Genius is always fascinating. Especially when it is coupled with hard work. As a thinker and writer Christopher Hitchens was effortlessly brilliant. Never mind whether you shared his views, the quality of his output is an indisputable fact. As is the quantity: his brilliance was matched only by an obsessive work ethic.
But how did he do it? Only a handful of the tributes offer a small but not insignificant clue: the presence of someone of whom very few of Hitchens' readers will be aware – Carol Blue, his wife of 20 years, herself a writer. Most of the obituaries don't mention her at all.
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter paid tribute to Blue as having "set a high bar in how to handle a flower like Christopher, both when he was healthy and during his last days". Is there any more elegantly coded way to say that a man as prolific and talented as that needs a gatekeeper to sustain him? A rare photograph of the two of them taken by Annie Leibovitz in 1990 shows her – elegant, beautiful – wrapped around him protectively on the sofa, their legs intertwined, her arms around his head and shoulders, almost as if she's holding him up.
You can guess just from reading Hitchens that life with him cannot exactly have been easy. Graydon Carter recalled a time when the magazine masterminded a makeover of Hitchens, kitting him out with new shirts and suits. When a fashion assistant asked him his shoe size, Hitchens replied he had no idea as the ones he was wearing were borrowed. Hilarious, eccentric, quixotic? Yes. But imagine if this were your husband.
As his friend Ian McEwan wrote over the weekend, Hitchens was working on a 3,000-word essay on Reformation theology and politics as he was dying. Literally. "At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line." That is writerly commitment close to lunacy. Impressive? Sort of. But, again, imagine if that were your husband.
All this reminded me of something I once read about Solzhenitsyn's widow Natalia Svetlova. The great Russian writer apparently never answered a ringing telephone. In fact he rarely spoke on the phone at all. Svetlova usually spoke for him. Her purpose in life was to make sure his purpose – his work – was never interrupted by the outside world.
We often like to tell ourselves that, on their death bed, no-one ever wished they had spent more time at the office. Hitchens, however, turned his death bed into an office. You can just imagine him making a droll remark about the ultimate deadline. What allows someone to be that kind of person? Man cannot live by genius alone. So, please, obituary writers, don't let's pretend he did.
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