Opening ShotsFEATURESAbout NYRM

WeinHead“Great!” exclaimed Christopher Hitchens, writer, television pundit and all-purpose scene-stealer, standing behind his microphone on the IFC theater’s spot-lit rostrum. “Come, let’s have a drink and a little bite.” There was a bar next door to the West Village auditorium, and Vanity Fair was buying. As he strode off the stage to greet me—our first encounter—red socks emerged from beneath his dark trouser cuffs.

“First,” he boomed, “I must have a piss.” He surveyed the exiting crowd at the theater’s rear. Then he joined them, sending a shout in my direction. “Come on, then. You can hold it for me.”

“Okay,” I replied after a moment. “But my hands are on the cold side.”

“Ah! Well then, you can help me shake it.”

Moments later, Hitchens was laying out his case that war with Iraq came far too late. And he was relieving himself. I stared dolefully into the single-stall restroom’s mirror, fumbling (with both hands) for a tape recorder. Thirty-four very long seconds later, he had finished urinating. But his argument continued on.

Hitchens had just moderated a panel of journalistic luminaries—Sebastian Junger, William Langeweische, Dexter Filkins and Su Chin Pak—on war coverage in 1968 and today. He had defended the panelists by launching pre-emptive attacks on the audience’s questioners. “I don’t need to hear from MoveOn.org, sir,” he told one stammering audience member. Moderation is not a word normally associated with Hitchens, and later he would muse: “It’s not my usual work. In fact, I’ve never moderated a panel before. And I never intend to do so again.”Hitch

At the night’s end, Hitchens continued to press his case on Iraq to me, even as a group of paparazzi blocked his way into the Waverly Inn, the exclusive restaurant partly owned by Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter. “Mr. Hitchens, can we have a picture?” one photographer asked. “Why not?” he replied. As the flashbulbs assailed him, he raised his eyebrows. “How low have we sunk here?”

Anyone who spends a good deal of time with Hitchens knows that this public persona is not a put-on. He is every bit the hard-drinking, conversation-dominating contrarian people expect him to be—equally capable, according to one interviewer, “of pissing into your grandmother’s fish tank and beating you at chess: the quasi-omniscient Johnny Rotten of political journo-intellectualism.” Yet the rise in his visibility as a political demagogue is largely a post-9/11 phenomenon, and it has overshadowed what, to hear him tell it, is his intellectual passion: literary journalism. Far removed from his appearances on The O’Reilly Factor and The New York Times best-seller list, far from his bile-infused political rants in Slate and his cultural ruminations in Vanity Fair, Hitchens’ essays on books and authors hang together as a public intellectual’s manifesto. In fact, liberal and conservative critics alike might better understand his high profile and his apparent break with the left if only they’d look to this, his least-heralded work.

“I try when I’m writing about literature not to leave the political dimension out,” he once told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb. “When I’m writing about politics, I try and recall that politics isn’t all there is to life, and try and import what you might call cultural or literary or aesthetic points to it. This must make me sound insufferable, but that’s my ambition anyway.”

Insufferable though some may find it, Hitchens’ literary side is rigorously reasoned. He is at least as prolific on writers as he is on politics, regularly contributing book columns to The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review and Britain’s Times Literary Supplement. Three of his more recent, if commercially less successful, books—Why Orwell Matters, Unacknowledged Legislation and Love, Poverty and War—deal mainly with authors and their work. He is a pioneer member of an international literary salon who counts authors Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and James Fenton as dear friends. And, for whatever it’s worth, he once perfected a literature-based parlor game with Rushdie, in which they retitled classic Shakespeare plays in the style of Robert Ludlum novels.(Don’t like Othello? You’ll love The Kerchief Implication.)

