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Dec 17 2011

Ian McEwan on Hitchens

In the Guardian/Books, as is appropriate. The Guardian has its flaws but it does hella good book journalism.

When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it – Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn’t hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he’d finished it.

He could have written a review, but he was due to turn in a long piece on Chesterton. And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library.

I love that last sentence. It puts books and journalism and ideas together, and then makes them all equivalent to a good university library. One of the things I love about Hitchens is his massive erudition and his skill at deploying it, which few if any academics can match.

Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.

Superhuman effort.

 

 

17 comments

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  1. 1
    rogerallen

    Peter Hitchens, brother and sometimes foe, rose to the occasion: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2075133/Christopher-Hitchens-death-In-Memoriam-courageous-sibling-Peter-Hitchens.html

  2. 2
    markkennedy

    How does one write about Hitchens? It’s like trying to paint a picture of Van Gogh, or writing a musical tribute to Mozart.

  3. 3
    Tim Harris

    Here is something from Glenn Greenwald’s excellent column on the sanctification of CH with which I very much agree, since, as I have sa; Hitchens’s

  4. 4
    Tim Harris

    Don’t know what happened there – cont’d: since, as I have said in a comment to one of the Why Evolution is True pieces on Hitchens’s death, I was appalled both by his support for making war on Iraq and by the vanity of his refusal to admit that he had been wrong. Anyway, here’s the bit from Greenwald’s column:

    Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda:

    ‘I can barely read him anymore. His pieces in the Brit tabloid The Mirror and in Slate are a mishmash of imperial justifications and plain bombast; the old elegant style is dead. His TV appearances show a smug, nasty scold with little tolerance for those who disagree with him. He looks more and more like a Ralph Steadman sketch. And in addition to all this, he’s now revising what he said during the buildup to the Iraq war.

    ‘In several pieces, including an incredibly condescending blast against Nelson Mandela, Hitch went on and on about WMD, chided readers with “Just you wait!” and other taunts, fully confident that once the U.S. took control of Iraq, tons of bio/chem weapons and labs would be all over the cable news nets–with him dancing a victory jig in the foreground. Now he says WMD were never a real concern, and that he’d always said so. It’s amazing that he’d dare state this while his earlier pieces can be read at his website. But then, when you side with massive state power and the cynical fucks who serve it, you can say pretty much anything and the People Who Matter won’t care.

    ‘Currently, Hitch is pushing the line, in language that echoes the reactionary Paul Johnson, that the U.S. can be a “superpower for democracy,” and that Toms Jefferson [sic] and Paine would approve. He’s also slammed the “slut” Dixie Chicks as “fucking fat slags” for their rather mild critique of our Dear Leader. He favors Bush over Kerry, and doesn’t like it that Kerry ”exploits” his Vietnam combat experience (as opposed to, say, re-election campaign stunts on aircraft carriers).’

    I think you might also take note, Ophelia, of the nature of his attack on the brave Dixie Chicks.

  5. 5
    Rosie

    ‘I can barely read him anymore. His pieces in the Brit tabloid The Mirror and in Slate are a mishmash of imperial justifications and plain bombast; the old elegant style is dead.

    Neither the Slate nor the Mirror brought out the best in Hitchens. The Slate columns were too short and the Mirror were too simplified for a tabloid audience. Hitchens needed space for his amplitude. I don’t think there was any falling off in his literary essays in The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. However my Hitchens is the literary rather than the political or atheist Hitchens.

  6. 6
    Ian MacDougall

    Tim Harris: “I was appalled both by his support for making war on Iraq and by the vanity of his refusal to admit that he had been wrong.”

    I followed Hitchens’ journalism at the time, along with the rest of it, fairly closely. I may be wrong of course, but as I recall Hitch was all for war on the regime of Saddam Hussein, which is not quite the same as ‘Iraq’.

    The pro-totalitarian left at the time were all against Bush’s war, and notables like John Pilger were welcoming the beginning of a massive antiwar movement in the west, which they expected would begin with about the same numerical strength that the antiwar movement had grown to by the end of the Vietnam War: ie bloody huge.

