Monday, July 29, 2013

(Book Review) Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

This is an excellent bedtime book, because it consists of short pieces (typically 4-6 pages in length), many of which appeared in Vanity Fair, on a wide range of topics of current as well as historical interest.

On the negative side, iconoclastic contrarianism is a somewhat unsatisfactory vocation--as soon as the wind shifts and one's formerly outsider position is popular, one has to move on to bigger prey. At his worst, Hitchens typifies a blustering punditocracy that occasionally slips into inaccurate exaggerations--for example his piece about North Korea,entitled "A Nation of Racist Dwarves", was originally published in Slate in February 2010. In that piece he states that "a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean" (P.558). (The truth is closer to two inches.) And once Hitchens had torn Kissinger, Mother Teresa, and Bill Clinton, he naturally had to take on the ultimate target, God Himself.

On the positive side, I felt that Hitchens's biographical reflections upon many intellectuals and literary figures  filled some important lacunae in my own education. Examples include essays on Saki (H.H. Munro), Jessica Mitford, Somerset Maugham, Stephen Spender, Philip Larkin, Edward Upward, C.L.R. James, J.G. Ballard, George MacDonald Fraser, Anthony Powell, Stieg Larsson, Victor Klemperer and Hitchens contemporary and  friend Martin Amis. Even when writing about authors and historical figures that I had thought I knew well--Vidal, Updike, Pound, Rebecca West, Edward Said, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Waugh, Orwell--Hitchens never fails to make an astute observation about how their characters were shaped by events and vice-versa.   His 2005 account of his visit to Iran, titled "Iran's waiting game" , contains an account of his visit to the Museum of Omar Khayyam, a scholar and poet in the city of Neyshabur in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. "In his four-line stanzas, he praised wine, women, and song, found speculation on the afterlife pointless, and ridiculed the mullahs of his day"(463). Hitchens even writes out a particularly subversive quatrain of Khayyam in the visitors' book of the museum.

The bulk of the book, however, is reserved for the literary and political titans who  contended with the tumult of the mid-twentieth century. "Saki's great gift was being able to write about children and animals," (375)--P.G. Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by him, just as Saki (unhappily) repressed his own debt to, and affinity for, Oscar Wilde. Maugham was a young man during the Oscar Wilde scandal, and "he developed all of the habits of subterfuge that were necessary to his survival"(244). In fact, Maugham's greatest work of fiction was himself: Hitchens vividly describes his Mediterranean-villa milieu and exquisitely crafted and executed "mass wants class" literary style--worthy of his O.B.E. for "services to literature, rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world."

Stephen Spender's unique oddness also stems from having been a bullied schoolboy (this may be the most common thread that Hitchens, a graduate of Leys School, Cambridge and Balliol College, finds in his subjects). His article on Edward Upward's passing is in contrast a  respectful homage to the  "last survivor of his generation"; one almost senses that Upward's self -imposed isolation on the Isle of Wight was the key both to his longevity and his unwavering socialism. C.L.R. James, another great Marxist writer of the mid-twentieth century, had none of Upward's illusions about the Soviet Union. Hitchens appreciates him as a kind of Trinidadian Orwell, who was "disappointed by the place-seeking and frequent viciousness of his former comrades in Ghana, Trinidad, and Grenada" (351).

Throughout, Hitchens manages to keep faith with his hero Orwell, who subjected his own ideals and beliefs as unsparingly to the test of truth as he did the beliefs of others. Out of this affinity, at least five new 'must reads' emerge:

(1) Victor Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev--ironically described by HItchens this way: "In its remorseless emphasis on the ineluctable along with its insistence on the vitality of individual human nature, [it] is one of the most Marxist novels ever written--as it is also one of the least" (594).

(2) Martin Amis, Experience (2000), a "superb memoir" , which among other things interprets the current evolution of the world through the lens of his relationship with his father Kingsley Amis: "Be very choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are, and be careful not to confuse the state of the world with that of your family, or your own internal organs" (639).

(3) David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (2005) "Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people" (33).

(4) Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2010): Hitchens perceptively observes that the Vatican's 2009 overture toward Anglicans was "another salvo discharged in one of Europe's most enduring cultural and ideological wars: the one that began when the English Reformation first defied the divine rights of the papacy. On the origins of this once-world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty, Hilary Mantel has written a historical novel of quite astonishing power" (146).

(5) Victor Klemperer,  I shall bear witness: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41  and To the bitter end: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-1945. (1999). "Is there not something fabulously grotesque about a regime that in the midst of total war will pedantically insist that Jews and their spouses either euthanize their own pets or surrender them to the state for extermination? ... Never much interested in Marxism, [Klemperer] also manifests an abiding distrust of the Zionism to which so many of his fellows are drawn...There cannot have been many victims in 1942 who told their diaries that they planned an essay entitled 'Pro Germania, contra Zion' from the contemporary standpoint of the German Jew" (655-656).

I must add to this incomplete list at least two old must-reads as well: Homage to Catalonia and Darkness at Noon. The spirits of Orwell and Koestler are alive and well in these pages.

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