Thursday 23 November 2017

Having the last word

Atlantic Books, £16.99

Controversial: Christopher Hitchins
Controversial: Christopher Hitchins

John Boland

Christopher Hitchens knew when he was writing these essays that they might be his last.

Twelve months ago the controversial essayist Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with an inoperable form of oesophagal cancer and told that he probably wouldn't survive for longer than a year. This death sentence, however, hasn't diminished his output -- indeed, his recent writings have been so prolific as to suggest a furious race against time.

In his introduction to this latest, and possibly final, collection of articles, he tries to see the upside of this -- finding it both "sobering" and "exhilarating" that the thought of his imminent demise "has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living and defending".

Forty years ago, this Oxford-educated son of a Tory naval officer was of the opinion that the answer to the world's ills lay in radical -- indeed, Trotskyist -- politics, though he was always something of a champagne leftie, ending each day of protest marches by hobnobbing with Martin Amis and other socially privileged self-promoters.

His transformation from minor, if provocative, journalistic talent on the London scene to major international commentator began with his defection in the early 1980s to the United States, where he soon became the amusingly contrarian expat that certain strands of the American chattering classes find so endearing.

However, it wasn't until the 9/11 attacks that he discovered real fame -- embraced by a right-wing administration whose war on terror and invasion of Iraq he fervently endorsed and reviled by former admirers who were aghast at what they deemed his reactionary cheer-leading for the forces of neocon evil.

But Hitchens, in the eyes of such star-struck supporters as Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, was still the Hitchens they'd taken to their editorial bosom -- and, indeed, given the kind of controversy he was now generating, had become an even more valuable asset to them as he fulminated against "Islamofascism" (basically, the whole Muslim world) and laid into such sacred cows as religious belief in general and Mother Teresa in particular.

Most of what he wrote for these magazines in the past decade, and for such other outlets as The New York Times and Slate, is contained in this mammoth volume, and in truth there's too much here, especially in the articles devoted to international politics -- the Middle East in particular, where his hectoring know-all tone and his fondness for overstatement become increasingly wearisome.

And though he undoubtedly means what he writes, there's an accompanying sense of grandstanding that makes the reader wonder about his real motives in adopting extreme positions that brook no argument.

In fact, he's less persuasive in his denunciations than in his enthusiasms, and this anthology comes most fully alive when he's conveying his passions, especially his literary passions, whether they be for Nabokov, Wodehouse, Greene, Waugh or Larkin.

Mind you, he's pretty nifty at literary hatchet jobs, too, as in his demolition jobs on Maugham, Updike and the latter-day Gore Vidal, whom Hitchens views as having gone bonkers -- though, in a withering piece on the "meretricious Kennedy cult" he approvingly quotes Vidal's description of Ted Kennedy as "three hundred pounds of condemned veal".

Hitchens has just as good an ear for the devastating phrase and these pieces are full of memorable -- and often very funny -- observations and asides.

In brief, while there's much here to infuriate, there's even more that's genuinely bracing.

Essays Arguably Christopher Hitchens, (Atlantic Books, £16.99)

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