18 March, 2013Issue 21.5LiteraturePhilosophyWriters

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Not Great

Gabriel Roberts

MortalityChristopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books
128 pages
ISBN 9781848879218


It is fitting to a writer as vigorous as Christopher Hitchens that his last book should be published posthumously. Death, we may think, cannot stop him. But it is also appropriate, given Hitchens’ insistence on robust canons of literary criticism, that the book should be judged on its merits and not be allowed special pleading.

Mortality comprises essays written by Hitchens in the last year of his life, during treatment for oesophageal cancer. They address such topics as prayer, the maxim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and the etiquette of cancer (in which people are always said to be “fighting” it, regardless of how they are actually responding). Hitchens’ aim in each case is to vanquish sentimentality and superstition and to face death with dignity and directness.

Brevity may be to eloquence as discretion is to valour, but the book is too brief by any reckoning. There are 113 pages of large type, with ample headings and margins, of which only 83 contain finished work by Hitchens. A foreword by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter takes up nine; some fragmentary jottings by Hitchens take up a further nine; an afterword by Hitchens’ widow Carol Blue takes up ten; one is blank and one consists of an unnecessarily long quotation from Wilfred Owen’s ”Dulce et Decorum Est”. Moreover, some of the material is repeated. Hitchens’ reflections on the uselessness of prayer add nothing to his thoughts on the topic in God is Not Great (2007) and his description of being ”water-boarded” repeats material from the essay ”Believe Me, It’s Torture”. Likewise, although a ”Publisher’s note” informs the reader that the jottings included were ”left unfinished at the time of the author’s death”, this is palpably untrue. Many of them are clearly drafts of sentences contained in the earlier section of the book and are thus notes for work which had already been finished, not for work which was left unfinished. In all, there can only be a few thousand words of original writing—far too little to justify the ¬£10.99 price-tag.

In his foreword, Carter describes the book as ”among Hitchens’ best”. It’s hard to see how anyone familiar with Hitchens’ work could reach this conclusion. Although there a few good lines, such as a description of the late Randy Pausch’s ”Last Lecture” as ”so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it”, the writing in general is belaboured. The first onset of illness

was a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a bit of emergency work on my heart and lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior.

The mixed metaphor (in which Hitchens is transported into a country which is also his own body), the grisly pun on ”interior”, and the tedious prosecution of the conceit make for tangled, half-humorous prose.

A similar confusion is evident in Hitchens’ attacking sentimentalism while parading his American pieties: his desire to live to see the World Trade Centre ”rise again”, his love of Thanksgiving, and his description of Francis Collins (the scientist who led the Human Genome Project) as ”one of the greatest living Americans”. The ambiguity here, about whether Collins is great and an American or great at being an American, is sloppy, but contributes to Hitchens’ exploitation of his status as an Englishman-turned-American patriot.

Nor is Hitchens at his most erudite. For much of the work, he adopts an explanatory tone which is common in non-fiction writing: familiar points are made about a familiar topic while the author strikes an attitude of omniscience by omitting to comment on the origins or extent of their knowledge. He informs us, for instance, of the similarity in title between Nietzsche’s Götzen-Dammerung and Wagner’s Gotterdammerung and notes the echo of the horse-beating nightmare in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in Nietzsche’s experience of a horse being beaten in Turin in 1889. These are historical commonplaces and have nothing to do with Hitchens’ main theme. They raise a question, however, about whether Hitchens is writing for an educated audience or patronising a half-educated one.

A question also arises about whether the book had Hitchens’ consent. The contents were originally written as essays for Vanity Fair and may, in that ephemeral context, have been less warring. Their collection in a single volume repackages them as sage meditations and in doing so approaches the mawkish awfulness of books like Tuesdays with Morrie (a “must not-read” if ever there was one). It also participates in the current vogue for publishing every last scrap by a famous author, seen recently in the case of David Foster Wallace. In life, Hitchens was a voluble critic of anything this cultish and acquisitive; it is a pity that he should be subject to such treatment now.

Hitchens has been justly praised as a prose stylist. His writing rings with his hortatory tones, as many of his readers have noted. In part, this is because of his elevated register which provided a frame for his metaphors and his ample vocabulary. Yet it also involved wanton self-aggrandisement, artfully moderated by occasional protestations of humility. This is something that readers might tolerate as an authorial flourish, though on the understanding that Hitchens was more truly humble off the printed page. This book, unfortunately, supports the “lack of humility” hypothesis. In her afterword to the work, Carol Blue recalls how:

at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students, and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. “How good it is to be us”, he would say in his perfect voice.

Such remarks, though stunning in their pomposity, are unsurprising in a work which presents some of Hitchens’ least interesting writing as evidence of his intellectual prowess. At his best, Hitchens was a gifted writer, a forceful personality, and an energetic political commentator. This book, by contrast, is an embarrassment to read, a mistake to buy, and a less than fitting monument to its author.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a D.Phil. in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.