Saturday, September 18, 2010


The first chapter of this memoir is named "Prologue with Premonitions".  "When I first formed the idea of writing some memoirs, I had the customary reservations about the whole conception being perhaps 'too soon.'  Nothing dissolves this fusion of false modesty and natural reticence  more swiftly than the blunt realization that the project could become, at any moment, ruled out of the question as having been undertaken too 'late.'"

Too soon, one hopes, but ironic that shortly after publication, barely set upon his tour to promote the book, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

There's some great writing in the book to be enjoyed.  Anecdotes, such as: "Stephen Spender was staying with W.H. Auden when the latter received an invitation from the Times asking him to write Spender's obituary.  He told him as much at the breakfast table, asking roguishly, 'Should you like anything said?'  Spender judged that this would not be the moment to tell Auden that he had already written his obitary for the same editor at the same paper."

Another:  When Hitchens' previous book god Is Not Great came out -- I had not recognized, when I read that book with great admiration, that on the dust cover's font, the 'g' of 'god' was (appropriately) not capitalized -- Salmon Rushdie "remarked rather mordantly that the chief problem with its title was a lack of economy: that it was in other words exactly one word too long."

When Hitchens was a young man his mother committed suicide, having taken up with a lover who seemed half-nuts, and who also committed suicide in his adjoining hotel room in Athens; this impels Hitchens to read a great deal on the subject, and much about its next-of-kin, depression.  At one point he finds himself in a diner in Hartford, Connecticut with William Styron, the author of Darkness Visible, a remarkable and short book that expertly describes what depression is like.  Styron, in the diner, mentions "a golden moment in Paris when he had been waiting to be given a large cash prize, an emblazoned ribbon and medal of literary achievement and a handsome dinner to which all his friends had been bidden.  'I looked longingly across the lobby at the street.  And I mean longingly.  I thought, if I could just hurl myself through those heavy revolving doors I might get myself under the wheels of that merciful bus.  And then the agony would stop.'"

Here an asterisk leads one to a touching footnote:  "At this diner we were served by a pimply and stringy-haired youth of appallingly dank demeanor.  Bringing back Bill's credit card he remarked that it bore a name that was almost the same as that of a famous writer.  Bill said nothing.  Tonelessly, the youth went on: 'He's called William Stryon.'  I left this up to Bill, who again held off until the kid matter-of-factly said, 'Anyway, that guy's book saved my life.'  At this point Styron invited him to sit down, and [the young man] was eventually persuaded that he was at the same table as the author of Darkness Visible.  It was like a transformation scene: he told us brokenly of how he'd sought and found the needful help.  'Does this happen to you a lot?' I later asked Styron.  'Oh, all the time.  I even get the police calling up to ask if I'll come on the line and talk to the man who's threatening to jump.'"

There are charming vignettes, insights, and astute observations throughout Catch-22.  After a lengthy and sympathetic discussion of "Beating, Bullying, and Buggery" in England's public (i.e. private) schools, Hitchens observes that "Repression [of sexuality] is the problem in the first place."  In a footnote he writes, "That is why, whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch.  Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite."

Decidedly left-wing in his youth in England, he became disillusioned later when he deemed the left's response to the fatwa against his friend Salmon Rushdie to be shamefully weak-assed.  And, despite a continued penchant for iconoclasm, he became, in some matters, right-wing -- going so far as to support, with specious reasoning, the invasion of Iraq.

He entertains with words; he turns great phrases; he's witty and clever; he's intellectual; he's an expert debater.

Despite what are, in my view, his political flaws, I admire him tremendously. 

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