Contrarian Report

A feisty essayist’s new memoir is drenched in false modesty.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
SINCE THE ANGLO-AMERICAN journalist and provocateur Christopher Hitchens celebrates unconventional views – one of his books is “Letters to a Young Contrarian” – here’s a contrarian report on his latest book.
Hard on the heels of “God Is Not Great,” Hitchens’s 2007 best-selling grab bag of atheistic aphorisms, an enormous amount of publicity, including interviews, profiles, reviews and the like, has been lavished on this feisty essayist’s new memoir, “Hitch-22.” Curiously, none of the publicity that came my way even hinted at how tiresome the book is. I don’t relish knocking a man when he’s already knocked down – Hitchens abruptly canceled his summer publicity tour for the book in the US when he learned he has cancer of the esophagus – but the plain fact is the book is tedious. Here’s why: After the obligatory sketches of parents and far too much on boarding school and sunny days at Oxford, “Hitch-22” launches a catalogue of ancient political battles accompanied by a steady background drum roll of chestbeatings.
In numbing detail, we’re told how this young son of a Royal Navy commander became a Marxist, Trotskyite and International Socialist, how he leafleted this street corner and picketed that factory, arranged this debate and attended that soiree. Venturing abroad in the late 1960s, the fervent ideologue observed the political scenes in Cuba and Czechoslovakia and Portugal and Greece (the latter even as he was in Athens to claim the body of his mother, who had run off with a lover and committed suicide there).
To be sure, Hitchens has gone on from these beginnings to carve himself a distinguished career as a journalist – if that isn’t an oxymoron.
He’s reported from every hot spot on earth – Northern Ireland, the Middle East, central Africa, South America, the Balkans – and he’s rubbed shoulders with presidents, prime ministers, warlords and dictators. But all this is recounted with a kind of forelock-tugging, eyes-downcast self-congratulation. Along the way he shifted from liberalism to neoconservatism, but OK, that happens. He changed from an avowed opponent of American imperialism to – well, to a grateful recipient of American citizenship. He supported the American-led invasion of Iraq and still maintains the existence of Saddam’s WMDs and yellowcake aspirations. And for some reason he’s apparently never met a Kurd he didn’t like.
Throughout his career Hitchens has eagerly sought out the company of intellectuals, from Isaiah Berlin to Noam Chomsky. Over the years he has also adopted some dubious heroes: Gore Vidal, Edward Said, Hunter Thompson, Ahmad Chalaby, Paul Wolfowitz, although in most cases he eventually dumped them.
Hitchens meanwhile doesn’t come off as much of a thinker himself. (The best ideas and quotes in “Hitch-22” are invariably from other sources.) Similarly, Hitchens developed famous friendships with such superb writers as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton and Salman Rushdie. Yet, as a stylist Hitchens simply isn’t in their league. It wasn’t until page 413 of “Hitch-22” – very near the finish line – that I ticked a sentence cluster passage I admired: “The first time I saw a mortar bomb burst, it did so in plain daylight, without the possibility of a targeting error, making an evil howl as it fell against the wall of the beautiful and unmistakable National Library of Bosnia- Herzegovina. I felt an answering shriek within the cave of my own chest. When decoded, this internal yell took the form of a rather simple plea that the United States Air Force appear in the Bosnian skies and fill with fear and trembling the fat, broken-veined faces of the crack Serbian artillerymen who had never until then lost a battle against civilians.”
Too often, however, Hitchens’s prose runs to such florid and overstuffed stuff as this:
“The other paradox is that the very multiculturalism and multiethnicity that brought Salman [Rushdie] to the West, and that also made us richer by Hanif Kureishi, Nadeem Aslam, Vikram Seth, Monica Ali, and many others, is now one of the disguises for uniculturalism, based on moral relativism and moral blackmail (in addition to some more obvious blackmail of the less moral sort) whereby the Enlightenment has been redefined as ‘white’ and ‘oppressive,’ mass illegal immigration threatens to spoil everything for everybody, and the figure of the free-floating transnational migrant has been deposed by the contorted face of the psychopathically religious international nihilist, praying for the day when his messianic demands will coincide with possession of an apocalyptic weapon.” Translation anyone?