But that’s not what he’s known for. Hitchens’ celebrity derives from the fact that he is widely despised and from his desire to see a great many sacred cows slaughtered. “It does seem that I attract or magnetize a certain sort of—I don’t know what to call it exactly—a sort of resentment from people,” he said later in an interview at his Washington apartment. His chief patron, Vanity Fair, has advanced this “Hitchens as antichrist” brand by launching an online forum for his detractors called “Hitch Bitch.” “None of this is by design. I did not set out to create this sort of—you called it a brand, didn’t you? Shit. A package,” he said with a laugh. “That does seem to be the case with me.”

“Words that hold their value”

Most commentators assume Hitchens broke with his colleagues on the left over the Iraq War. They point to his September 2002 resignation from The Nation, after two decades at the opinion magazine, as his coup de grace. (Full disclosure: the adviser of this magazine hired Hitchens for The Nation when he was its editor and publisher.) But long before the war debate, politics had grown less interesting to him, and he had grown unsure of his approach to many topics. “I definitely sometimes felt difficulty putting it in a way that I thought was what The Nation reader would expect,” he said. “What it really involved was summoning a little more outrage than I really felt. Everyone knows when they’re overstating things. And I was, a little bit—to make up for a slight lack of conviction sometimes.”

When Christopher Hitchens criticizes a media publication for its excess of outrage, something is clearly amiss. “I had those premonitory pangs about that,” he said. “I was in some way realizing that the moorings were parting.”

Hitchens had always managed to find an outlet for his thoughts on writing. As he drifted away from The Nation, the literary impulse grew more serious. “I had begun to resolve,” he wrote in the 2004 introduction to Love, Poverty and War, “after the end of the cold war and some other wars, to try to withdraw from ‘politics’ as such, and spend more time with the sort of words that hold their value. Proust, Borges, Joyce, Bellow.”

In 2000, he was approached by The Atlantic’s literary editor, Ben Schwarz, about becoming a regular contributor to the magazine. After some preliminary negotiations, Hitchens jumped in with both feet. “He wanted to do more of this—he was at that point kind of tired of politics,” Schwarz said. “I wanted to build the section around him. The idea was essentially to have him write about literature and history, mostly through books. I think I have a good sense of aspects of Christopher, and I suggest books I think he would enjoy and would be of interest to him.”

Owing to those interests, Hitchens’ essays affirm a “Great Men” theory of literature: There is a proper canon, peopled by authors (mostly male) who tell timely truths with deft, wit and subtlety. Their ranks include Wodehouse, Kipling, Orwell and dozens of others whose mention might make a postmodernist English professor queasy. (“You get into terrifically bad company some of the time if you’re a fan of Wodehouse,” he told Lamb of C-SPAN. “That’s true of also being a fan of Kipling or Orwell or many other people.”) For Hitchens, the writer’s life, politics and prose are intertwined, susceptible to a pleasurable unwrapping, but not to a lazy deconstruction of the texts as mere social constructs. “Postmodern literary theory has suggested that authors do not really ‘write’ their books, so much as evolve them in collaboration with their readers,” he wrote in a 1996 review. “I think that this effort to deconstruct authorship is largely piffle.”

Hitchens’ book reviews are highly readable: they shine bright and burn hot. They also often seem formulaic: the book review as biographical and political primer, with a good deal of personal confession thrown in. Schwarz acknowledged this. “There is still a much stronger tradition in Britain of having accessible, somewhat lengthy, considered writing about writing...for the common reader,” Schwarz said. “He was raised within that tradition.”

In Hitchens’ hands, the tradition belongs to political iconoclasts and skeptics. In 2000’s Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, he used several decades’ worth of literary essays and reviews to “show how often, when all parties in the state were agreed on a matter, it was individual pens which created the moral space for a true argument.” Later in the volume, he invoked the progressive spirit to excuse the purported plagiarism of Martin Luther King Jr. “He may have done some borrowing in his life,” Hitchens wrote, “but he synthesized the borrowings into something higher.” Elsewhere, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories earned praise for affirming two of Hitchens’ political tendencies: “First, a commitment to science and the forensic...and second, a thirst, or perhaps better to say an instinct, for justice.”

