Saturday, 29 May 2010

Christopher Hitchens: Master of the Memoir

Christopher Hitchens noted atheist, polemicist, and columnist is the benchmark for my recreational writing. Hitchens, was a socialist and left wing political columnist in the 1960s, shifting his political ideologies after the 9/11 attacks to support the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who know my political attitudes would be correct in assuming that I regard such disloyalty as the epitome of political cowardice, but Hitchens is perhaps the only political writer I know who transcends ideology.

Political scholars will know his most famous work The Trails of Henry Kissenger, in which, as the name suggests, Hitchens spends an entire book mounting evidence as to why the former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under the successive Presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford should be prosecuted for war crimes. I’ve also read his book No One Left To Lie To, which investigates the circumstances leading up to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and the cover up that his administration engaged in to ensure Clinton maintained a political equivalent of a Teflon coating. Both these works are personifications of Hitchens himself, insanely arrogant, highly intelligent, combative and dogmatic. It is for these reasons that Hitchens polarises people in the extreme.

With his recently published memoir Hitch 22 that demonstrates to me why he should be revered as a writer and not persecuted as he often is from both sides of the political divide. Reviews of the book have concentrated on the fact that although he has embarked on a number of heterosexual relationships, including a marriage, there is only one sentence alluding to these. In contrast, there is a whole chapter devoted to his friendship with noted writer Martin Amis whom he repeatedly describes as a man that he ‘loves’. Last week in an interview with Tony Jones on Lateline its host seemed annoyingly fixated on the idea that the whole chapter represented evidence of Hitch’s latent bisexuality, not so. Hitchens went on to make the point that there have been various chapters in many books that document the power of female friendship using the word ‘love’, so why he asked must the term be merely applied as a feminine concept? Early in Hitch 22, he documents how in boarding school his first series of repeated sexual encounters was with a boy, as a way to express his ongoing sexual frustration. He describes that experience as being ‘his first love’. However what he refuses to do in true Hitchens style is label himself as heterosexual or homosexual. Why? Because there is no point. As he stated in the Lateline interview ‘…homosexuality is a form of love as well as a form of sex and deserves respect in that way for that reason.’ In the argument for human rights, which I passionately believe should be afforded to all regardless of sexual orientation, no one else has put forward that point of view so concisely and so clearly, to see what I see: that there is no logical argument as to why people who are gay or lesbian should not be treated as equally as their heterosexual counterparts.

Aside from the titillating portions of the book it begins with two heartbreaking chapters, each portraits of his mother and father. His mother whom Hitchens regards with an enormous amount of affection set the standard for which all future women would be judged. However, in his early twenties Hitchens discovered that his mother was having an affair. He kept the secret at first, but then the man killed both himself and Hitch’s mother whilst in Athens. Hitchens now thinks the man had bipolar disorder. In a most heartbreaking portion of the book he describes how he walked into a hotel room to identify his mother’s body, being so overcome with grief he had to go over to the window and cry, only to look out of the window to see the most magnificent view of the Acropolis. He then had to ring his father to tell him that his wife was not only dead, but the man she was sleeping with behind his back had shot her. Hitch’s father who he affectionately nicknames 'The Commander’ was a naval veteran in World War 2, the most exciting time in his life. He spent his post war years trying to recapture the excitement and comradeship he felt on the battlefield, never being able to, never really having got over his wife’s murder.

I’m five chapters into the book and there’s hardly any politics thus far, it is merely a gifted writer setting the stage for what is to come. Several people have commented that once my life starts winding down I should consider writing a memoir. I’m sure I’ll have things to write about, because in my relatively short life it is not hard to consider it epic with a compelling narrative. And yet I doubt I’ll ever reach the Hitchens standard, which I’ll measure my writing against for the rest of my days. To read and to take the information in is one thing, but to read the information, ponder it, questions its motives, apply it to all walks of life, to empathise with it and to be inspired by it is quite another.

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