Twelve/Hachette Book Group, Inc., $26.99 cloth
Arguably, one of the most famous pens in the magazine Vanity Fair each month belongs to Christopher Hitchens, and in his recent memoir, Hitch 22, we clearly hear the magazine’s recognizable style, a gossipy, conversational tone as if one is sitting in front of a roaring fire listening to a raconteur regale the assembled group with what’s really happening in the world. His writing is both intimate and worldly, accessible and sophisticated. Hitchens, the transplanted Englishman, never disappoints the reader looking for strong opinions, juicy details, and wit in abundance.
The memoir follows chronologically, beginning with a discussion of Hitchens’ parents, whom he calls Yvonne and the Commander. A divorce leads to his mother’s murder by her suicidal new paramour, leaving Christopher with many loose ends in the relationship. Hitchens struggles to come to terms with her death, and tags a coda to this chapter about suicide, citing examples of kamikaze pilots, Hindus, and Albert Camus in his exploration of the act of taking one’s own life. He comes to the conclusion that his mother was the victim of a bipolar lover, although he says “she had certainly undergone the wrenching and jarring and abrupt loss of social position and security (and respectability) that had always been of such importance to her.”
The Commander fairs better in this narrative, although Hitchens and his father have a more distant relationship. His father is a disciplined military man, someone for whom ethics and values mean a great deal. Hitchens relates a story about how his father unwittingly engineered his own firing from a boys’ school “which had furnished his last and only economic security.” The headmaster tells the elder Hitchens that he did not have to inform them that he was at the mandatory retirement age. “Nobody was going to make anything of it,” the official says. However, for the Commander, there is no equivocating; a rule is to be obeyed, even if it brings difficulty.
The scenes with his family are poignant and sepia-toned. Hitchens spends so much time away from his family at school that the scenes where they are together contain a lyrical sadness not in evidence when he writes of world affairs. The fact that his father died of cancer of the esophagus, a disease Hitchens is now facing in his own life, completes the tragic circle.
Hitchens is known for his contrarian views. He is an atheist, having written the book, God Is Not Great (2007) and also Letters To A Young Contrarian (2001). He is a prolific writer, contributing to other publications in addition to Vanity Fair, including The Nation and The Atlantic. He makes no apology for his abrasive views, and admits freely that he is a socialist and a liberal who also supported the war in Iraq and former President Bush’s foreign policy. One of the successes of his memoir is the opportunity to see his thinking in action. We read his logic as he lays out clear cases for his positions on a number of issues.
Hitchens is less successful in his profiles of famous people. His chapters on Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, although interesting, are not revealing. The stories he tells about interacting with famous people really hinge on his character and the subject. This is a memoir, and he never lets us forget that he is the central character. His voice is so strong, lending his writing that conversational tone. He has made a career out of the “world according to Hitchens,” and his is an unapologetic, argumentative, and provocative voice.
Hitchens throws in tantalizing tidbits regarding how he came to be a writer. He gathers these anecdotes in a chapter entitled, “Something of Myself.” He speaks of his work schedule, and discusses his contract with Vanity Fair and Graydon Carter, the magazine’s editor. He refers often to the most famous incident where he had himself water-boarded in order to understand this torture technique and its effectiveness.
As for the impact of his writing, he takes us through the innumerable feuds and public arguments he has had with other writers and thinkers. He also speaks of a young man who was inspired to join the military by Hitchens’ pro-war writing. When the young man is killed in battle, Hitchens attempts to rationalize what happened and find peace with it. His words seem manipulative, and he is not altogether successful with his logic. When he warns the reader, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…,” the words seem overwrought and dramatic. In fact, this is where Hitchens’ style falls short. The story is indeed a sad one, but something of the writer’s attempt at manipulation keeps the reader from it as well. Other writers like Joan Didion manage to wring every drop of emotion from a scene without using emotional words, or telling the reader to get ready to shed some tears. It is one of the few areas in the book where Hitchens’ writing feels disingenuous.
If one enjoys the writing in Vanity Fair, and has appreciated Christopher Hitchens’ take on the world, this book will give a more complete picture of the stories, and a little of the personality behind the words. No doubt, Hitchens is an intellectual, philosophical writer in the same league as Susan Sontag. There are occasional moments in Hitch 22 where his heart is on the page, unguarded and vulnerable; at other times, as in the chapter about whether he should be called Chris or Christopher, the tone is a bit trite. Overall, Hitchens is a writer ready for an intellectual fight, and his voice is consistently provocative and pugilistic. He is the master of mental jousting, and his memoir is no exception.
All in all, Christopher Hitchens is a remarkable journalist and writer because he is not just an observer, but a participant in history. He has seen some remarkable things in his travels, and his witness brings the world to us in all its nuance, splendor and tragedy.