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Memoir of a mind

From rhetorical brawler Hitchens, a political coming-of-age tale

Christopher Hitchens, with Martin Amis on Cape Cod in 1985.
Christopher Hitchens, with Martin Amis on Cape Cod in 1985.
By Michael Washburn
June 13, 2010

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It surely can’t be long until someone publishes “Autobiography: A Memoir,’’ an account of the decline of autobiography in favor of the contemporary memoir. The difference isn’t merely semantic. Both forms do tend toward instrumentality, and both indulge the curatorial instinct — they are the select, often succulent, implication of a writer in the “life and times’’ of his choosing, tales of one’s best efforts, most inspiring friends, and most suggestive close calls. In the artless mass memoir of today, though, acknowledgement of and victory over addiction or some other hardship plays a marquee role. The memoirist’s sole credential may be his or her capacity to narrate human frailty. Finally, memoir often serves as a pitched battlefield for settling scores.

Thus one approaches Christopher Hitchens’ memoir “Hitch 22’’ with skepticism, given the vulgarity of the genre and the writer’s well-earned reputation as a vicious rhetorical combatant. As a journalist Hitchens has long cultivated the reputation of one who takes remorseless aim at what he deems the fatted pigs of political and moral hypocrisy. His books include “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’’ and, as if that wasn’t brazen enough, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.’’ Hitchens’ style is louche-brutal (In a interview following the death of Jerry Falwell, Hitchens extemporaneously snarled that it’s “a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.’’), and since his self-imposed exile from the left over his advocacy of the Iraq War, Hitchens endures — or should I say relishes? — declarations of hackery from the right and denunciations of apostasy from the left. There are scores to settle, lessons to be taught. “Hitch 22’’ could be a Deepwater Horizon of acrimony and recrimination.

It isn’t. To be blunt, “Hitch 22’’ is one of the most engaging, exciting books I’ve read in years. Although Hitchens’ caustic eloquence abounds, the work focuses on friends at the expense of enemies. At times, as when he’s discussing his longstanding crush on Martin Amis, it is almost sentimental. The writing is lovely — introduction aside, which threatens early onset pretentia — Hitchens’ cold-eyed evaluation of his younger self feels honest. To be sure, “Hitch 22’’ is often a chronicle of Hitchens’ best efforts. He teaches us that “cheap booze is false economy’’ and reveals a youth engaged in boarding school homosexuality. But thankfully, Hitchens’ efforts, friends, and close calls are rendered wonderfully in this strange book. Ultimately, “Hitch 22’’ is about cultivating and maintaining one’s intellectual integrity. As Hitchens writes, “[I]t is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think.’’

Although it’s difficult to keep in mind these days, complication and simplicity aren’t ideological opposites — they’re merely different ways to miss the point. Hitchens, whose current notoriety descends from his reinvention as what many term a neoconservative, argues that intellectuals should complicate that which has been made too easy and to simplify that which has been held hostage by interpretive extravagance. His longstanding battle against religious hypocrisy has been one field of endeavor, and as “Hitch 22’’ demonstrates, Hitchens reported from Havana to Prague and any number of political hotspots in between, all in pursuit of human freedom — these tales are sleekly told lessons on political history and the dynamics of corrupt “revolution,’’ harrowing and tense. Hitchens relates these portions of his past with a relaxed tone of one who has been vindicated by time.

Hitchens’ disillusionment with the left in the wake of 9/11 had its precursor in the left’s “cowardly’’ response to the fatwah placed on Salman Rushdie following the publication of “The Satantic Verses.’’ As Hitchens writes, “[T]he claustrophobic world in which [Rushdie] had to live for some years was a prefiguration of the world in which we all, to a greater or lesser extent, live now.’’ This is true: Today theocratic irrationalism wields tremendous power, and it is understandable if one encounters difficulty maintaining the line between cosmopolitan understanding and what can be viewed as pragmatic aggression. It’s this belief that led him to call for the invasion of Iraq. Further, only cynicism would be slippery enough to let the square peg of a murderous thug fit into the round hole of left-liberal politics. But as Hitchens writes, “One cannot be just a little bit heretical,’’ slyly accusing the left of suffering from the same corrosive piety that has long tainted the right.

“Hitch 22’’ is a political and moral coming-of-age story, and it doesn’t reveal much about how Hitchens became the writer he is — that just seems to happen along with his evolving political commitments. Nor does he spend much time on his family. Few moments permit personal experience uncomplicated by the politics of the moment. For instance, Hitchens discusses his mother’s suicide in an Athens hotel room on the same page as he glosses the politics of then unstable Greece — before making a comment about the strange juxtaposition. It’s a jarring interweaving of the political and the personal, and it’s repeated several times throughout the memoir. Beyond that, his most personal revelations are reprints of the Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire. But memoir generates pleasure through voice and sensibility, not through comprehensiveness. Nobody ever said self-awareness must lead to self-revelation, and even if you don’t like what Hitchens thinks, it’s easy to admire how he thinks.

Michael Washburn, assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, can be reached at mwashburn@gc.cuny.edu.

HITCH 22: A MEMOIR

By Christopher Hitchens

Twelve, 435 pp., $26.99