In Front of His Nose
Christopher Hitchens has had an orchestra seat from which to view history and has captured a lot—but what has he missed?
Show me a journalist of Christopher Hitchens’s generation on either side of the Atlantic who has not sometimes read his writing with an envious “Wow,” and I’ll show you a journalistic dull dog who has no passion for complicated times, no taste for danger, no ardor for an unpopular cause, and, most important of the lot, no flair for the English language, potently, provocatively, and sometimes promiscuously deployed. I’ll show you, in short, someone whose journalism is to that of Hitchens almost what the phone directory is to the novels of Dickens.
The evasive word in that paragraph, of course, is “sometimes.” Hitchens is certainly a star writer. But he is not a star by whom others should set their own course. There are things about Hitchens that I have always envied and still do. They include his self-confidence, his bravery, his ability to talk as an equal to peasant and president alike, his sense of humor, his audacious phrasemaking, and, in an odd way, his capacity for implacable hatreds I can never share. But—and here’s the rub—there are also qualities that matter which Hitchens intermittently mislays. We all have these faults of one kind or another, but a list of these occasional gaps in Hitchens’s case might include necessary restraint and objectivity, a little conditionality atop the certainty, and perhaps that elusive acumen that Norman Mailer once called the essential journalistic quality of the modern era. Envy Hitch by all means, but don’t inhale.
All of these virtues and vices, as well as many others, are liberally displayed and generously mingled in Hitchens’s richly written and immensely readable memoir. Hitchens is most famous now as a polemicist—he is not a man to skewer a reputation with a single thrust when a dazzling display of extended rhetorical swordplay will do. But he is mostly a loyal and generous friend, and he is capable of more tolerance (with some choice exceptions, such as the journalist and Hillary Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal). Few words recur more often in this book than friend: “My old friend,” “our then-friend,” “my dear friend,” “my esteemed friend,” “my later friend,” “my Canadian friend,” “my one-day-to-be friend”—and in the case of the book’s dedicatee James Fenton, “my beloved friend.”
Yet this generous loyalty has its limits and conditions in both directions. Another word that recurs quite often in this book, even now, is “comrade,” and so it should, since Hitchens has always, until recently, been identifiably a man of the radical post-Communist left, and comrade has always been a vernacular Hitchens usage. But not all his comrades of yesteryear would use the word of Hitchens today, as he has moved improbably about the political spectrum. Nor would he use it of some of them, except perhaps sarcastically.
As so often in memoirs, the most eloquent pages are those about the writer’s childhood and upbringing. Here there is frequently something unexpected, urgent, and unique to say, qualities which rarely extend to the later and, on the face of it, more important chapters in which career milestones and meetings with the famous are detailed. Hitchens is no exception. His descriptions of, and his insights into, his parents’ very different personalities are among the most affecting things he has ever written. The characters come alive with a novelist’s eye for detail (although Hitchens’s younger brother Peter, a prominent British moral conservative commentator, is here a more shadowy figure, treated with some fraternal tact).
Hitchens’s father—prematurely retired and painfully reticent Royal Navy officer described here as “The Commander” whom Hitchens says is best summed up by “the flat statement that the war of 1939 to 1945 had been ‘the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing’ ”—is hard to recognize in Christopher, his elder son. In the case of his mother Yvonne—outgoing, attractive, and optimistic—the inherited threads of Hitchens’s DNA are more apparent. Inevitably she was the boy’s favorite. And it is her big secrets—the decision to hide her Jewishness from her sons and, catastrophically, her suicide with her lover in an Athens hotel in 1973—that still preoccupy Hitchens in this account.
When he wrote the chapter that ends with his father’s death in 1987 and that contains a particularly evocative description of the strong silent relatives who attended the Commander’s funeral—“These distant kinsmen gave a hasty clasp of the hand and faded back into the chalky landscape. It was all stark enough to have pleased my father at his most downbeat”—did Hitchens have any premonition of the miserable symmetry that meant that he too would shortly be struck by the cancer of the esophagus that killed his father? Surely not, even though Hitchens has been a smoker and a legendary drinker for much of his life.
My own first impression of the 18-year-old Hitchens was of relief at meeting, amid the intimidating surrounds of Balliol College in the fall of 1967, someone both so sociable and so politically congenial. Fellow undergraduates, both studying Oxford’s famous philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) course, we both, I am fairly certain, went into Balliol’s gothic dining hall that first evening wearing nuclear disarmament badges on our lapels—Christopher’s is visible in one of the early photographs in the memoir—and we may both have been wearing brown corduroy jackets of the kind that, in England at least in those days, marked one out as vaguely bohemian. Rebellious—or what?
He talked that evening of Rosa Luxemburg, of whom he was a huge admirer, and of Victor Serge, to whose novels he introduced me, as well as of Che Guevara, who had just been killed in Bolivia. I told him that my father, a Communist professor, had met Che in Havana in 1962, and that I had a photograph of the two of them together. He was impressed, although not at all with my father’s membership in the CP—Hitchens was and still is puritanically unforgiving of those who were “fatally compromised by Stalinism.” He told me of his naval and public school background and that he had avoided both the senior service regime of “rum, sodomy, and the lash”—Churchill’s phrase—and its prep-school equivalent, “beating, bullying, and buggery.” He joked that he had never been big enough or desperate enough to inflict them on anyone else. That joke and the selfsame phrases that he used in Oxford long ago recur in the memoir, so I can vouch for the authenticity of his material.
