I successfully avoided reading him when he was alive. A friend recommended “Mortality,” and I found it intriguingly odd. For an acknowledged very smart person, it was surprisingly shallow. For his acknowledged caustic nature, it was surprisingly sentimental.
It seems like all of a certain type of road still lead to Christopher Hitchens, and there was the massive “Arguably” staring at me from the shelf. I took the challenge.
I didn’t succeed. I read most of it.
The most fun section by far is the “Eclectic Affinities” section, which should really be called, “In Defense of Writers No One Reads Anymore.” For 250 pages, he spills passionate ink over…P.G. Wodehouse! John Buchan! Stephen Spender! As I went, the exclamation points turned to question marks. Anthony Powell? Edward Upward? Jessica Mitford? Really? We needed a table-pounding essay on why Graham Greene wasn’t very good? Or, [from another section] a critical review of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” 30 years after it was published? Why? And why is he so angry about all of this?
From these repetitive, formulaic, but uniformly-impassioned pieces, a clear character emerges, and I guess that’s why so many people read them. Like all the best essayists, reading Hitchens was like listening to a respected friend hold forth at the bar – we know what we’re going to get, but it’s relaxing and interesting and fun, anyway, so why not hear what he thinks about North Korea, postwar Germany, or Stieg Larsson?
He was smart enough to understand this character, and its power, but not its market. The longer essays are interspersed with throwaway pieces for Slate. Too long and untimely for the web, but too slight for Vanity Fair/The Atlantic, they demonstrate that he really didn’t get the internet – it was just a dump for half-realized thoughts. A wiser man would have branded that character as editor of a team of essayists under the banner of a web site, or even online journal. The appeal is obvious – the elevator pitch is “McSweeney’s for M.A.’s.”
I rolled along with the character – the last man of letters, a true Oxford man keeping real journalism alive (or at least the fictionalized version memorialized by Evelyn Waugh, Michael Frayn, and Martin Amis)! Unfortunately, he runs aground in simply running off his mouth too much. On Tunisia: “I recently made my own visit to the place, which is on the island of Djerba, where Ulysses is said to have passed his time among the lotus-eaters.” [Cringe]. You’ve heard of the sexism, racism, weird militarism, and the rest – I was surprised to find simple bad writing. I wondered if there will ever be another like him – I’m guessing not. He really was that last man of a certain kind of letters (at least outside of the English department). However, I’m not sure whether that’s necessarily a sad thing.