more about it,” he writes. He became, in Mr. Fenton’s words, “the second most famous person in Oxford” (the first was a student playwright named Mike Rosen) thanks to his fearsome debating skills and his willingness to attend every left-wing demonstration within 500 miles.
Once Mr. Hitchens leaves Oxford, “Hitch-22” is off to the races, detailing his early years as a literary journalist in London, his budding friendships with Mr. Amis and Mr. Fenton and Clive James (among many others), and his Zelig-like ability to be in international capitals when trouble was brewing. “One of the juiciest pleasures of life is to be able to salute and embrace, as elected leaders and honored representatives, people whom you first met when they were on the run or in exile” or prison, he writes.
In the early 1980s — not long after he called Margaret Thatcher “sexy” in print — Mr. Hitchens moved to America. His drift away from the left began in 1989, after the fatwa against Mr. Rushdie. Mr. Hitchens felt that many on the left acted cowardly, blaming Mr. Rushdie for the response to his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” and rationalizing the reaction of Islamic extremists.
This drift continued after 9/11. “When you have seen the Pentagon still smoldering across the river, from the roof of your own apartment building, you are liable to undergo an abrupt shift of perspective that qualifies any nostalgia for Norman Mailer’s ‘Armies of the Night’ or Allen Ginsberg’s quixotic attempt to levitate the building,” he writes.
He supported the invasion of Iraq, in large part, because of his sense of the wickedness of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Before long in this book he is traveling with Paul D. Wolfowitz, a neoconservative in the Bush administration and one of that war’s architects, and referring to “my new friend Michael Chertoff,” then President Bush’s secretary of homeland security.
“An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful,” George Orwell, one of Mr. Hitchens’s literary touchstones, wrote. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Mr. Hitchens passes this test, if only by a nose. “Hitch-22” has its share of words like “embarrassing” and “shame” and “misgiving.” He is bitter about the way the Iraq war was actually conducted. And he ruefully admits he has been a less than stellar father to his own children.
“Hitch-22” is far from downbeat, however. It is packed with people — everyone from William Styron, Jessica Mitford and Isaiah Berlin to Nora Ephron, Keith McNally and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom arrive attached to good anecdotes. A generous friend, Mr. Hitchens gives most of his book’s good lines (and there are many, a good deal of them unprintable here) to the people he loves.
Those good lines including this one, from Clive James, who began a review of a Leonid Brezhnev memoir this way: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it…. If it were read in the open air, birds would fall stunned from the sky.”
Whatever the opposite of that book is, Mr. Hitchens has written it.