Call it the autobiography of an intellectual life. During the course of more than 60 years of subversion, radical thought and ceaseless polemicist rabble-rousing, Christopher Hitchens has been one of the most admired, controversial and reviled of his brethren, among them Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. In its review of Hitch-22, Kirkus called the journalist’s provoking memoir “riveting and revealing,” dubbing it, “an engrossing account of his lives as a British Navy brat, a socialist activist and a leading essayist and intellectual of our time.”
Unfortunately, the book’s ill-fated publicity tour (detailed in a painfully candid essay in Vanity Fair) was derailed by one of Hitchens’ most honest admissions yet. The author has esophageal cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes and lungs. “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist,” he wrote.
No stranger to soldiering on, Hitchens continues to write and chronicle his battle with the disease, all the while maintaining his singularly acidic writing style. Prior to the book’s release last June, he was kind enough to answer a few questions for Kirkus.
A memoir is a challenging exercise, one in which the author is forced to choose among the moments he remembers best. What was your impetus for writing Hitch-22?
Well, the suggestion actually came from my publishers. But it came in the year I turned 60 and thus solved the ever-present question of “Isn’t it a bit soon?” It also helped that a museum catalogue in London referred to me as “the late Christopher Hitchens,” which does help to concentrate the mind.
In the book, you refer to having a dichotomous nature: “Chris” and “Christopher” often being two different entities. Have you reconciled yourself to being one or the other?
I can’t be reconciled to “Chris” because it’s a waste of a nice first name. I also practically promised my mother I wouldn’t allow it. However, it was what people liked to call me in my leftist and labor-movement days, and it’s still quite usual for Americans to show friendliness by automatically shortening up one’s name. So I don’t want to seem like a name snob. In general, the whole art of life involves learning to identify one’s own contradictions and to face them rather than evade them.
You’ve led a very adventurous life, from low dives in New York to the heights of power in Washington, D.C. What was the most important thing you wanted to portray about your life?
I think it’s essential to be able to see things from perspectives other than one’s own, and to be able to state another person’s opinion accurately. Sometimes, this exercise has the effect of changing one’s own mind. That’s why I devote a whole chapter to the subject of Iraq and to the way that encounters with that country forced me to reconsider almost everything. I had thought at one stage of calling the book Both Sides Now, to express other ambivalences as between being English and American, English and partly Jewish, “left” and “right,” mother versus father, journalism versus literature and other minor civil wars inside myself.
There are some amazing true characters in Hitch-22, from Salman Rushdie to Paul Wolfowitz to the great James Fenton. How do you pick the individuals you really want to examine in a work like this one?
In each case, I tried to choose people who represented something a bit larger than themselves. Salman gets a whole chapter because he was the warning of what was coming to us from Islamic fundamentalism, but I also wanted to show him up close as the genius of language that he is. I give a long portrayal of Martin Amis as exemplifying the meaning of friendship. With Wolfowitz, I wanted above all to give a different view of somebody who has been subjected to unbelievable lying and defamation, and through that to make a point about how American motives are so widely misunderstood and misrepresented.
You took the time to see the situation on the ground in the Middle East with your own eyes. Why do you think it’s so important to get a firsthand look at current events?
There’s only a certain amount that one can imbibe at secondhand—there is no substitute for finding out how things actually smell and taste. I’m rather proud of having visited all three members of the “Axis of Evil.” I may be the only writer to have done so. The experience teaches one a lot about “diversity,” but it also—perhaps paradoxically—reinforces one’s conviction that all members of the human species are essentially the same. If we were dogs we’d all be the same breed, as P.J. O’Rourke put it.
You’ve characterized yourself as an “Oppositionist.” What do you oppose these days?
I think I say in the book that the old slogans are often the best. “Death to Fascism” comes to mind. It’s important above all to oppose the totalitarian mindset wherever you find it. At present, the theocratic form is the most dangerous and insidious shape that this challenge takes.
What do you find most challenging about being a public intellectual?
Avoiding the danger of talking too much, or of having opinions on subjects where one is poorly informed. I quite often force myself to refuse invitations to comment where I have nothing useful to contribute.
Times are changing. What do you think it takes to be a journalist these days?
Journalism will always require the same qualities—insatiable curiosity and a reluctance to accept the first version that one is offered. It’s really a form of skepticism—not cynicism by the way—and a willingness to consider one’s education as the unfinished work of a lifetime.
Excerpts from this interview first appeared in our May 15 BEA/ALA Big Book Guide.
For a list of best nonfiction books of 2010, click here.
For a list of best memoir, click here.
Hitch-22: A Memoir
Twelve / June / 9780446540339 / $26.99
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010