Ian McEwan on Hitchens’s last days

December 17, 2011 • 6:32 pm

I’ve avoided reading most of the Hitchens obituaries, for they make me too sad.  But some have stood out: the eulogy by his brother, a wonderful remembrance by his officemate at The Nation, and yesterday’s memorial in The New York Times by author Ian McEwan.

It’s all about books, ideas, and Hitchens’s fierce drive to keep producing up to the very end. Here’s the ending. McEwan is paying his last visit to Hitchens at the hospital in Houston:

The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.

Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.

When people learn that their time is coming to an end, they often do the things they neglected in life: travel, visit friends—anything but what they did in their “normal” lives. That is, after all, what the “The Bucket List” was all about.  Hitchens just kept on writing, for that was what he was born for, what he loved to do.  He didn’t need to change his habits when death was nigh, because he had lived exactly the way he wanted.

We often hear that we should live as if each day was our last.  That’s not possible, of course, because we’re humans, and we make plans. But we should surely live each day cognizant of—but not obsessed with—our mortality, and so few of us do. Hitchens did.

Do read McEwan’s piece.

18 thoughts on “Ian McEwan on Hitchens’s last days

  1. Yes, the piece nearly made me cry. It is a very powerful and dignified encomium on the beauty of male friendship. I honestly admire Mr. McEwan for doing what I wish I would have done, in his place. I thank him for his care and tenderness and condole his loss of an old pal. “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”, and Ian showed what it is to be the best of men.

  2. Thank you for the links. David Corn, there’s another enjoyer of life that our young would do well to emulate.

  3. I liked Suasn Jacoby’s ‘On Faith’ remeberance, in which she does not gloss over Hitchens’ unfortunate loss of his marbles in the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001. He was a great writer and a powerful speaker, but he supported George w. Bush and his dishonest pretexts for an illegal, horrendous war; he never recanted that support even when it became plainly apparent to anyone willing to look honestly at the war what a disaster it was, in every respect.

      1. You are right, of course; posthumous discussion of a man famed for his honesty and to a large degree for his writing about politics should eschew honest mention of his politics, because…uhh…what?

  4. I had the opposite experience to Jerry – and I read everything I could, as it meant that there was still a connection. I left quite a list on yesterday’s WEIT. The personal suffering of Hitch was very hard to read, and I reread his renouncement of Nietzsche’s dictum.


    He was existentially courageous until the end, and I don’t know if I would have had that courage. Viktor Frankl is the only person I can think of who comes close, and he had a small hope at the time, whereas Hitch was choosing the very ugly side of Tumorville to keep on talking.

  5. This reminded me of a great story I heard about Asimov (can’t vouch for it being true. Heard it told around the time that he died)– When asked what he would do if he was told he had only five minutes to live, he answered “Type faster.”
    I hope that is true.

    And McEwan is one of my favorite writers. I loved “On Chesil Beach” and was moved to tears by “Atonement”.

      1. Thanks for the comment and reference. Yes, he had feet of clay, however he readily admitted that in principle, however not about the Iraq war in particular. And yes, there is a hagiography, as his brilliance was tumultuous, and much of it was used to put forward the cause of reason over religion by authority. This group, under the pen of Dr Coyne, is focused on freedom from religion, and freedom for science, especially with regard to evolution and Hitch was a forceful speaker in this domain. So he is our flawed hero. How many of us are without them!

        1. I think we have reached an accord. My admiration dates from his days at The Nation; despite my subsequent disappointment with him in some considerable regards, with respect to the concerns of this site it continued unabated.

  6. His unworldly fluency never deserted him . . .

    Hitch certainly seemed to have the answer to not only chemo-brain, but to ethanol-brain as well. Would that science knew his secret!

  7. I’m only a couple paragraphs in, but it’s already brilliant:

    Its highest building denies the possibility of a benevolent god — a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children.

    Well done, Mr. McEwan. Hitchens would be proud.

  8. I’ve had tears in my eyes over Hitchens’ passing away, and while reading tributes from
    his friends. It’s truly amazing how many friends this man made during his life.

    And yet I wonder if anyone else feels as I do: Wondering about Hitchens’ “last words,” as it were, or more to the point, Hitchens’ last insights.

    I don’t mean this out of sheer morbid, supermarket-tabloid curiosity. I don’t care about the “last words” of practically anyone who dies. But Hitch was different. He WAS language and writing. He WAS communication.
    And he himself was concerned with what he may convey in his last moments. When you read Hitchens you shared his experiences. He wrote in a way that made you feel you knew him and he fearlessly conveyed “what it was like” and his own state of mind through-ought his illness. Many people would have wanted to keep such things private, but not Hitch. It was his character to share in writing whatever raw experience he met. I’ve never felt such moments of insight into death and dying as reading his recent piece “Trial Of The Will.” In essence, Hitch was taking us on the journey toward mortality in the same way he took us to the frontlines of war in a foreign land.

    As much as it is very touching to read Ian McEwan’s account of Hitchens’ final days, it feels almost a shame to have that continuity broken: to have Hitch as our correspondent describing first hand as only he could the realities of the final journey many of us fearfully worry about, only to have the end of his journey be delivered second hand, and not from Hitch himself, who seemed to be writing up until the very possible end. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have conveyed to us, in his last lucid moments, how facing that final moment feels, than Hitch.

    Most of all, though, I hope Hitch passed away a peacefully as possible.


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