Review: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, €11.99
The memory of learning bad news tends to crystallise into distinct moments. Christopher Hitchens was promoting a new book in New York, scheduled to appear on Jon Stewart's satirical Daily Show that evening, when his heart began to beat strangely and he found that he could barely breathe.
The emergency services arrived and, he writes, "I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment." In retrospect, "I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." He still made it to The Daily Show set and to a speaking engagement with his friend Salman Rushdie even later that evening.
Soon afterwards, he discovered that he was dying.
Mortality is not an uplifting title and this can hardly be described as an uplifting book. Hitchens, who succumbed to pneumonia as a complication of oesophageal cancer in December 2011, chronicled his illness in a column in Vanity Fair, where most of these essays first appeared. They are vivid expressions of his engagement with death, looming from that opening paragraph where "Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives". By the book's end, the author has already departed and the afterword is written by his wife, Carol Blue.
Despite his struggle, through those final months Hitchens examined and interrogated cancer with characteristic doggedness. This was his "year of living dyingly". He makes his illness work as a metaphor, a vehicle for meditations on war, language, philosophy and politics, infused (if you'll excuse the pun) with a deadly wit and humour. He notes that he is not fighting cancer -- it is fighting him. But in this assertively titled set of essays, he throws a tiny spear back in death's direction. At first, his wife explains, he hesitated to write about his illness but then he made his decision, becoming (in his wife's words) "the ultimate subject of the story".
Some of what you can learn about cancer in this book is simply frightening. The details Hitchens is willing to share about the treatments he received at America's most sophisticated hospitals, and their ravages on his body, are not for the faint of heart. Towards the end, he was subject to cold feet, literally -- "peripheral neuropathy" which he says describe the death-in-life of a system. Yet there is a beauty in Hitchens' sheer ability to capture his experience. In these worst of circumstances, and maybe even inspired by them, he was a consummate writer and offered readers a prose that is limpid and pure.
In Mortality's preface, the editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, reminds us of the key to Hitchens' literary charisma: "You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone." Hitchens knew well the power of his voice. He recalls how he would reassure the students in his graduate writing classes by telling them that anyone who can talk can write, before presenting them with a more troubling question: "How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?"
Hitchens' voice was his personal treasure, so it is all the more pitiful when he discloses that the cancer took that too. One day his speech was reduced to a "piglet-like" piping squeak. From that point on when he joined a conversation -- no longer with the usual exquisite timing, he notes -- "I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening 'sympathetically'. At least they don't have to pay attention for long: I can't keep it up and anyway can't stand to."
His ability to write was threatened soon afterwards, when an injection to reduce pain in his arms, hands and fingers brought on a numbness in his extremities. "Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking." The final section of the book is a collection of notes and scribbles that the author never had time to craft into argument. Patched together and unorganised, they reveal the sweep of his intelligence, and a sense of the absurd. He writes, "People say -- I'm in town on Friday: will you be around? WHAT A QUESTION!" Or again, he considers, "Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumours of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated. Lived to see most of what's going to be written about me: this too is exhilarating but hits diminishing returns when I realise how soon it, too, will be 'background'."
Hitchens had plenty of detractors -- not only the Christian fundamentalists who saw cancer as a divine judgement on his atheistic views, but also many who found objectionable his statements about women, abortion, his support of the Iraq war and general contempt for the American left. In an article on Hitchens written after his death, the feminist Katha Pollitt, who had been his colleague, criticised his "lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him 20 minutes to write".
Gifted though he was, Hitchens was a divisive figure, who will be remembered both for his combative charm and for his literary brilliance. Repeatedly in Mortality he cites the temptation to be self-centred, to feel self-pity; but he doesn't ever succumb. By turns shocking, intimate and astute, Mortality is a memoir like no other -- as he must have wished it to be.
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