There’s no denying Hitchens is well-read and can be entertaining. But aspire as he does to intellectualism and prose mastery, Hitchens at bottom remains, if this isn’t too damning, a journalist. Even as a journo, however, he comes off more inciteful than insightful. In line with his book-length screeds against such figures as Mother Teresa (“The Missionary Position”) and Bill Clinton (“No One Left to Lie To”), Hitchens here finds it difficult to break himself of the sneeringly dismissive descriptor (“the indescribably loathsome Henry Kissinger,” “the reliably terrible Germaine Greer,” “the wretched Michael Dukakis,” “the pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter”). Then there’s this noteworthy dismissal of the State of Israel as “a sixty-year rather botched experiment in marginal quasistatehood… something that the Jewish people could consider abandoning.” (Elsewhere he decries Israel’s “colonists,” “ethnic cleansers” and “torturers.”)
Indeed, probably the most interesting chapter in “Hitch-22,” for readers of this publication concerns his discovery in 1987 that his mother was Jewish. Hitchens receives this news with surprise but also with pleasure; he thinks it helps explain why he has always been a contrarian. Hitchens subsequently traces his family roots in Prussia, explores Jewish history and is happy to look in on synagogues in far-flung places. But none of this alters his atheism. Nor does any of this especially expand his knowledge of Judaism. (As he did in “God Is Not Great,” Hitchens still complains of the “613 prohibitions.”)
To get to the Jewish material, however, readers will have to slog though 15 chapters bulging with such stuffing as the author’s views on long-ago politicians like the late Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, a snooze-inducing analysis of a certain phrase in some now-forgotten speech by Susan Sontag, and reports of Hitch’s smutty word games with Martin Amis, et al. Hitchens admits these games are puerile; doesn’t he listen to himself? (Anyway, Amis makes better use of the same scatological material in his latest novel, “The Pregnant Widow.”)
Then there’s that off-putting matter of the Hitchens ego. No small birthday balloon to begin with, that ego has no doubt been inflated by the success of the recent atheism book and by Hitchens having finally ascended, after decades on a regular gig for The Nation, an admirable but widely unread publication, to the high-profile and high-gloss pages of Vanity Fair. Whatever the cause, “Hitch-22” is drenched in false modesty, soaked as it were with a cloying sauce that nonetheless purposely fails to mask the message that Hitch was there first, Hitch saw it firsthand, Hitch had drinks with so-and-so, Hitch advised such-andsuch, Hitch was always in the know. (He even asserts he was the first to uncover the identity of Watergate’s Deep Throat.)
To be fair, which is rarely a matter of concern for Hitchens, the man does readily admit to his mistakes and misjudgments. But more often than not, even when reporting on something that may not make him look good, he still manages to make himself look good. For example, concerning the case in which a young American, inspired by Hitchens’s prowar writing, enlisted and got himself killed in Iraq, the writer expresses his remorse and then reports on how much the soldier’s family appreciated his compassionate concern for their grief.
By contrast, when Norman Mailer helped to get the killer Jack Abbott sprung from prison, only to see Abbott kill again, Mailer the author never apologized, noting only that such are the risks a writer takes. Unsettling as that may be, I still prefer Mailer over Christopher Hitchens. Both men were self-aggrandizers, but Mailer was much more up front and selfmocking about it. I think he was the deeper man. And Mailer had the literary chops.
The old school of journalism meanwhile holds that reporters belong in the audience and not up on the stage, that on paper they should avoid the first person singular. Christopher Hitchens is decidedly new school. He says he cheerfully embraces the advice of Gore Vidal never to turn down an opportunity to appear on television, earning himself that questionable label of a “personality.” And as for the personal pronoun, Hitchens would be speechless without it.