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(Joshua Roberts/© Joshua Roberts 2010)
(Joshua Roberts/© Joshua Roberts 2010)

Profile: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens: 'My life is my writing ... my children come later' Add to ...

There is a lovely light in Christopher Hitchens's apartment at this time of fading day. It illuminates the details of his life, all incongruous, some inspiring.

The flat itself, with a sweeping view of Washington's diplomatic row, the Russian trade mission and the Vice-President's house, is most remarkable for its eerie absence of earthly stuff.

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Life inside has been distilled to its essentials: A few shards of mismatched furniture, a piano, a chess set that's poised for play, a carved pumpkin fills the front hall with the strange smell of Halloween.

Stacks of books stand like sentinels in the dining area, jostle for room on the surface of every windowsill and cover the small side table that currently doubles as the desk, where Mr. Hitchens this evening sits, sipping a tumbler of water he will soon trade for Johnny Walker Scotch when the clock strikes six.

“This time of day is increasingly my favourite time to write,” he remarks. “It's a wonderful time for feeling better, when the light is just going.”

For him, the “lovely light” is already gone. He used the phrase to describe a heightened state of illumination he was able to achieve by burning the candle at both ends.

However, the smoking and drinking that once served to fuel his creative and intellectual life have now conspired against him, striking him with stage 4 cancer of the esophagus, for which, he admits “the numbers are not good.”

Now, at the age of 61, the prominent atheist, author and journalist is suddenly staring death in the face.

His illness, he maintains, has not altered his lifelong view that God does not exist. “Why would it?” he asks. “Religion,” he says, “is made up by a primate species which is one step evolved from the chimpanzee, and it shows,” a version of some line he has used before.

But virtually everything else in his life has changed. Even though it would be nice to imagine Mr. Hitchens as able to defy the gruelling effects of weekly sessions of chemotherapy, to somehow cheat the debilitating nausea, exhaustion and anemia, and soldier on with his life's work, the truth is, he cannot.

Since beginning chemotherapy treatment six weeks ago, he has lost 30 pounds, so that his clothes billow around him. On those days that he does manage to get out of bed, it's not until 11. His skin is sallow and riddled with sores. After our drink, he will eat takeout pizza with his daughter, Antonia, and retire to bed.

“Because I am so prone to exhaustion, I can't do more than what I would have once called social drinking. I can't smoke like I used to and I don't want to. I mean, the desire just isn't there,” he said.

He continues to write his regular output and schedule events – including one with Tony Blair in Toronto on Nov. 26, where they will debate the role of religion. His routine, however, is increasingly interrupted by thoughts of his own mortality.

“When people ask me, in effect, will I still be alive on a certain date, I act as if I will, because I don't know how else to act,” he said, leaning back in his chair to cough and reach for a tissue.

Inevitably, talk turns to his children, Alexander, 26, and Sofia, 21, from his first marriage, to Eleni Meleagrou, and Antonia, 17, whom he had with his current wife, American author Carol Blue.

The only time Mr. Hitchens has felt sorry for himself has been when he's thought of the effect his premature death might have on his children.

“It's the only time. Especially with Antonia … I cracked up almost exactly the day when I was going to take her on her first college trip. I felt ashamed, depressed and miserable,” he said.

Mr. Hitchens can list off several regrets – he has never delivered a speech to the House of Commons, has not spent enough time in India, and there are certain things involving women, which he declines to specify.

But the thing is, he does not regret the smoking and drinking. “If I really ask myself would I have done without it, I can't convincingly say that I [would have]because I suppose it's so hard to picture my life without it,” he says.

“Because so much of life to me has been about prolonging the moment. Keeping the argument going for another stage, keeping the dinner party alive for another hour. There's no question that it's an enhancing thing and that's the life I've led for a long time. I can't imagine what it would have been like otherwise,” he adds.

But about his children? If he could have prolonged life with them, would he have agreed to burn a little less brightly?

“I'd have to say, not to be a hypocrite, that my life is my writing before it's anything. Because that's who I am and my children come later and that's what they've had to put up with,” he says.

Once, he reminds me, Cyril Connolly said “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Mr. Hitchens understands what that means, but he doesn't necessarily agree.

Children, he says “give you a sense of the future of the kind that I don't think anything else can. Unless there's something very psychically shrivelled about you, I think it's impossible to regret.”

Mr. Hitchens has the same kind of cancer that afflicted his father – whom he calls The Commander – and precipitated his death. Mr. Hitchens's prognosis is slightly more hopeful: “The tumours have noticeably shrunk, so I've got the right doctor and the right mixture,” he explained.

His course of chemo now complete, his doctors will reassess his condition to determine whether he is a candidate for radiation.

“I take care to stress I've got stage 4 and there isn't a stage 5. But I have a very small chance of being of cured of cancer. It does exist. And I have a reasonable chance of managing it for a while, but I don't know how much of an invalid life I'd have to lead,” he says.

One of the ironies of Mr. Hitchens's cancer is that he was diagnosed while on tour for his most recent book, a memoir, titled Hitch-22. In the opening pages, he muses about the difficulties of writing a memoir “prematurely.”

“I couldn't write it in that jaunty way now. I'd have to be more realistic, I'm afraid,” he reflects.

By now, he is “thoroughly” sick of discussing cancer and besides, there are so many other things to talk about.

Iran, which “scares the shit out of me”; the Middle East peace process “which is as certain to fail as anything that could be designed”; Iraq, which “has always been more important than Afghanistan”; Pakistan which is “beyond salvage”; Benazir Bhutto who was “beautiful but not sexy.”

Antonia, however, is calling him from the other room. She has returned to the flat with steaming cardboard boxes of pizza, plain cheese for her and olives and anchovies for him.

It is rare for the two of them to dine alone, but his wife is away visiting family in California. This moment, with Antonia, is the one he wants to prolong as best he can.

Sonia Verma is a writer for the Globe and Mail.

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