There is a certain kind of writer for whom the observations of George Orwell have nearly the status of Holy Writ. The person in question is usually on the left, male and a columnist, which means he is in the uncomfortable position of having to produce a great deal of work that brings no guarantee of lasting fame. This is not so different from the situation in which novelists find themselves, but journalists have even more reason to feel insecure.
Hence the tendency not just to quote Orwell but to do so with a kind of flourish, as though throwing down an ace in a card game. There is a circularity to this process, one journalist citing another from an earlier generation, which is never admitted. Orwell long ago attained the status of secular saint and his worshippers are no more amenable to reason than any other species of acolyte. They are also just as tendentious, assuming a licence to abuse anyone who has not seen the light or questions its brilliance, as this volume by Christopher Hitchens demonstrates.
Its thesis could be crudely summarised as "Orwell was right" about everything from Communism and Fascism to PG Wodehouse, the latter an enthusiasm common among men educated at English public schools. Indeed, the two men have so much in common besides their education, or Hitchens at least makes them appear so, that it is impossible not to discern a powerful sense of identification between author and subject.
The book is journalistic rather than scholarly, not so much an exposition of Orwell's ideas as a series of disagreements, mostly with other writers on the left. I lost count of the people with whom Hitchens quarrels, but the list includes Claud Cockburn, EP Thompson, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Isaac Deutscher, Raymond Williams, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Norman Podhoretz, Louis Althusser and, in a revealing aside, "my Tory brother Peter".
Mary McCarthy is a rare female adversary in a mental universe with an attitude to women suggested by a chapter title, "Orwell and the Feminists". When Hitchens relates that "I once had the honour of telling Ms McCarthy why I thought [Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer] were right and she was wrong," the sarcasm is undermined by the reader's sense that contradicting a famous woman novelist really did give him a thrill. His defence of Orwell's misogyny is one of the weakest parts of the book, but hardly surprising when he is able to write of the "prole" women in Nineteen Eighty-Four as "motherly and eternal and enduring".
There is a curious alternation of tone, as though Hitchens cannot quite decide whether he is looking for a fight or eager to buy everyone a drink. After accusing Thompson, Rushdie, Said, Deutscher, Williams and O'Brien of ill will, bad faith and confusion, he hurries to let the reader know that he belongs in this elevated company: "I might as well add that I have spoken on radical platforms with each of the above-mentioned, excepting only Deutscher (with whose widow, Tamara, I did once appear)".
Does Orwell need this personal defence? It is hard to believe he does, given that his novels go on being read and his essays so widely quoted. Nor is it possible to read Hitchens' list of reasons why Orwell's work is "still vividly contemporary" without wondering whether it represents a lapse into schoolboy prose or notes for a larger project. "His influence on later fiction, including the so-called 'Angry Young Man' novels", reads one.
In that sense, the book is as revealing about male intellectuals as a breed, their vanities and insecurities, as about Orwell. No one wants to feel ephemeral: inflating Orwell's status, an error by no means only of Hitchens, is also a form of self-reassurance. Orwell was a good journalist who produced a couple of influential novels, but his writing is problematic in terms of class and gender. Hitchens knows this, but he is also tiresomely insistent that only he is allowed to say it. The result is a slender volume that contains as many bouts of fisticuffs as Fight Club.