Monday 23 April 2018

Books: Readable, but not the best work by Hitchens

Essays: And Yet... Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, hdbk, 352 pages, €29.50

Contrarian: Another collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens has been released.
Contrarian: Another collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens has been released.
And Yet from Christopher Hitchens

John Boland

Christopher Hitchens' last book was a slim volume of essays called Mortality (2012) - the mortality in question being his own as he died from oesophageal cancer in 2011, soon after the pieces were originally published in Vanity Fair magazine.

And now comes another posthumous volume, though this time of more general essays, all of them written in the last few years of his life and constituting an addendum to his mammoth 2011 collection, Arguably.

Hitchens, who was only 62 when he died, had been one of the age's best-known and more articulate contrarians, both in print and on television. Indeed, in his younger years, this Oxford-educated son of a Tory naval officer had been flamboyantly radical in his views, though he was always something of a Champagne leftie, with famous media insiders as his London pals.

And his defection to New York in the 1980s saw him become a social darling there, too, though the American chattering classes were just as dismayed as their transatlantic counterparts when he enthusiastically endorsed George W Bush's war on terror, a position from which he never wavered.

Hitherto he had courted controversy with his demolition job on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position (1995), and with his withering distaste for the Clintons. In this new collection, a 2008 essay called The Case against Hillary Clinton accuses her, among many other things, of being "indifferent to truth". Indeed, if he were alive now, he'd undoubtedly be writing vituperative pieces about her current bid for power.

What he would make of Donald Trump's bid can only be imagined, though it would probably be amusing, while the terrifying rise of Isil would just have accentuated his loathing of what he termed 'Islamofascism', though he'd undoubtedly dismiss any suggestion that the catastrophic 2003 invasion of Iraq had anything to do with breeding new terrorists.

And he's actually at his least persuasive when fulminating about world politics. There's a 2009 essay here called Engaging with Iran is Like Having Sex with Someone Who Hates You which, despite its eye-catchingly provocative title, is so hectoring that it becomes tedious and so dated as to be irrelevant to current global concerns. And the same is true of a 2009 appreciative piece about Barack Obama's presidential victory.

Indeed, although Hitchens' great hero is George Orwell - a very good hero to emulate for his honesty, decency, courage and clear prose - and although the volume is bookended by tributes to him, Hitchens himself is no Orwell, lacking both that great essayist's hard-won insights and his ability to make these insights timeless in their truth-telling candour.

And although he has some admiring things to say about Clive James as a cultural and political essayist, the praise seems almost grudging, as if he saw James as a rival and knew deep down that his own efforts weren't quite in the same class, either stylistically or in their humane impact.

For all that, the book is very readable and sometimes compelling, though Arguably is the collection to have if you want to get a real sense both of the man and of the journalist.

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