Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens book cover
Hitch-22: A Memoir (2010) is the last book-length work that Christopher Hitchens – possibly the best-known public intellectual of our time – wrote. A broad memoir of his intellectual life, Hitch-22 touches on the author’s childhood, his private education and time at Oxford, and the many friends and acquaintances he met during his socialist days and career as a journalist and (serious) media personality. Encompassing all of this is the development of Hitchens’s personal political ideology and his love affair with the English language, reason, and America. The memoir is organised into sections - the majority feel like political essays, which stray into autobiography – each of which considers a particular aspect of Hitchens’s life.

Rather than a genuine insight into his personal life, here we have Hitchens on his own intellectual development as discussed in relation to the world events that unfolded around him. The memoir’s recurring theme is, perhaps, that of ‘keeping two sets of book’ as Hitchens puts it. That is to say, holding discordant views and opinions, and drawing on quite significantly different aspects of personality for different social groups. A non-Zionist Jew and proclaimed socialist drawn to rampantly capitalist America, Hitchens’s line deviates from the expected frequently, but rarely strays from the reasonable. It's clear that Hitchens is a man to whom labels are frequently attached, but who is one of the few public intellectuals that ought not to be pigeon-holed - a gross simplification of his position on most matters and an injustice to a man who evidently reasoned his way to a position on any issue which he proclaimed to have an opinion on. The world is an increasingly complex place – bold, simplistic ideologies hold little sway anymore – and perhaps Hitchens was the intellectual response to this. To suggest his was a predictable trudge to the right would be to vastly underestimate a man for whom every question required a considered, objective response – regardless of where the answer left him on the political spectrum. Within the pages of his memoir, one gets a true sense of the internal dialectic that led Hitchens to his conclusions about politics, religion, and more, and this is an invaluable insight into the development of opinion.

Hitchens has rubbed shoulders with an astonishing number of the world’s ‘major players’, whether they be foe or ally to the Hitch. This leads to some serious name-dropping, and consistently engaging recollections. Many of the stories are finely polished – presumably over after-dinner Port or the like – the characters carefully caricatured and the action neatly plotted, although, as Hitchens himself observes, a fair number of his reminiscences fall into the ‘perhaps you had to be there’ category. A pity, but inevitable. Some of this can be self-indulgent, but at other times it brings the reader closer to the author. Hitchens discussion of his friends – where he shows a touching affection – demonstrates a side to the man that was rarely shown in his ‘day job’.

Also to Hitchens’s credit, is his willingness to accept that he has taken the wrong line on certain things, and that his position has shifted on others. Particularly strong is his case for the war in Iraq, which he turns into a personal argument. Again, this is the side of Hitchens that does not always come across as he goes toe-to-toe in live debates, where he speaks in such an assured and, at times, bombastic fashion.

Hitchens has a position on most all of the major world events that have happened during his lifetime, and here is his platform to grandstand on those about which he holds particularly strong views. In full flow he can be irresistible, but at times one wonders if all the digressions are quite necessary in a memoir. Hitchens tends towards polemic and some of his generalisations may prove too sweeping for the informed reader, but nevertheless, it would be churlish to expect too much by way of balance and comment in what is ostensibly a memoir, which ought, in the main, to be inward-looking. What Hitchens doesn’t do in Hitch-22 is create any overarching narrative structure – people drift in and out of the story, and even his own development – personal and intellectual – is relayed slightly disjointedly. What one does get is a set of essay-like chapters on different periods/aspects of Hitchens’s life. In keeping his personal life in the background, Hitchens demonstrates a reserve so very typical of the British, for all his lusting after America. This is perhaps a slight shame, as Hitchens was such a big personality, and learning a little more about his life as a writer would have been valued by his admirers. The section where one is allowed the greatest peek into Hitchens’s personal life is the (still limited) recounting of his childhood – the strict naval father, and the glamourous but tragic mother.

Far from an exhaustive autobiography, this is a selective memoir, which focuses on Hitchens’s intellectual development, and the shaping of his career and personal ideologies. What one does get here is Hitchens’s internal machinations – these demonstrate the humane rationalism that lay at the heart of his intellect, and offer an insight into a mind that could, on occasion, seem impenetrable. By the end of the memoir, one is left with a thirst to engage with the world to the extent that Hitchens did – never letting an opportunity to engage pass him by, and always staying alert and present to the (intellectual) world around him.

Hitchens's life was so full, and lived amongst so many highly influential people that it can be hard to get one's head around it all - it would have been good to see more of Hitch as a man, but perhaps this form of memoir is more fitting.

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