Indeed, Hitchens scours popular novels like Doyle’s for political morals with the same gusto he applies to fine literature. He praised Ian Fleming for seeing “past the confines of the Cold War” in his James Bond stories. In one essay, he compared the Horatio Hornblower series of C.S. Forrester to the Master and Commander novels of Patrick O’Brian, preferring the latter in part because of their sharper “political and cultural” sense. He once took special relish in skewering the rah-rah military thrillers of Tom Clancy not just for their poor diction but also for the fantastic nature of their politics: “His books bear the same relation to reality as Oliver North’s lachrymose and bragging speeches do to patriotism, and his writing is to prose what military music is to music.”

Hitchens does seem to exercise one restraint in his search for trenchant prose, even if unconsciously: He focuses almost exclusively on male authors. The man who famously shocked Vanity Fair readers by declaring that women aren’t funny has written more than 60 literary columns in The Atlantic. Only two deal primarily with a woman writer (Jessica Mitford). Schwarz acknowledged this imbalance—“It’s clearly correct”—but insisted it wasn’t by design. “That’s also sort of my fault as an assigning editor. I’m not thinking of women writers for Christopher. That ought to be something I might want to think about.” He did ask Hitchens to write about White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s 2000 smash novel. “He really, really liked it but was never able to write about it, because of the timing issues between the two continents,” Schwarz said. “He was rightly somewhat annoyed.”

One group that never seems to slip past Hitchens’ critical eye is his own circle of friends. He has carved out a niche as the literary world’s resident expert on McEwan, Amis and Rushdie. “In all of those cases I’ve suggested it to him,” Schwarz said, adding that a reviewer with firsthand knowledge of an author is often the reader’s best friend. Schwarz denies that such an arrangement yields uniformly glowing reviews; in fact, he considers Hitchens better positioned to scrutinize fiction than another fiction writer. “With novelist A who’s never met novelist B, novelist A knows how hard it is to write a novel, and it often shows in the review,” Schwarz said. “For better or worse, Christopher never pulls any punches with friends or with enemies. I don’t think, for example, there’s ever been as devastating a review as Christopher’s of Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread.”

For his part, Hitchens submits his acquaintances to the same litmus test that he applies elsewhere: What is the political moral, and how well is it told? Ten years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for the killing of Rushdie for writing an “anti-Islamic” novel, The Satanic Verses, Hitchens reflected on his shared struggle with Rushdie against the enemies of open discourse. He wrote, “I sometimes can’t believe my own good fortune: To have had the chance to defend civilisation’s essential principle (no more than payback time, really, for someone who makes a living from free speech), and to have done so in the company of one of the world’s great novelists.”

“The next thing”

“Everything on North Korea and Iran is in one of these,” Hitchens said, pointing to a standalone bookshelf during a tour of his Washington apartment. “The ‘axis of evil’ shelf. We also have India—I just decided to put the India box there.” I remarked that it’s a rather Orientalist way to categorize his reading. “Well, exactly!” he replies with a smile.

The apartment where Hitchens lives with his wife, writer Carol Blue, and his daughter, Antonia, is cavernous but lacks much décor. Besides a grand piano in the living room, the only furnishings Hitchens seems to have acquired in two decades at this address are hundreds of books, many piles of which rest unshelved against the walls. His office in the apartment next door is equally spartan but for a pile of promotional books on the kitchen isle (the anti-liberal firebrand David Horowitz, among others, seeks a blurb from Hitchens for the back cover of his latest offering). A framed National Magazine Award rests on the back of the gas range, next to a refrigerator that houses a few bottles of water, a jar of mustard and little else.

Hitchens’ only television set is in the master bedroom. It’s a recent acquisition, Blue said, and she watches it more than he does. He hardly has time, he said, now that he’s working on a memoir.

“That’s now the next thing,” he says. “Till this is done I can’t do another book. I’m stuck with it now—I wake up thinking about it. And I’m reading other people’s memoirs and making notes, and I keep being reminded of it.”

