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review: memoir

This is a difficult book to describe. It is, in its way, an autobiography. But it isn't quite that, since Christopher Hitchens isn't all that concerned with the day-to-day details of the life he has lived. He's rather more concerned with the ideas that have driven that life (Marxism, socialism, justice, truth, the decline of the left) and the historical encounters and moments that have marked it. He is, for instance, more expansive and open about his support for George W. Bush's war in Iraq than he is about his feelings for his wife and children.

That's not to say he isn't forthcoming about his emotions or his friendships. It's just that these emotions are so weighed against his political thoughts and feelings that Hitch-22 is not like Martin Amis's Experience, say, or Gore Vidal's Palimpsest. It is every bit as revealing as those memoirs, but it's a book that makes you want to argue with its subject rather than absorb - or contemplate - the lessons of the life lived. It's an apologia - a self-justification - as much as a memoir.

Early on, Hitchens acknowledges the seemingly unavoidable intermingling of the personal and the historico-political in his life. On the death of his mother, he had to travel to Athens to claim her body. But as it happened, Athens was then a site of demonstrations against a noxious, military junta (the so-called regime of the colonels). So the deep emotions Hitchens felt at the suicide of his mother were adulterated - or, perhaps, heightened - by the outrage he felt at the regime and the solidarity he had for the demonstrators. About this, he dryly writes that "… it turns out, as I have found in other ways and in other places, that the separation between personal and political is not so neat." Hitch-22 is testament to his life's dearth of the neat.

Now, accounts of the mixing of personal and political (or historical) are not wanting. Few memoirists from the latter part of the 20th century seem willing to draw a line between public and private, the personal and political. This has led to memoirs that are full of passion.

It also leads to one of Hitchens's failings here: an inability to appreciate that the personal and political are sometimes desirably kept apart. Hitchens is a man who has deep - often insufficiently explained - hatred for certain individuals. He can be casually nasty - as when he refers to Martin Buber as a "pious old hypocrite," seemingly because Buber had the gall to move into the house in Jerusalem that had belonged to the family of Hitchens's close friend Edward Said - or he can be more systematically mean-spirited, as he is whenever he refers to Bill Clinton, whom, evidently, he loathes.

Hitchens's dislikes make for vivid reading, but they also lead to dissonant moments. He expresses his outrage at president Clinton's refusal to side unequivocally with Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah. But Clinton had among his constituents any number of men and women who believed that Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was blasphemous. To have, in his capacity as president, unequivocally backed Rushdie would have been for Clinton to put his personal views above his responsibility to represent a varied constituency.

This is a matter we can argue about. My point is, though, that there is no argument chez Hitchens. So visceral is his dislike that anything Clinton does - or fails to do - is used as proof that Clinton is beneath contempt.

A further consequence of Hitchens's mingling of public moments with private rancour is that he often writes of global incidents (the brutality of Argentina's generals, the silencing of dissent in Cuba etc.) as if they were personal insults. This can be irritating, as one reads about the Prague Spring or the killing of Saddam Hussein as if they were stations in the eventful life of Christopher Hitchens. Any number of historical moments - and famous names - parade before us without much context save for Hitchens's emotions about them. (The exception is his relatively thoughtful chapter on the war in Iraq. Though the chapter is self-serving and not entirely free of contradiction, it feels less like historico-political tourism and more like a genuine effort to come to terms with what Hitchens accepts was a key moment in his life, the defeat of Hussein.)

So, what kind of man is the Hitchens of Hitch-22? This personal side is as tricky as the public. He can be (no surprise) sentimental about his mother, and frank (to a point) about his youthful commission of homosexual acts. (The first four chapters deal directly with his early life and they are terrific.) He can be very, very amusing. (This is, here and there, one of the funniest books I've read in some time.) His devotion to friends like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan is moving. And his awareness that he is not the most talented writer among his contemporaries feels honestly accepted.

Hitchens is sometimes pretentious and surprisingly inept in his references. He refers to Greek poet Constantine Cavafy as Paul Cavafy. While quoting Sylvia Plath, he writes "[Plath's]poem Daddy must be the strictest verdict passed on a male parent since the last reunion of the house of Atreus …" Though, actually, the best-known daughters of the House of Atreus - Elektra and Iphigenia - both loved their father. The kids had a problem with their female parent, Clytemnestra. And then, after quoting a hair-raising and deeply affecting passage from Jacobo Timmerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, he quotes Flaubert to the effect that language is an inadequate means of expression. He's referring to his own language, but he unintentionally impugns Timmerman's as well.

Throughout Hitch-22, Hitchens uses the expression "keeping two books" to suggest that his public persona is sometimes at odds with his private thoughts and feelings. However, by suggesting that he is at two with himself, he simplifies his own personality. He is one of those men - at least going by the testimony of Hitch-22 - who is made up of dozens of combative selves. One encounters Hitchenses who are unfriendly, angry, funny, charming, honest, dishonest, attractive, repulsive, drunken, stubborn, loyal, loving, social-climbing, name-dropping, class-un-self-conscious, dull and fascinating. It's impossible to say what I feel about Hitchens after reading this memoir. In this sense, Hitch-22 is one of the few self-portraits varied enough to believably contain a complex man.

I want to add, after saying so many contradictory things myself, that I found the book thoroughly engaging, from one end to the other.

Contributing reviewer André Alexis's new book, Beauty and Sadness, will be published this fall.