    But that never happened, and I think that the reason was that if you chose to oppose Bush, you INESCAPABLY chose to support Saddam Hussein: one of the bloodiest dictators in history. (He made it into Nigel Crawthorne’s list of the 100 all-time worst.) To its credit, the mainstream left thought that on this its ‘leaders’ had gone a bridge too far, stayed away from organised demonstrations in their tens of thousands, and stood by as the whole anti-war thing fizzled out. (I was an old anti-Vietnam War man, but took my cue on this from the Iraqi population of Sydney, who were all anti-Saaddam refugees, and very pro-Bush.)

    Saddam had kept a lid on the long-running Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq by basing himself on the Sunnis. When he went, the whole thing flared up again big time. That was what caused most of the deaths: Iraqi on Iraqi violence. Bush did not want that, and can hardly be blamed for it.

    We now know the consequences arising from Bush’s depostion of Saddam. What we do not and never will know, is what the consequences would have been of leaving him in place. But I think the recent history of Egypt, Syria and Libya might give us a clue.

    The choice was not easy, but I do not think that Hitch was wrong. Most of the reflexively anti-American left quietly voiced their opposition, thought again, then packed their tents and moved on. Hitch on his side had no reason to do likewise. He stayed put.

  7. 7
    dirigible

    Ian – Thank you. I wish more people understood this.

  8. 8
    julian

    Hitch on his side had no reason to do likewise. He stayed put.

    What with him never being wrong on anything, why would he?

  9. 9
    Ian MacDougall

    Nothing.

    (But does slow handclap. For Julian.)

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Tim – I did (take note of the Dixie Chicks item). I forget what thread it was on, and it was a comment not a post, but I did.

    Anyway: Katha Pollitt has (as I expected) done a very useful corrective today, Dixie Chicks included; I’ll post on that.

    http://www.thenation.com/blog/165222/regarding-christopher

  11. 11
    Rosie

    Great piece by the great Katha Pollitt, OB. I love Hitchens but his laddish side really pissed me off, especially that crappy article about how women aren’t funny. He needed a few twitches at his short hairs for that.

    I was interested to read that he had a high regard for George Eliot and Rebecca West, so maybe he only needs half a kicking for his sexism (not misogyny).

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    I shared Katha’s article at Facebook and boy did the feathers fly – they’re still flying. One guy summed it up as “he was a lecherous alcoholic cunt who was wrong about everything.” I said no, it can’t be summed up that way, because Katha doesn’t use “cunt” as an insult. He promptly defriended me.

  13. 13
    Rrr

    Well, you win some, you lose some, OB. :-)

  14. 14
    Ian MacDougall

    Back to Hitchens.

    From the excellent obit by Terry Glavin:

    “This [ie 9/11] was one of those exceedingly rare historic moments of sharpened contradictions and moral clarity. It was as though every argument he had ever joined and every intellectual struggle he had ever waged had synthesized in that grotesque and epoch-shifting tipping point. In the confused panic and mayhem of the day, what Hitchens saw was as clear as the morning sky above Manhattan.

    “’OK, that’s a confrontation between everything I like and everything I don’t like,’ he remembered saying to himself. Writing in the Boston Globe a year later, he put it this way: ‘On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan … on the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism.’”

    The question that interests me is this: why did so many professedly liberal and ‘progressive’ people find it personally impossible to agree with Hitchens on this?

    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/entertainment/never+knew+what+Hitchens+going/5873880/story.html

  15. 15
    julian

    The question that interests me is this: why did so many professedly liberal and ‘progressive’ people find it personally impossible to agree with Hitchens on this?

    Might have something to do with

    ‘On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan … on the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism.’

    being such complete an utter bull our noses recoil every time it’s spoken.

  16. 16
    Ian MacDougall

    Julian:

    Sorry, but I don’t find that convincing.

  17. 17
    Ian MacDougall

    Julian:

    Perhaps I should add a bit more: “On one side, [1] the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan … on the other, [2] the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism.’

    It seems that your nose bucks because either [1] is not a valid summary of New York, and of the people then in that city whose lives were ended by the 9/11 events, or that [2] is not a valid depiction of the Islamist zombies responsible. Or perhaps both.

    I think that both are reasonable statements. Even if while doing it your nostrils kick like shotgun barrels, can you find a way to let me know why I am in error?

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