In reverse order:
Nice David Brooks piece in Friday’s Times about “the essayist Christopher Hitchens announc[ing] that he has cancer of the esophagus and will soon begin chemotherapy.”
“There are others who know him better than I who can reflect on his illness,” Brooks writes.
But there is one feature of his life and his new memoir, “Hitch-22,” that I had been hoping to address anyway, which is that there are few people in this country who bring such a literary perspective to political and policy controversies.
You’d never get that from Jennifer Senior’s dishy take on Hitch-22: A Memoir in the New York Times Book Review the other week.
If anyone in this world is positioned to write a toothsome memoir, it’s Christopher Hitchens. He’s gone from international socialist to Iraq war enthusiast; he has a moving personal story and is a pasha of vice. His present solar system of intimates includes James Fenton and Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan; his past included Susan Sontag and Edward Said (both deceased) and Gore Vidal (still alive, but banished to a growing Kuiper belt of discards and debris). He’s gone to a New York brothel with Martin Amis and delivered bluejeans to Polish dissidents; he’s gotten smacked on the tush by Margaret Thatcher and beaten up by thugs in Beirut. He argues ruthlessly and writes like a drunken angel, making targets of subjects as various as Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger, the Clintons and God. (In 2007, he published the best seller “God Is Not Great” — a title Rushdie ruefully deemed one word too long.)
The problem is that if you’re a public figure, especially a writer as extravagantly colorful and prolific as Hitchens (he’s written 11 books, 4 pamphlets and 4 collections of essays, and today appears regularly in Slate, The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair), you may scarcely be aware of how much of your own store of tales has dribbled out over the years, like a sack of flour with a small hole in it. This makes the business of writing your memoir much harder. And it turns out that much of the autobiographical pith of “Hitch-22” has appeared elsewhere, most notably in Ian Parker’s excellent 2006 profile of Hitchens in The New Yorker, and it’s surprising how little to it that Hitchens now adds — how little, indeed, is in this book that’s generally considered the lymph and marrow of a traditional reminiscence.
And fuggedabout Deborah Solomon’s prickly interview with Hitchens last month in the Sunday Times Magazine.
[Y]ou seem to put unshakable faith in your guy friends, including Salman Rushdie and the poet James Fenton, who receive chapters of their own, while your two wives and three children are almost completely ignored.
The book is a memoir. It’s not an autobiography.
What did you mean to suggest by including the detail about your long-ago flings with two men who became part of Margaret Thatcher’s administration?
There are still people who want to criminalize homosexuality one way or another, and I thought it might be useful if more heterosexual men admitted that they are a little bit gay, as is everyone, and that homosexuality is a form of love and not just sex.
Not everyone is “a little bit gay,” as you say. Do you think your basic sexual confusion underlies your political confusions?
No, I wouldn’t call it confusion. I’d call it a punctuated consistency. I argue in the book that my principles were the same throughout.
No such consistency in the Times coverage of Hitchens.
Just as it should be.