Atlantic, £30, 788pp, £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens
Friday 23 September 2011
Arguably? Arguably? Christopher Hitchens uses the phrase often enough of course, but strictly as Humpty Dumpty does, when Alice tells him she doesn't know what he means. Humpty Dumpty smiles contemptuously. "Of course you don't – till I tell you. I meant, 'there's a nice knockdown argument for you'." "Till I tell you": that's the point.
Hitchens is, and has been for many years, the mightiest knocker-down in argumentative journalism in the Anglophone world. This vast volume, containing ten years of argufying, is every bit as pugilistic, as unanswerable, as toughly rationalist, as unstoppable, as strenuously lived, as its many predecessors from his hand. Presidents (Bush père et fils, Clinton, Jefferson, Khomeini, Karzai, Kennedy), literary giants (Updike, Gore Vidal, Dickens, Waugh, Wodehouse), grand historical theorists (Marx, the late Osama bin Laden, Edmund Burke, Hitler), old and dear friends (Martin Amis, Edward Said, Vidal again) are, with countless others mostly of prodigious fame, lined up, arraigned, swiftly appraised and, with a perfect and merciless justice, judged and sentenced.
On every one of these almost-800 pages I was put in mind of a deathless scene in Martin Amis's classic memoir Experience. He recalls a dinner table at Saul Bellow's house at which, with unimpugnable rightness, Hitchens instructed Bellow in the correct view of contemporary Israel. It was "a cataract of pure reason, matter-of-fact chapter and verse, with its interjected historical precedents, its high decibel statistics, its fortissimo fine distinctions – Christopher's cerebral stampede".
No reviewer, certainly not this one, can match that summary for concision, accuracy, appreciation and, all things considered, affection. One can only carry the exalted tribute and its criticisms through these crowded pages, much like Dante accompanied by Virgil, and have pointed out the punishments properly inflicted upon the mighty.
Do not miss the fearful explosion with which Hitchens blows apart John Updike's pious attempt to understand Islamic extremism in Terrorist, nor the pitiless chronicle of Gore Vidal's elderly descent into narcissism and nonsense, nor – to change key – Hitchens's dazed incredulity before the complete barminess of Hugo Chávez, nor his clinching dictum, affronting many a dim, sentimental leftist, that "Cuba is not a country that has an army but an army that has a country". He's been to see for himself, naturally.
It would be wholly wrong, however, to imply, in a short review of such a mammoth book (surely only his fans will tolerate its sheer weight), that Hitchens at his best is always slaughterous. Indeed, he is here much more frequently writing in celebration of the many writers - much more rarely politicians - whom he loves and cherishes. This is a man formed by, and braced against, a public school and Balliol education as well as by a militantly naval officer-father. So he can write with rare delicacy and sure judgement of Kipling, Buchan, Waugh and Wodehouse. It isn't just that, in these exemplary cases, Hitchens's touch is so sound and light; it is also that his delight in them is so bright and infectious with laughter.
After all, this was a man who became a vehement Trotskyite and remains astonishingly well-read in Marx. So he is beautifully poised (given both his intelligence and his astounding knowledgeability) to weigh up, for instance, the marvellous but compromised achievement which is Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, and to pit it against Brideshead Revisted's Catholic apologetics. The dauntless atheist hits Waugh's wistful, repellent mixture of reaction and sanctimony with forgiving certitude.
So one great pleasure provided by this remarkable book is to read what he says of many favourite and unexpected authors (Saki, Anthony Powell, J G Ballard). Literary criticism still retains plenty of grip when so very well written, so funny and fluent, so loving and so pungent.
But it is surely Hitchens's straight political journalism to which most of his readers will first turn, the more so since the ten years of this collection pretty well open with the now-notorious moment at which he threw the substantial weight of his columns unreservedly behind the joint invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as bending all the power of his polemics against the Church of Islam in its dottier and more murderous versions.
This decision pitted him headlong against many old allies on the bien-pensant left for whom, nowadays, the dreadfulness in Iraq, the vanished billions of dollars, the Halliburton corruption are reflexively, unarguably, put outside the door of Tony Blair. They simply cancelled their own noble admonition that it is always a good thing to bring down a tyrant. There is no chance of their persuading Hitchens who, with characteristic absolutism, followed his own arguments so straightly as in 2007 to take the oath of American citizenship beside the Potomac.
Hitchens treads quaggy ground, no doubt, in this dispute. He makes too much too much in his inexcusably titled autobiography, Hitch-22, of the family of a US soldier killed in Iraq who enrolled his help in commemorating and justifying the death. Nonetheless, no journalist has ever published so detailed, first-hand and on-the-very-ground an account of, for instance, the success of the Kurdish Republic or the road to the execution of Bin Laden in Abbottabad.
Hitchens is, moreover, blunt in his repudiation of torture (having, as he would, first and voluntarily subjected himself to the abomination of waterboarding), and bitter about the horrible distortions of policy which allowed the 2009 fraud of the Afghan elections ("The Taliban, one imagines, can barely credit their luck").
He has quietly patrolled the streets of Qom and Shiraz, Omar Khayyam in hand, and talked at length to those many Persian women who long for emancipation from the bullying lies of the imams, and risk much, even life to find it. Remember 16-year-old Atefeh Rajabi, hanged in public from a crane for tearing off her headscarf in court while protesting against her violation by a much older man?
Hitchens was right, I suppose, to become an American. That is to say, given his commitment to moral consistency, he was right to join himself formally to the one superpower still so immitigably anti-totalitarian in its every assumption. But I'm glad he remains so completely his kind of Englishman. He has his moments of being a chump.
Defiantly smoking all his life, making of the gasper an emblem of his offensive refusal to placate his audiences, has cut his remaining time down to a morsel. He has his lapses of, as you might say, taste. This reader wishes he had omitted his little essay on the - er - broadcast extension of the practice of fellatio, the more so since he has left out his canonical review dispatching Isaiah Berlin to the ranks of the timeservers. Time and again one wants him just to lower the decibels and to rein in the cerebral stampede.
But he rings true against the gold standard for such writing, which is of course George Orwell's. He is as prodigal, as contentious, as dependably on the side of the oppressed, and he too is a prose master. The loss of him, when it comes, will be tremendous. There isn't another Hitchens about.
Fred Inglis's books include 'People's Witness: the journalist in modern politics' (Yale) and 'A Short History of Celebrity' (Princeton)
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