Hitch-22, a memoir

June 1, 2010 • 9:23 am

Christopher Hitchens’s “autobiography,” Hitch-22, is out in the U.S. tomorrow.  The reviews so far have been pretty positive.

I’ll be buying it, simply because he’s always interesting and witty, even when he’s wrong.  In this respect he’s the Orwell of our generation.  I thought I’d collect some of the major reviews (and excerpts) here if you want opinions before buying.  Since the book came out in the UK on May 20, most of these are British:

The Guardian (and a snarky interview with Hitch by Decca Aikenhead)

The portrait of Hitchens to emerge from this book, then, is at odds with his self-image. He thinks of himself as an ironist, permanently alert to the contradictions of the world, a master of negative capability. In fact, he’s a born polemicist, only fully alive when marshalling all his forces to advance a particular cause. His critics accuse him of being a professional controversialist, taking up positions merely in order to be given the opportunity to defend them in print and on television. But few traces of such opportunism are detectable in this memoir. On the contrary, it’s the absence of cynicism that’s so striking. He’s an ideologue, as full of passionate intensity when defending George Bush Jr as he was when attacking Richard Nixon.

The Independent

The Rushdie fatwa brings out the combative best in his writing; his call for “a bit of character and guts and integrity,” his willingness to put himself in the firing line, his lack of patience with anyone who doesn’t feel like joining him. His musings on Islamophobia and the need for executive action against Saddam Hussein read too much like essays – until he tells the story of Mark Jennings Daily, a young Californian who went off to Iraq to fight, and die, for a war in which he believed because of Hitchens’s writings.

Times of London

But there is far more in this engaging book than fury. Hitchens is a vain man but he has much to be vain about: intelligence, wit, style, charm, a prodigious memory and a fluency in debate that brings packed houses to wherever he expounds his views. He declares his favourite word in the English language to be “library” and he has indeed read and remembers a very great deal. Auden, Dawkins, Clare, Orwell and Joyce are cited on the first two pages. Yet this is not a bookish life: Hitchens has been out and about wherever the action is: Prague, Poland, Sarajevo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, sometimes arrested, often duffed up. This is no coward’s tale.

The Telegraph

More striking than the way in which the content of his opinions has changed, however, is the continuity in the manner in which he has held those opinions. He likes to think of himself as a rational sceptic, but he isn’t really: his views are more visceral than that, his lurches from one deeply held position to the next driven mostly by gut instinct. Fine orator and fluent writer though he is, he’s never been much of an analytical thinker, and his style of argument proceeds more by a series of emphatic, emotive and stylish assertions (he magnificently denounces Argentina’s General Videla as looking ‘like a cretin impersonating a toothbrush’), by appeals to common sense and common feeling, than by logical reasoning.

Columbia Journalism Review

Since Hitchens cares so deeply about literary judgments (his oeuvre is almost devoid of references to painters, dancers, musicians, and filmmakers), let it be said that, at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the writing in Hitch-22 is mostly gorgeous. But the book feels too long and too uneven: some chapters are lean, others are bloated. In the latter, Hitchens is like a jazz saxophonist who crams too many notes into his solos. Names clog the pages: “My later friend Jessica Mitford . . . my Argentine anti-fascist friend Jacobo Timerman . . . my beloved friend Christopher Buckley.” My patience gave out when I reached the chapter about Martin Amis, in which the speed of the name-dropping—and the intensity of the backslapping and self-satisfaction—becomes insufferable. We are supposed to be impressed that the young Amis recited, from memory, “a spine-tingling rendition of Humbert Humbert’s last verbal duel with Quilty,” and that “Martin has done the really hard thinking about handjobs.” If an enemy of Hitchens were to write about a friend in such gushing terms, Hitchens would annihilate him.

The Washington Post

It’s been said by unkind people that an honest politician is one who, once bought, stays bought. So is an honest journalist one who, once bamboozled, stays bamboozled? Call me naive — please! — but I’m floored that the great dirt-digger still clings to the certainty, peddled by Paul Wolfowitz and Ahmed Chalabi and long since discredited, that the late Saddam Hussein was unseated for his tyranny and his possession of weapons of mass destruction. Tyranny? Has Hitchens seen what we’re still sucking up to? Most tyrants, of course, aren’t squatting atop a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves. Even Alan Greenspan wrote in his 2007 memoir that it was “politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil.”

The San Francisco Chronicle

Alas, Hitchens’ mother didn’t live to see very much of this. She killed herself in Athens in the early 1970s, as part of a suicide pact with her lover. Hitchens’ account of the death and the task he faced arranging her funeral in Greece, dealing with corrupt officials and clergy, displays a tenderness and emotional depth that isn’t always present in the rest of the book.

It was only much later that Hitchens discovered that his mother, and therefore he, was Jewish. In some ways it seems surprising that Hitchens makes so much of his Jewishness. A true nonbeliever might be expected to regard it with genuine indifference. In any case, these two revelations of maternal suicide and ethnicity would be more than enough for many a memoir, but Hitchens gives us far more than that.

Here’s Hitchens discussing his book in a two-part interview (total: 15 minutes) with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s well worth watching, especially for the bits on his mother (first video) and on Iraq (second video).

16 thoughts on “Hitch-22, a memoir

  1. I guess the name is based on Heller’s “Catch-22”? That makes sense. Pop-culture defines “Catch-22” as a trap, you can’t do A until you do B, but you can’t do B until you do A. The final chapters of the novel reveal the darker meaning, “Those in power can make up the rules”.

  2. I am not quite sure if Hitchens knows the difference between an atheist and an egoist (as in a self-centred boor).
    Anyway he is very good at giving hte impression that everything revolves around him.
    And obviously he is a very good debater when it is a question of winning an argument without much consideration for the truth.
    But then again, arguing with believers is shooting fish in a barrel.
    And the Salon review is spot on.

