“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” – George Orwell
Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, Hitch-22, A Memoir, provides a view of the world we inhabit today. While Hitchens lived from 1949 to 2011, the period covered reaches back to around 1900 with accounts of his parents’ lives. Contained in this period are his thoughts, reminiscences, and associations with famous and infamous people. Hitchens held strong views, made and kept friendships as well as enemies, and left a record of where he went, what he thought and why. As one reviewer notes, Hitch-22 is three memoires in one – literary, political and personal. The three are interwoven and continually informative and entertaining. He had little difficulty in seeing what was really going on.
If you want to know what Iraq would look like today in the absence of the allied invasion, Hitchens provides details for a likely counterfactual scenario. A video exists of Saddam Hussein’s dispatch of half the Central committee of the Ba’ath Party by some members incriminating others who are dragged out of the room. The survivors are then required to execute the accused “thus sealing the pact with Saddam. I am not sure even Beria or Himmler would have had the nerve and ingenuity and cruelty to come up with that (296).” Go figure. The outcome of the Gulf War was not pretty. What the alternative would have looked like is something critics of the war seldom address.
An admirer of George Orwell, Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and other distinguished writers, the record Hitchens left behind is well written, well argued and often funny. I usually struggle to find humour in written text as opposed to verbal exchanges and other forms of aural and visual media. In the case of Hitchens I was frequently amused, often for his turn of phrase but also for the comedic content of his views of everyday life. Some of this humour is smutty and would be heard in the schoolyard. That is probably why I find it appealing, but other commentary is more upmarket. For example, when recounting his time in English boarding schools, he quotes Lytton Strachey on one “hothouse dilemma” in these establishments (74):
“How odd the fate of pretty boys!
Who if they dare to taste the joys
That so enchanted Classic minds,
Get whipped upon their neat behinds.
Yet should they fail to construe well
The lines that of those raptures tell
It’s very odd you must confess –
Their neat behinds get whipped no less.”
During his life, Hitchens travelled the political spectrum from left to right while often discomforting his fellow travelers during the journey. Brought up on a literary diet of Orwell and others writing about the oppressed classes, especially in Europe before WW2, he knew how to skewer those who opposed his views, and never shunned the opportunity to debate or publish his opinions.
His writings (as listed in Hitch-22) include ten books, four pamphlets, four sets of collected essays and six collaborations, plus numerous articles and reviews in journals, magazines and newspapers. The named pieces are probably those he wanted recorded as the book was published before he died.
What does the book tells us about this period covering two world wars, or one war with time out to rearm after 1918? In my view, it contributes a great deal to an understanding of the recent past as well as of today’s world – to be discussed in a future blog. Meanwhile I recommend reading Hitch-22. For me it will require a second reading so as to digest the interweaving of the personal, political and literary themes.