When writing a memoir, it helps to have known everybody imaginable. As Hitchens discusses his autobiographical work, I recall another tendency in his literary journalism. He almost always hangs his reviews of living or recently deceased authors on an anecdote about his interactions with them. Reflecting in The Atlantic on Saul Bellow, Hitchens recalled a conversation with the author in which they ended up having “a strong disagreement” over Palestine. “I have several times devoutly wished that we could have had this discussion again,” he wrote. Perhaps most poignant was his account in The Nation of an evening spent with Jorge Luis Borges at his home in Argentina, where Hitchens buried their political differences in a shared love of literature by reading Kipling aloud to the aged, blind author.

When he doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of a writer, Hitchens employs hypothetical conversations and “encounters that never took place.” H.L. Mencken and Evelyn Waugh almost met once, and Hitchens wishes they had. “It would have been good to have...an account of this aborted conversation between two snobs, two racists, two masters of prose and humour and invective, two literary products of the vulgar industry of journalism,” he wrote before chronicling Mencken’s life. In reviewing Ravelstein, Bellow’s fictional account of Allan Bloom, the conservative academic who died of AIDS, Hitchens fantasizes about asking Bloom how he reconciled his rightist politics with his homosexuality. These hypotheticals, Schwarz said, help Hitchens “highlight the aesthetic and intellectual evolution of these authors.” They also highlight Hitchens’ own evolution, making good preparation for a memoir.

And full of confessions he is. Our conversation at his apartment continued well into the night, long after my intended train had departed for New York. Several hours later, wearied by wine and topics ranging from his legendary Washington parties to why he had recently quit smoking, Hitchens relented to my request for sleep. He set me up for the evening on a cot in his office. He often naps there while working; writing “posthumously,” as he called it, can be extremely taxing on the body.

Christopher Hitchens says he’s an atheist. Yet bedding down between piles of his correspondence and reflecting on his encounters with authors, real and hypothetical, I sense he holds several dogmas that only an educated humanist can possess: a boundless faith in the omnipotence of rhetoric, the omniscience of the human intellect and the omnipresence of a right answer for most any question. In this worldview, the reader is his God. If an audience did not exist for “words that hold their value,” he might have to invent one.

SIDEBAR: There’s always a hitch
Random musings from the author

On quitting smoking:
“I didn’t just smoke. It wasn’t just what I did. It’s what I was. That is gone. You’d notice if it wasn’t. By now you’d be wreathed in blue plumes.”

On objectivity in journalism:
“Objectivity means you have to be unfair, all the time. You might very well have to upset the feelings of some group of people or maybe even one individual. Inclusiveness, being fair, all this kind of stuff is the deadly enemy of objectivity. The complete foe. That’s just people saying, ‘You know, we have to pay a compliment to the fact that we are a Red Cross society.’ Nothing to do with objectivity. No-thing.”

On the decline of religion in Iraq:
“There’s been an unbelievable collapse in religious sentiment among young Iraqis, because they’ve been through what it’s like with local theocrats cutting off their fingers if they smoke a cigarette.... The mullahs in Iraq lost the allegiance of a generation of people. And it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I live for moments like that.”

On reading Barack Obama’s autobiographies:
“I like what one learns about him from reading him, and it’s very seldom you can say that about a politician. I forced myself to watch some of the debates, and I was much more impressed than I thought I was going to be. And I sort of hope he pulls it out.”

On voting for the first time, in Washington’s February 12 primary:
“I had to register as a Democrat. I just did what I could to derail Clinton.”

On how to say his name:
“There’s one thing that I can’t stand. It’s being called Chris. It doesn’t go with Hitchens. No. It’s an incentive to drop, to elide, the ‘H’. ‘Chrissitchens.” Christopher Hitchens flows. Sometimes it’s too long to go on some magazine covers. But even to get it on the cover, I wouldn’t shorten it.”


About | Site Map | Archive | Masthead

Copyright 2008
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
George T. Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism | 2950 Broadway, NY, NY 10027