  3. It was only much later that Hitchens discovered that his mother, and therefore he, was Jewish. In some ways it seems surprising that Hitchens makes so much of his Jewishness. A true nonbeliever might be expected to regard it with genuine indifference.

    I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Hitchens was a borderline anti-Semite and vociferous critic of Israel before learning about his ancestry. Subsequently, he did almost a 180 becoming rather pro-Israel, although a critic of the settlements.

    1. I’d like some evidence of the 180.

      The reviewer’s comment about Hitch’s attitude toward his Jewishness was idiotic. First, it said that he was not “a true nonbeliever”? WTF! I would easily place his picture in the dictionary entry for true nonbeliever. Second, Jewishness is much more than, and sometimes not at all about, religious belief. I’m surprised that this point even needs to be made.

      Think how obvious this statement is, my Norwegianness is an important part of me, but I don’t believe in even a single Norse god. (Although Loki is really cool.)

  4. Here’s a story about Hitchens that you won’t be reading in his autobiography. He does have his own version, but I tell you here as a matter of fact that I am one of the few people that can give you the full version, which is a lot funnier and a lot more human.

    I’m married to a Beiruti and have had the pleasure of visiting Beirut and Lebanon many times, and know lots of Lebanese from various backgrounds. One story that every Beiruti knows is the massacre of IDF soldiers at the Wimpy Cafe on Hamra Street during the Israeli Invasion in 1982. This was the first audacious and successful act of resistance against a hated invader, and is part of the local folklore, though is not, until recently, commemorated anywhere. Just as shown in Ari Folman’s superb and important film Waltz With Bashir—watch it now if you haven’t already—one of the bizarre realities of the Israeli invasion was the IDF soldiers taking the opportunity to enjoy the cosmopolitan pleasures of Beirut. This left them vulnerable to attack, as at the fabled Wimpy Cafe. You’ll see that Ari Folman immortalizes the attack in a brief clip in his film.

    Now cut back to the early 1930s when the Syrian/Lebanese Antun Saadeh visits Germany, and, inspired by the newly empowered Nazis, thinks that it would be just great to export these wonderful ideals back home. He founds the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) with the nutty ideal of creating “Greater Syria” (that would include Cyprus!), and even designs an attractive swastika flag that blends the Cross—his religion—and the Crescent into the “zawba’a” (hurricane) swastika. But don’t necessarily get too caught up on the Nazi backdrop—in spite of the history, the SSNP’s Nazi connections somehow dropped precipitously after WWII, and the SSNP is nowadays aligned with the Syrian government and stand accused of performing nasty work like political assassination and intimidation. They are nearly universally despised in Lebanon, depending on the individual’s sectarian alignment, but this good standing has nothing to do with past associations.

    Now cut to 2009. There is a strategically important Lebanese election whose contestants are the US/Western aligned March 14 Hariri family coalition and the the March 18 Hezbollah/Syria coalition, who, empowered by Israel’s disastrous 2006 invasion, now has a very good shot of running the entire country. Just fantastic geopolitical strategy and acumen on Israel’s part!, that war, but let’s stick to the topic. To garner attention and support in the west, March 14 arranges a junket for several prominent journalists, including Hitchens, to visit Lebanon. Hitchens arrives in Beirut and that very afternoon goes to Hamra on an errand with some friends. One friend, Michael Totten, is explaining the local political landscape to Hitchens, including the part about the SSNP intimidating the Sunnis in 2008 by plastering their swastika flag all over Beirut. But again, some local context: no one really sees SSNP’s flag as a swastika at all, much less a Nazi one; when I first told this story to my wife, who had seen this flag many times, she said, “Oh Yeah … that IS is swastika.”

    So Hitchens is walking down Hamra and says to Totten, “Why, there’s one of those Swastikas right now!”, pointing to a small flag on a little placard hanging from a street post. Seizing the moment to fight fascism just like his hero Orwell, Hitchens pulls out a marker and starts righting F**K YOU on the sign. But there’s a problem, several problems. Hitchens doesn’t read Arabic and has no idea what the sign says. More important and more dangerously, there’s a SSNP guy hanging in a nearby cafe who sees Hitchens deface the sign. He runs over to Hitchens to stop him and calls up his buddies who arrive in a hurry and start beating on Hitchens. Hitchens thinks he’s taking a position of zero-Nazi-tolerance, but in fact what he’s done is to deface the war memorial for the fighter martyred after he massacred the Israeli soldiers at the Wimpy Cafe. That’s bad. And stupid. It’s like saying to everyone watching that he’s an Israeli agent himself and not only supports the 1982 invasion, but the 2006 invasion that just happened. Not the message you want to send in downtown Beirut. Hitchens could have got himself and his friends killed, really. Fortunately, they just got scraped up a bit with a story to tell. Michael Totten has his and Hitchens’s version at his blog.

  5. Prospect has a negative review by the same guy who a few years ago wrote a lengthy profile of Hitchens.

  6. Snarky?

    I thought Decca Aikenhead’s review was quite smashing, actually.

    Haven’t even viewed the other Hitch material yet, but thanks in advance for posting it!

  7. “Letters to a Young Contrarian” is, arguably, a good precursor to the memoir. Regardless of one’s opinion of the man, an element worth keeping (in the Hitchens legacy) would be the art of dialectics.

  8. I like and admire Christopher Hitchens, but I wish he’d pony-up and admit that he was wrong to support the invasion of Iraq. Saddam was a bad boy, but we haven’t done the Iraqi people much good, either. (Unless killing large numbers of them is “good”, which it ain’t.)

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