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Arguably, By Christopher Hitchens

Erudite to the very last

That Christopher Hitchens is the most compelling polemicist writing in English today is proven by his latest collection, and the point is given sharpness by the fact that he won't be writing for much longer.

The cancer that began its course in his oesophagus has ravaged much of his body, but hasn't yet dulled his imagination, or his conviction. There is, in fact, an argument between the impending death implied by the image of Hitchens on the front cover and the irrepressible spirit of the pages within. It places Arguably firmly on the terrain where he has been most comfortable for decades: heroes and villains.

Undergraduates who are struggling to structure their essays are sometimes taught to write what they disagree with, and then bloody well disagree with it. One of Hitchens's favourite tropes is doing this with villains. He first identifies them, then chooses a few disreputable aspects of their character, and then leverages those to explain why civilisation would be better off without said villain. These tend to be pacifists and apologists for tyranny, a category into which he places most worshippers.

His heroes tend to be literary. George Orwell often complained that he would be happiest as a book critic, but the age in which he lived forced him to move into political writing. Hitchens, who worships Orwell, used the Iraq war to justify a similar leap. His favourite people tend to be writers, including close friends such as Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis.

The 780 pages here, containing 107 articles, are frequently funny – such as his pseudo-Darwinian explanation of why women aren't funny – and generally brave, especially the reportage from war zones. Despite this, it is going too far to say, as some have done, that Hitchens is one of the finest of all prose stylists.

The value of his prose isn't related to style. Whereas most great essayists, such as Orwell and Bertrand Russell, are spare and sparse, Hitchens is self-involved and garrulous. Not for him the dictum that you should never use a long word where a short one will do. You always feel that Hitchens prefers "quotidian" to "daily".

Instead, the value of his prose comes from the depth of his conviction – often child-like in its clarity – and the startling breadth of his erudition. This is a man whose lifetime of reading oozes from each sentence. We should be very grateful that it is a life that has been so well lived, and that even his most severe critics would place him in the domain of heroes rather than villains.

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