“The man had more wit, style, and substance than a few civilisations I can name” (Sam Harris remembering to Christopher Hitchens)
I don’t think I have ever read an autobiography (or memoirs, which is more precise in this case) in my life. They usually start slow, documenting the origins of the parents, grandparents, and even earlier generations. Yet obviously one is reading a memoir for what the author has done later in life. Impatience, most likely, has made me abandon most of them—Margaret Thatcher’s stares at me very time I sit on my desk.
That is, of cause, until Hitch 22, the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens. I have read it and listen to it—narrated by him—at the same time, which is a wonderful experience. Hitch wrote it when he was turning 60, just before being diagnosed with a cancer that would finally take his like a year later. He opens with the anecdote of a magazine that shows his picture and calls him “the late Christopher Hitchens”. We are so lucky that he decided to write his memoirs then and not when it was already too late.
It is difficult to convey how good the book is. His life is incredibly interesting. His trips to Cuba, Ireland, Irak, and more places right at the time of the political and violent turmoil depict a journalist with a strong desire to see things for himself to form his own view. He reflects on his experiences, wondering sometimes why he acted the way he did. Not regretting, but wondering. He talks about the important friends in his life—James Fenton, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie—his realisation that he was Jewish, later in life, aligning with neo-cons in the war against Irak… No major part of his life is left untouched.
I do think that I have especially enjoyed it since I feel I know him after reading many of his essays and books as well as watching his interventions in many debates. Once you know the public persona well, I can see how the memoirs—if interesting, of course—provide an extra satisfaction.
Let me leave you with a fragment that caught my eye. He is reprimanded while in Cambridge for engaging in homosexual activities, although he is not expelled since he is a promising student (“Oxford material”). He describes the reaction of her mother when he came back home after the ‘incident.’ I find the reference to the cocktail party pure genius.
“My mother wisely said nothing and wrote nothing… When I finally did get back, not having advertised my arrival time in advance, I was lucky to find my mother alone in the kitchen. She brilliantly rose and greeted me as if I’d been expected for some brittle and glamorous cocktail party of the sort that she always planned and never quite gave“.