When he wasn’t pursuing his own esoteric research, my very German supervisor at Oxford maintained a lifelong side-interest in the curious behavior of the English, and especially of those subsets of the English most typically found at his university. A story I heard him tell at least two or three times (Fritz, who had come to Oxford to study as a young man, was nearing the end of a long teaching career) concerned the attitude displayed by certain undergraduates toward work—or, not work exactly, but the seemliness of showing that one is working.
Speaking in tones of incredulity in a stale, smoky office made claustrophobic by an overabundance of yellowing monographs on such matters as the 8th-century Ibadi critique of the Kharijites, he would tell of how English classmates during his own student days would make a great show of never studying at all, and indeed had given him a pretty hard time about grinding away—but had always seemed to do pretty well when called to account by their tutors. How were they faking it? Then, very early one morning, Fritz happened upon one of the worst offenders, finding him at the three o’clock hour not partying or sleeping, but reading and scribbling away, having intentionally scheduled his efforts for such an hour so as to hide the fact that they were necessary. The only faking going on had been the pretense of effortlessness!
Coming from a tradition where showing one’s work was a necessary part of life, such a conclusion was clearly satisfying to Fritz’s long-wounded Teutonic pride, and I have to say that when I opened the latest posthumous collection of Christopher Hitchens’ articles and considered the extraordinary quantity and sustained quality of the man’s output, I found myself looking for some sort of related trick or scam or fakery. I am sure that members of his family had witnessed him actually reading and writing, and no doubt his close friends had as well, but for the rest of us (Hitchens took a kind interest in me, as he did for many young writers, going so far as to travel down to Quantico to read the warrant at my commissioning into the Marine Corps) the man seemed to be in constant motion, conversing, hosting, lunching, traveling, joking—anything, it seemed, but working.
Yet there is no denying the evidence that work occurred. Were there two Hitchens? Was he hiding away at night when everyone else had gone to bed, typing away? (This option seems pretty plausible, actually.) Hitchens’ own college at Oxford, Balliol, had elevated the tic that so bemused and annoyed my man Fritz to the level of an unofficial motto: “Effortless Superiority,” a delightful and obnoxious phrase of H.H. Asquith’s, bearing the implication that if you really had to work at it, maybe you didn’t belong there.
In any event, Hitchens collected a third at Balliol, so if he had been hiding something in those days it wasn’t an overabundance of studying. In the multipart, side-splitting Vanity Fair essay devoted to his attempt at a makeover collected here, itself worth the price of the volume, Hitchens writes about how his “bad habits”—principally drinking and smoking—“are connected with the only way I know how to make a living. In order to keep reading and writing, I need the junky energy that scotch can provide, and the intense short-term concentration that nicotine can help supply.” Here and elsewhere in the collection Hitchens speaks of earning a living, or of his “job,” or of the imperative to shape up lest he die before spending the royalties earned from God Is Not Great’s impressive sales (that last comment written still a few years before his diagnosis with cancer of the throat).
So, like the rest of us then, plugging away, just with more ambition and energy than most? The evidence does not entirely support this conclusion. In the same piece where he justifies his dependence on nicotine and alcohol, Hitchens also writes, “To be crouched over a book or a keyboard, with these conditions of mingled reverie and alertness, is my highest happiness.” His widow, Carol Blue, in a 2012 television interview that touched on how Hitchens continued to work up to his final hours, said, “Well, writing and of course speaking, which is an extension of writing or the other way round, was everything to him, it was his life. And so it wasn’t at all hard for him really.” Considering the reality of dying from the complications of esophageal cancer, this beggars belief—but again, the evidence is here: Hitchens’ review of Ian Ker’s biography of G.K. Chesterton, included in this collection, was written in that hospital room, with only days to go.
Whether it was evidence of a job taken seriously, or of a feeling of vocation, or just of the compulsive avoidance of boredom, Hitchens’ prodigious energy was certainly a totalistic performance. If he himself had a horror of ennui (another justification for the smoking and drinking recorded here: they “help to make other people even seem less boring”) he also seemed to feel a duty never to be boring himself, which tended to generate the same appearance of effortlessness sought after by those Oxford undergrads.