Other aspects of the self-depiction of the young Hitchens ring slightly less true. He always had a talent for intellectual dramatization—even self-dramatization—that as an undergraduate I immediately recognized, not least because I had some of the same qualities too. “I became too omnivorous in my reading, trying too hard to master new words and concepts, and to let them fall in conversation or argument, with sometimes alarming results,” he writes of his school days. He was seen, he admits, as “a pseudo-intellectual.” Something of that still remained when he reached Oxford. I remember discussing with him John Wain’s 1958 novel The Contenders, in which two schoolboy rivals develop a competitive habit of citing plausible but bogus academic references in their essays to impress teachers who are too gullible and intimidated to dispute them. We should try it in our next economics seminar, he suggested. We never did.
Yet something of that theatrical intellectualism still endures. At one point, Hitchens writes: “ ‘Cacoethia scribendi,’ says Paul Cavafy somewhere: the itch to scribble.” Pretentious? Le Hitch? This reads rather like the school of John Wain to me. And it does so the more because, a couple of pages earlier, Hitchens has written about “a memorable debate” between the historians A‰lie Halévy and Eric Hobsbawm on whether Methodism saved England from revolution. This memorability is surprising, since Halévy, who was born in 1870, died in 1937, and Hobsbawm (born 1917 and still living) wrote his essay on Methodism in 1957. As faults go these may be marginal, but they keep one on the alert and they curb what in other respects would be less restrained enthusiasm. An Oxford contemporary once said of Hitchens that in argument he sometimes allows his finger to rest on the scales, a comment this book brought back to mind.
Did he really go to bed with “two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government”? Does it matter? The tease has caused great excitement in the relevant quarters in Britain. I have heard skeptics who think it unlikely—the finger on the scales again. But the phrase is carefully constructed, so it is probably true in some broad sense, and the memoir is generally discreet about Hitchens’s sexual partners, of whom there were many, always pretty, so let us leave it at that. It is a pity, though, that there is no reference in the memoir to one of the most celebrated features of Hitchens’s seduction suite in Balliol: the large poster-size black and white photograph over the bed of—himself.
Hitchens led a kind of double life as an undergraduate. He encapsulates it here as the “Chris” versus “Christopher” duality. On the one hand there was Chris the committed New Leftist, the not terribly hard-working, not particularly intellectual PPE student who was a dedicated member of the International Socialists, seller of Labour (later Socialist) Worker, and always near the heart of every demonstration and picket line—and, yes, I think I remember the beret to which he refers. At the same time there was Christopher, the chic careerist, out to make a name and an impression in a more traditional Oxford way: friend of the darkly camp reactionary John Sparrow, the warden of the exclusive All Souls College; Oxford Union buddy of the nice but dim Tory Viscount Lewisham (son of an earl and step-brother of Lady Diana Spencer); and consorter with impossibly remote Oxford grandees like Isaiah Berlin, A. L. Rowse, or the visiting Noam Chomsky.
Hitchens now disowns Chris in favour of Christopher and claims that he wanted to shed his Chris side even then. I am not so sure. I think the truth is less tidy. He wanted to have it both ways, as we all do. I wonder whether in some ways he still does. He certainly made no secret of this other “Christopher” life but it meant that those of us who flew less close to the sun than he did always felt there was something not quite serious about him. This doubtless says something about both of us, not necessarily to his discredit, but it was to be a recurrent theme as he grew older and more controversial, and it still is.
A memoir is a memoir. It is not a wider history of its subject’s times. And yet it is hard not to feel that a failing of Hitchens’s book is that it does not really offer a very considered picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the British New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, or of its place in the wider international context. These were, after all, times of great cultural upheaval and of social and political fracturing across continents. Internationally speaking, in 1968, Oxford was on the margins of the margins. Yet Hitchens, who still fiercely identifies with the movements of those years, offers few insights into their strengths, their weaknesses, and their legacy. It would have been valuable to have his deeper reflections 40 years on. In their absence, one is left with a nagging sense of major historical events providing a mere backdrop to the flowering of his and Martin Amis’s gifted imaginations.
This is an important point. Hitchens has a chronic tendency to appear much more interested in seeing history through the prism of arguments between a small group of celebrated public intellectuals (himself included, of course) than as larger political conflicts. It is as though the Spanish Civil War is important because of what it meant to George Orwell, Serge, or Arthur Koestler, rather than in terms of what it meant to Spain and Spaniards. The Sixties? Ah, that was when Hitch met Amis and Fenton. Bosnia? That was where Hitch parted company with Susan Sontag. Israel-Palestine? That was when Hitch broke with Edward Saïd. And so on.
Why did Hitchens leave Britain? Partly, inevitably, and irresistibly, it was what he calls “the long, strong gravitational pull of the great American planet,” a pull that is just as strong in Oxford or London as anywhere else, not least because of the money. Partly, perhaps, because as a son of the Royal Navy he is a natural voyager. Partly, I suspect, because at that stage in his life, his beloved mother having killed herself, he just thought it was time to get away. Partly he thought he might be able to make a name in the United States as a younger Alexander Cockburn, who had already blazed the trail from London to the pages of The Nation. Partly, too, because he was already detached from and dissatisfied with British politics. In a curiously phrased remark— “When the election day came I deliberately did not vote to keep Labour in office”—he reveals that he abstained from voting in the 1979 British general election, the one in which Margaret Thatcher came to power at the start of 18 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule. Not many people of Hitchens’s generation on the British left would have done that, however jaundiced their view of the Labour party. It is a telling admission.
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