Excerpt: Christopher Hitchens' Hitch-22, A Memoir

The English are famous drunks, or drinkers, if you prefer to use a euphemism.

Many an English author have (and still do, I suspect) written whilst under the influence, and some have even boldly gone to write about the Influence (Kingsley Amis's Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis comes to mind first, though I'm sure there are many other cases. If you want to know more about the history of the affliction, I suggest you read this book). 

Christopher Hitchens is no exception to this malediction. 

English-American author, journalist, social and political commentator (and hence, almost by default, a Historian of our times), essayist and public intellectual, he has bravely held his drinking fort impenetrable for more than four decades whilst publishing more than 15 books, appearing in around 40 documentary/films and contributing to top-tier journals and newspapers such as at The AtlanticVanity FairSlateWorld AffairsThe NationFree Inquiry - making him a solid pillar for all those young writers and aspirers who would like to follow in his footsteps (in 2003 he wrote that his daily intake of alcohol was enough "to kill or stun the average mule", and yet he's still around, but only for so long - more on the issue of mortality to follow..).

Last June Hitchens published Hitch-22, A Memoir, a coming-to-terms autobiography for a public figure looking to close a circle and enter into another one: Turning into his seventh decade, Hitchens conducts a soul search of sorts, as befits a man reaching his second midlife-crisis (isn't sixty the new forty? The previous crisis had been in 1989, when Hitchens was 41, the year communism gave out its final cry and Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, following the latter's publication of The Satanic Verses). 

The book conquered the top of International non-fiction best-selling charts within a few days of its publication. 

In defense of Drinking

In the first excerpt, A short footnote on the grape and the grain, Hitchens delivers a statement of defense of sorts, the old Why I drink and why you shouldn't prep-talk. The author's stand is a little didactic, as befits a man of his age and social stature, but it doesn't by any mean lack a good deal of self-reproach and critique (Hitchens even goes far enough as to refer to himself as a "piss-artist," fully aware that the drink is "the professional deformation of many writers, and has ruined not a few," though not enough to fully quit it as "making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic"...) 

All this is naturally wittily-equilibrated with not a little bit of self-esteem and grandiosity: "Publicity means that actions are judged by reputations and not the other way about: I never wonder how it happens that mythical figures in religious history come to have fantastic rumors credited to their names." 

In defense of Martin

The second excerpt, Martin, Maggie, and Me, recounts the author's 1970's frenzy with fellow celebrated writers Martin Amis and James Fenton, alongside chance encounters with Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Thomas Pynchon and even the first lady, Margaret Thatcher.

The excerpt is mostly concerned with Martin Amis though, and the friendship the latter and the author of Hitch-22 have held since the early 1970's. 

This close friendship ("a love whose month is ever May" according to Amis; "the most heterosexual relationship that one young man could conceivably have with another", according to Hitchens), is announced right away as a strong and mutual bond between two literary giants (though Hitchens rather modestly testifies: "I would love to be able to give the impression that it was a relationship between equals but, if represented in cartoon form, the true picture would be closer to one of those great white sharks that evolution has fitted out with an accompanying but rather smaller fish.") 

This excerpt quickly becomes an argument of sorts, wherein Hitchens does his best to defend and glorify his friend and author, Martin Amis. Hitchens admiration for Amis can be a trifle embarrassing at times, with its oftern suggesting tone, but for the most it does sound deserving...

Besides the habitual 'Martin is great, he's so fab' soliloquy, Hitchens also shares a few amusing notes from his past with the reader: First an odd visit to a New York brothel with Amis, whilst the latter was 'researching' for his soon-to-be-published-most-known-novel, Money; Second a brief relaying of the circumstances that brought about the unison of a second Bloomsbury literary brat pack, "a sort of end-of-the-week clearinghouse for gossip and jokes" where poets, writers, illustrators, critics (almost all literary editors, and almost all men: "There were no women, or no regular ones, and nothing was ever said, or explicitly resolved, about this fact") would meet once a week and form the "nightmare of a conspiratorial London literary establishment."

This little Bohemia, though united in profession, vocation and ideology (mostly opposing the up and coming Iron Lady, whose strength and influence rose by the day during the 1980's), nevertheless experienced a "deep divide between left and, if not exactly right, yet increasingly anti-left" (as is often the case in intellectual circles). Good thing they had some fatherly figures around, to put some order in their youthful spirits, first in the form and flesh of Kingsley Amis, then in the presence of Philip Larkin, for whom almost all shared a "common admiration [...] as a poet if not as a man".

But what a brat pack it is. Philip Larkin, Clive James, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and of course Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.. An extraordinary group of talented and colorful individuals who continue to roam our planet to this day and infest it with their newspaper columns and publications (well, most of them)

And then there was Maggie

The second excerpt from Hitch-22 ends with an amusing little story (hard to believe its true, but Hitchens testifies: "I had and have eyewitnesses to this."

Invited by a friend to the House of Lords, for a cocktail celebrating the publication of "a crusty old book by a crusty old peer named Lord Butler," and aware that Lady Thatcher might make an appearance in this event, Hitchens finds himself face to face with 'the Milk Snatcher'.  

Long story short, Hitchens inevitably gets himself into an argument with the First Lady and, after teasingly being asked by her to bow down lower and lower (the Iron Lady is well known of her fondness of submissive subjects.    

The life thereafter

A few weeks after the publication of Hitch-22, Hitchens collapsed in his New York hotel, in the very midst of his book-selling tour. He was shortly diagnosed with  cancer of the esophagus. In a recent 'confession' published in Vanity Fair he relates the abruptness of this discovery: "The previous evening, I had been launching my latest book at a successful event in New Haven. The night of the terrible morning, I was supposed to go on The DailyShow with Jon Stewart and then appear at a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side, in conversation with Salman Rushdie. My very short-lived campaign of denial took this form: I would not cancel these appearances or let down my friends or miss the chance of selling a stack of books [...] My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have every abruptly become a finalist." 

This 'warning sign' life has given Hitchens, an individual that (like so many power-people) often seems like an unstoppable force, does not come with too ill a spirit, as he avows: "In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason [...] To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?" 

But even the strongest of wills succumbs to a note of self-pity: "I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it [...] would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey?"

Ironic or not, Hitchens' Hitch-22 is an interesting read from a prominent second-half-of-the-20th-century figure. At times a trifle gossipy but mostly unapologetic, it is without a doubt a very recommended Excerpt Reader read..

VERDICT: BUY IT (because a lifetime of experience doesn't often come at such a feeble price)

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