Once in a while the strain is detectable in these pieces, which by definition escaped collection in any volume Hitchens personally supervised. As someone who earns my own living in part through editing, I can’t help but be suspicious when a reviewer expends a paragraph musing on a book’s jacket photograph, as occurs here in a write-up of a biography of Gertrude Bell. A feature by the eminently coastal Hitchens chronicling a trip into red-state America on assignment for Vanity Fair mostly calls to mind the fact that another journalist had pulled the same stunt a few years earlier for the Atlantic Monthly, with better results.
These points are, of course, a bit ungenerous, and to point out that for every relatively straightforward book review there is, reliably, another piece that seems to deploy a pre-conceived essay that is only loosely tethered to the book in question—well, that’s less a criticism than an observation of method. At a time when academia seems to require scholars of, say, Philip Larkin to be familiar with what their subject had for breakfast on any given Sunday in 1967 before feeling qualified to publish, Hitchens was giving the generalist approach that journalism makes possible a good name. And if there are moments when you think you can detect a bluff, or a deadline, or a surfeit of “junky energy” (in a revealing moment, Hitchens once told me that he could detect those passages where Paul Scott had been hitting the bottle during the composition of the Raj Quartet) it is no exaggeration to say that the performance as a whole is inimitable.
Also revealing is how much can be divined about Hitchens from how he praises those whom he admires. He concludes that Edmund Wilson “came as close as anybody has to making the labor of criticism into an art”—an insight that equally applies to Hitchens’ approach to reviewing, a genre often treated by other writers as a distraction or grimly necessary source of income. Of Oriana Fallaci’s early interviews he writes, “Future ‘access’ to the powerful meant absolutely nothing to her: she acted as if she had one chance to make the record and so did they.” This doesn’t seem entirely right: as with Fallaci, access meant a great deal to Hitchens, but both knew, as though by instinct, that a reputation for not caring ends up generating a certain amount of respect—and a certain sort of access.
But the interviews finally dried up for Fallaci, and Hitchens eventually wore out his welcome on the Left, unwilling to compromise on the Clintons or concur, as he related in his resignation column for the Nation, that John Ashcroft was a greater threat to the United States than Osama bin Laden. Though his path from dissident Left to… call it “pro-American,” was well worn, that doesn’t mean he was at home on the Right. His attitude towards Israel played a role in this, as did his self-described anti-theism. In this collection, he describes quibbling over questions like the usage of “black” versus “African-American” as “strenuous and heated and boring discourse.” You don’t have to be a believer to think that the same might just as easily be said of his meanders through questions of religion.
But metaphysics or philosophy weren’t his thing—nor was the question of having an ideological “home.” Politics and literature were, and argument for its own sake, or in service of “the values of the Enlightenment” (as he puts it here) and a certain understanding of Thomas Paine’s legacy. And as a pure stylist, he’s often most enjoyable when working to split multiple hairs at once. A quick 2006 column for Slate called ‘How Uninviting’ finds him mocking Tony Judt for complaining about being disinvited from an event at the Polish consulate, while taking a related swipe at John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, all while pointing out that he, Hitchens, was above complaining about the time he found himself uninvited from an event sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition—a move, of course, that those who remember their training in classical rhetoric will recognize as itself a form of complaint.
All of this winking and pirouetting, in speech and on the page, continued even in his room at a Texas cancer hospital, as his wife reported. When he died there, late on the 15th of December, 2011 (the same day, as it happens, that the U.S. military formally ended its mission in Iraq, at least for the time), the New York Times remade its print edition at midnight to put the news of Hitchens’ death on the front page, with a lead that compared him to Twain and Orwell. As someone famous for mocking the Times, and in particular its boast to contain “all the news that’s fit to print,” Hitchens would no doubt have seen this as the very least of the benefits that accrue to a life devoted to never being boring, or bored, and to never, ever, showing your work.