Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.
For Americans of my generation—the wrong side of thirty, but too young to remember the golden age of student protest—the tales of youth offered by Christopher Hitchens in his new memoir may provoke somewhat more envy than we care to admit. A Trotskyite protester in Hitchens’s salad days could enjoy the thrilling illusion that letter-writing campaigns and streetside invective might one day succeed in buckling the world order and building an epoch of peace on its ruins. Thirty years after Hitchens, if any of my college classmates were spending their off-hours atop milk-crates yelling into bullhorns, I am sure they were ignored. During the Hitchens era, these protests mattered. Now such protests as are held have the character of an elaborate costume party, with no more revolutionary commitment in evidence than at a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even if one’s slogans would have been different, it is hard to beat away the feeling of having been born late.
Hitchens was born right on time, and if there had not been a booming protest movement waiting for him, he would surely have invented it. Hitch-22, Hitchens’s first autobiography, follows him from his English boyhood and boarding school, to Oxford, and finally to the United States, but its core is his early years on the soapbox during his extraordinarily heady teens and twenties, a start that set him on the road of disputation and hack journalism that he has followed ever since. The narrative is loose, and recounts the stories of Hitchens’s family, particularly his father Eric, a Royal Navy officer, and his mother, Yvonne, who committed suicide in Athens in Christopher’s early adulthood, and of the author’s time as a Washington journalist (identified first with the radical left and more recently with neoconservatism).
But the freshest moments are the oldest. Hitch-22 goes some distance toward answering the central mystery about Hitchens: how, over forty years of writing and constant on-air yakking, he has managed to continue to find issues that excite him, and that indeed regularly summon the intensity that a normal writer might reserve for only the most hotly contested elections, or perhaps a particularly recriminating suicide note. He is a man of uncommonly strong opinions about everything. The source of that energy appears to be in those radical student days, to which the most interesting portions of his memoir are devoted, and where he learned not only his ideology but the rhetorical techniques that provide his livelihood, and more. “I made a minor discovery,” he says: “If you can give a decent speech in public or cut any sort of figure on a podium, then you need never dine or sleep alone.” Those days appear, in his telling, to have been an atmosphere of intense and seductive confidence. We see the young Hitchens actively seeking out rivals to heckle in local political meetings, hunting for censored comrades to republish and distribute, and training in Cuba—providing a glimpse of the future of that island when uttering counterrevolutionary thoughts of his own.
The mind on display in Hitch-22 is one that has never lost the atmosphere of confidence that buoyed his youth, and that seems to operate on the principle that the revolution is only one television appearance or street-corner harangue away. There is an addictive quality to this atmosphere, and Hitchens wants to breathe the air of no other. “To be enrolled in its ranks,” he maintains even now, “is to be part of an alternative history as well as an alternative present and future”; “this ‘movement’ is everything.” To keep the feeling of relevance and contrarianism he has had to ratchet the size and importance of his positions steadily up and to expand his cast of enemies (e.g., Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger) to the point where the only fight that would thrill him is one where he might get to catch the Almighty Himself on the hip, as he ultimately tried to do in god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Hitch-22 is a slighter but much more rewarding book than that earlier bestseller. (Pity about the silly and self-admiring title, referring to the supposed paradox of having to “combat the relativists and the absolutists at the same time.” Only an absolutist would think this is a paradox.) It is the first of Hitchens’s books that is not polemical, and perhaps for that reason also the most honest. Hitchens’s previous books prosecuted their points with a tiresome insistence that somehow seemed incongruent to the humor he shows in his shorter work and to the indulgent and intemperate life he prides himself on living. In this volume there is no argument to prosecute, and the life is the story, so it can be lived openly.
The cast is studded with familiar names from London literary life in the 1970s, including the hypersexual Martin Amis (whose memoir Experience covers some of the same anecdotes), the brash genius Clive James, and James Fenton, the group’s poet and oracle. I mention these three recurring players, but the names are dropped from a great height, and in huge quantities, like cluster bombs, throughout the book. I picked a random ten-page section and found sixteen luminaries referenced, from Nelson Mandela to Jorge Luis Borges, called in by Hitchens to raise the narrative’s celebrity quotient. From the meals and binges of the principal cast, Hitchens extracts enough high-grade anecdotage to make this celebrity obsession tolerable. (If anything, these anecdotes, gossip, and witticisms that were the spoils of the politically engaged life are too much fun, and feel like they might have been not just sideshows to Hitchens’s politics but ends in themselves.)
Hitch-22 provoked in this reviewer several out-loud cackles, emitted more through the middle of the book than through its later American chapters, some of which bear evidence of having been scavenged from magazine work for Vanity Fair. And it made me wonder whether my generation, much more cynical about the power of student protest, didn’t miss out on the first lumbering pulses of a great engine of inspiration that has apparently powered Hitchens for the last forty years, inspiring him never to say anything quietly when he could yell it out instead, nor to think anything that he could not also publish. The result has been a blessed existence in which he has found a paying audience for endless articles and television appearances, which are for him acts not of work but of leisure. Having so many strong opinions leads to having many wrong ones, of course, and the ambivalence about his adherence to the quasi-religion of Trotskyism is one that he would do well to resolve. In this volume he has mostly shown himself to be an incorrigible hedonist and an enviable wit. This is a good book, if not a serious one. Many memoirists, after all, show themselves to be much less.