The Things He Carried
David Castronovo November 15, 2010 - 11:07am
Twelve, $26.99, 435 pp.
In Hemingway’s short story “The Three-Day Blow,” young Nick Adams and his pal Bill Smith sit around on a brisk fall afternoon, sipping Irish whiskey and talking about guy things—baseball, fishing, good books, worries about women. They wish G. K. Chesterton could be part of the session. That’s the way you feel about Christopher Hitchens. If you like good talk, wit, openness to experience, candor, he’s your man. (Forget that he’s never been interested in team sports.)
The pages of Hitchens’s memoir are filled with a rare blend of elements: the buoyant and the serious, the streetwise and the learned, the crude joking of the pub and “the cut glass Oxford tones” of civilized debate. There is not one ponderous or self-important passage in the book—and that’s saying something when you consider that this is an apologia of sorts, an attempt to explain and justify a life of contrarian positions. Hitchens defends himself with honor and dignity, but he can be obtuse about the deep regions of human experience. His Enlightenment rationalism sometimes blinds him to things that resist ideological analysis. (See Eugene McCarraher’s review of God Is Not Great in the June 15, 2007, issue of Commonweal.)
But that’s not how he or this book should be judged. To appreciate this memoir’s fine intelligence and decency, the reader must get past Hitchens’s limitations and attend to the story he has to tell of one man’s growth and development in post–World War II Britain.
It’s partly a tale of intellectual discovery: learning to love George Orwell and W. H. Auden as a teenager, catching lectures at Cambridge when he was a mere schoolboy, meeting famous dons as a student at Oxford (including the Marxist historian Christopher Hill and the great classicist Maurice Bowra), and hanging out with Martin Amis and other up-and-coming young writers in his early years as a Fleet Street journalist.
Hitchens’s family story is a depressing counterpoint to the academic and professional satisfactions he describes. His mother Yvonne was a charming, rather exotic young woman who had been in the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during the war. She loved books and yearned for metropolitan culture; she wanted her son Christopher to have the best of British schooling and to become an English gentleman (Hitchens chortles at the second of these aspirations). She was a source of pride to young Christopher, “a passionate lady in one’s own corner.” But one day while he was starting out as a writer in London he was called upon to take her and a rather “wispy”-looking man to dine. Not long thereafter Yvonne and the man, her lover, were found dead in Athens: they had apparently entered into a suicide pact. After her death Hitchens discovered that his mother had lived her whole life without revealing her Jewish ancestry. He devotes a grim section of his memoir to exploring his family roots in Poland. This includes a haunting description of a desolate little town with no surviving relatives, all roads leading to Auschwitz.
Hitchens’s father provides a strange contrast to this tragic story. “The Commander,” a Royal Navy man, helped sink a Nazi convoy (“a better day’s work than any I have ever done”) and felt the call of duty until his superiors retired him at the time of Suez, “only then to raise the promised pay and pension of those officers who would later join up.” His story became one of resentment and rancor, Tory nostalgia, and too much gin.
Yvonne’s passion and tragedy, the Commander’s carry-on spirit and pathos—these are what set the memoir’s tone. Hitchens relates his adventurous life as a foreign correspondent, including the glamour that Yvonne would have loved but also the terrible darkness of wartime Iraq and Sarajevo. Becoming one of the best polemical essayists in the language has been a very long and circuitous journey for Hitchens. At first, he was the young socialist taking aim at the usual targets of the Left—Kissinger, the Nixon administration, Salazar, London racists. In later years, his range became wider and more idiosyncratic. He attacked what was left of Soviet Communism, old leftist comrades like Noam Chomsky, knee-jerk anti-Americanism, those opposed to the war in Iraq, “Islamofascism,” Zionism, Mother Teresa, and God.
The curious mix of high principle and dizzy recklessness in Hitchens’s life work—carefully crafted analysis and windy opinion-mongering—is a puzzle for his readers. Much of his work is distinguished by intellectual subtlety and a terrible honesty. He doesn’t hesitate to hold his once-beloved Left up to scrutiny, but he hasn’t allowed his alienation from his former colleagues at the Nation to turn him into a standard-issue neoconservative. He remains critical of Israel, for example, and in the culture wars he is unmistakably still a man of the Left. He doesn’t suffer foolishness gladly, even when it comes from a friend. Sometimes the friendship survives (Hitchens has gone after his pal Martin Amis from time to time); sometimes it doesn’t. In the memoir, there’s a very moving treatment of his relationship with the legendary Columbia professor and Palestinian spokesman Edward Said. The two were once great friends who often talked about English literature, but something went very wrong and Hitchens refuses to prettify the picture. One of the pioneering scholars of his generation—and a generous-spirited man and teacher—Said was nevertheless capable of weird descents into fanatical rhetoric, at least according to Hitchens. When Hitchens called him out on this, the friendship ended.
But then there’s the shoot-from-the hip Hitch, who’s capable of his own fanaticism. Was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. really no more than a “Kennedy suck-up”? Is the Nobel Peace Prize just “a huge bore and fraud”? Should Mother Teresa have been a high-tech hospital administrator instead of a humble comforter in a sari? Is Joseph Ratzinger anything like Osama bin Laden? This is the rough stuff of the essay tradition in English from Hazlitt to Mencken to Orwell to Gore Vidal. Brawling and mauling of opponents, clever phrases, sparks, some enlightenment, and much confusion. In this tradition, point-scoring and phrase-making sometimes count for more than intellectual coherence. This aspect of journalistic criticism—the creation of excitement by means of verbal flourishes—isn’t on the same level as real reflection, evocation of time and place, analysis of ideas, or self-scrutiny. But heat and noise are part of the opinion journalist’s trade. In any case, the forcefulness of Hitchens’s style and what J. S. Mill would have called his “energetic character” help to sharpen our wits even when we think he’s wrong.
Since this book was released, Hitchens has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He continues to write columns and to make defiant and witty faces at his detractors. In his memoir he sums up what he stands for, and it’s an estimable credo, whatever one thinks of his politics: “A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless.’” Well said, Hitch.