Memoirs are generally untrustworthy affairs, especially when penned or ghost-penned by retired politicians or athletes seeking to cash in on their glories with a fat advance and a chance to put onto the record their version of the past with no arguments or contradictions. But rare is the memoir of a man of letters, a literary autobiography as it were. Some writers, like Steven King, have written strong reflections on the craft of the writer, weaving in their own life’s plot as a framework, but for the most, the autobiography is at best an opportunity for we readers to be taken into the conspiratorial confidences of the tale-teller and given a version of events that at best is written with the same verbal grace as their non-Onastic work, and at worse whitewashes controversy and settles past feuds with the awesome singularity of the printed page.
Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway … few literary lions have written about themselves, indeed some like Pynchon are impressive in keeping their biographies off of the page, and limited to but a few cryptic paragraphs on the edge of the dust-jacket and end papers. Literature resists critical psychoanalysis and the text is supposed to speak for itself, but yet the reader wants more insights into the dark influences behind the fiction: hence the cottage industry a few years back into tell-all biographies of John Cheever, the tortured alcoholic chronicler of Mad Men-era suburban New York and Westchester. The result was a bit embarrassing in the end.
I have not been a close fan of the political journalist Christopher Hitchens over the years. His work in Vanity Fair has occasionally come into view, but I haven’t been a fan in the sense of buying his books and seeking out his work in the Nation and television talking head-fests. For some reason I bought his memoir Hitch-22 and have been picking away at it this summer, slowly immersing myself into the life of what could be one of the last true British men-of-letters. That he has esophageal cancer didn’t come to my attention until I was half-way through the book, a relief as I am glad I didn’t come to the book with some morbid rubber-necking as a motivation. I had first become aware of him when he assailed my former employer, The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and my late colleague, Susie Forrest, for their first Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Willie Horton scandal during Michael Dukakis’ failed run for the presidency in 1988. Then came this astonishing video of Hitchens undergoing waterboarding so he could report on the experience first hand.
The book is remarkable and opens with the type of astonishing development that any novelist would crave. Hitchen’s mother, a relentlessly self-improving English woman hiding her Jewish roots from the strictures of post-WW II English society, abandons her career naval officer husband and ends her life in a lonely Athens hotel room with her new lover. The effect, the development puts into place a foundation for the rest of the tale that never relents.
Hitchens intelligence and ambitions are unwavering. His mind is obviously astonishing. But it is is dogged refusal to back down from a life-long hatred of totalitarianism, to proudly wear the jingoistic labels of “Trotskyist,” to reject religion and faith and willingly face his attackers that makes this work a true profile in courage. His early calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his proud embrace of American citizenship despite an upbringing as the consummate Englishman, his love of the language and the fun of word play …. in the end it combines into what I have to declare is my favorite literary autobiography ever.