The video of Christopher Hitchens picking up his ‘Richard Dawkins Award’ a few weeks ago shows a man who transparently does not have long to live. Since his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer in 2010, Hitchens has been clear and forthright about his chances of survival, claiming that he would be very lucky indeed to make it through another five years. Without self-pity or sentimentality he is staring his death in the face, and, in public and in print at least, is not flinching. Regardless of your position on his politics or his outspoken atheism, this is worthy of the greatest admiration.
I’ve been reading Hitchens for years, and, as with other great stylists, his scornful and ironic cadence takes up residence in your head after prolonged exposure. His is the first voice I would consider listening to on any geopolitical issue of the day, quite regardless of whether I agreed with him or not. For my birthday last week I got his new collection ‘Arguably’, which brings together all of his columns, reviews, articles and essays from the last decade. Although I haven’t finished it yet (it is 789 pages), I’ve been reading it out of sequence, which is unusual for me (normally I would plod pedantically through any essay collection or anthology from first page to last), and many of the pieces I read when they were first published. Hitchens is always guaranteed to find an angle that I have overlooked, on any subject, and he is a master of pause-giving rhetoric. His essays on and reviews of books I love and have read innumerable times (Lolita, or Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, for example) demonstrate the critical insights of one of the closest readers currently writing, and make me feel as if I have merely skimmed books I thought I had taken in deeply. ‘Arguably’ is collected thematically, with sections on writers, foreign policy, the power of literature, minor annoyances (the piece about pushy wine waiters is particularly good) and the United States of America, amongst others.
It’s the American angle that annoys me, very slightly, about Hitchens. I’ve always thought that his adopted country is spared the forensic debunking and withering analysis he brings to other subjects – it gets cut more slack, basically, its crimes never seeming to obviate the original purpose, as if the Constitution can wash clean any number of foreign policy disasters or official cover-ups and corruptions. It’s as if Hitchens is wedded to his idealised, Jeffersonian version of the USA, and isn’t particularly interested in the contemporary reality. ‘Arguably’ demolishes that prejudice on my part though, with the excellent essay ‘America the Banana Republic’ pouring scorn from a great height on the roots and consequences of the financial crisis, and his personal experience of waterboarding in ‘Believe Me, It’s Torture’ used to comprehensively refute the claim that it isn’t. It still grates, oddly, to read him use phrases such as ‘our president’ or ‘these United States’, but I fully accept that that’s my problem. Britain may have lost WH Auden and Hitchens to the USA, but it can happily take Henry James and TS Eliot in return.
What is more likely to divide readers or Hitchens-watchers is his position on the Iraq war. One of the loudest drumbeaters for invasion, Hitchens’ stance on Iraq has seen him (ludicrously) labelled as a ‘neoconservative’, but in these essays and in his superb memoir ‘Hitch-22’ he is cogent and precise about why he wanted Saddam Hussein removed from power. For someone who has supported the Kurdish separatist movement since 1991, and who was in regular contact with Iraqi dissidents throughout the 1990s, Hitchens does not believe there is any contradiction between his part-Trotskyist, part-liberal humanist politics, and his enthusiastic march to war in Afghanistan and Iraq following the September 11th attacks. You may not agree with him in the slightest, but I don’t think Hitchens can be accused in any way of hypocrisy on this issue. As one of the themed sections in the book outlines, the main battle in Hitchens’ life is between freedom and totalitarianism, no matter what form it might take.
Hitchens death will not be a tragedy, and, in a world convulsed by violence and economic strife, he would mock anyone who would claim otherwise. He has already left behind an exceptional body of work – engaging, impassioned, ironic, and written by one of the greatest wielders of the English language who has ever lived. He’s still with us for the moment, and I would urge you to read ‘Arguably’, or any of his other books, as soon as you can. Your life is lacking without this voice in your head.