Twice a month, David Ward (the artist formerly known as Ogmios) invites us into his world of literature, comics, horror, sci-fi and more. It’s his world – we only read about it.
Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens
448pp, McClelland & Stewart (Canada); Twelve (US)
When I crack the cover of any Christopher Hitchens book, I do so with both excitement and trepidation. His rhetoric is intimidating, and this isn’t because of his moral and righteous indignation, though his critical observations and hypotheses can incite even the most open-minded of readers to the tossing of bricks through his Maryland home’s front window, but rather because the man’s gift with words is nothing short of exemplary. Hitchens’ abilities, derived from a lifetime of writing for countless print and online media sources, remind me that writing is still an art, both terrifying and beautiful.
Hitch-22 is a memoir of Hitchens’ life to date. Scathing reviews of the book point to his massive ego, his propensity for name-dropping, and comparing himself as equal to, or in many cases more equal than, some of the major intellectual figures of the past forty years. Yes, Hitchens is full of himself, but like his contemporaries and friends Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, I feel this intellectual elitism is entirely justified. Hitchens is a brilliant writer, and he knows it. He is no apologist; he states his case, describes his life, and screams from the mountain-top “Look at me, what I’ve done, and how brilliant I am.”
Complaints about the humbleness of an author in a memoir, autobiography, or even an autobiographical essay strike me as redundant and without merit. Memoirs are exercises in intellectual and biographical onanism. Even if it’s a case where the author is, at least from the outset, a humble one who has overcome all manner of horror or perhaps personal strife and adversity, readers cannot deny the inherent masturbatory nature of the memoir’s form. The writers want us to know how they dealt with things, whether this be in the dregs of a Mumbai slum or perhaps the cobblestone-laden paths of Oxford, Paris, or Milan; they want us to know how great they are, even if this is couched in self-deprecating rhetoric and word-craft.
While I’ve never met Hitchens, I have met Salman Rushdie, and at an event one of the vapid questions thrown at him at the end of the session* lauded Rushdie for his modesty. I burst out laughing, but, thankfully, so did he. Hitchens, I’m sure, would do something similar, though likely through a haze of booze (I’d have once said “and cigarettes” but Hitchens, and with some fanfare, gave up smoking a year or so ago). Brilliance and modesty rarely go hand in hand, and it cannot be expected of a text that uses its own writer as its focal point.
Hitchens understands the form and uses it to its full potential, showing the reader a picture of him, his life, and the vicissitudes of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries. And yes, Hitch-22 is self-congratulatory and self-indulgent, but the prose is erudite, hilarious, and nothing short of brilliant. Throughout the book he injects nuggets critical insight and hilarious bits of writing. To finish, I offer the following, which had me guffawing on the TTC. It’s from a footnote in a chapter describing some of his later schooling years before his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, and a close relationship he had at school, which almost had him expelled.
The following does not deal with that relationship or Hitchens, but rather . . . well, just read it:
This is why, whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.
*Like they do for radio phone-in shows, I feel that the questions thrown at writers during the “open-question” period should be screened in advance, if for no other reason than to filter out the “umm”-laden, badly constructed excrescences that issue forth from the audience’s largely unintelligent toothy anuses they call mouths.