To slip betimes away

Postscript: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

By , December 16, 2011

We were friends for more than thirty years, which is a long time but, now  that he is gone, seems not nearly long enough. I was rather nervous when I first  met him, one night in London in 1977, along with his great friend Martin Amis. I  had read his journalism and was already in awe of his brilliance and wit and  couldn’t think what on earth I could bring to his table. I don’t know if he  sensed the diffidence on my part—no, of course he did; he never missed  anything—but he set me instantly at ease, and so began one of the great  friendships and benisons of my life. It occurs to me that “benison” is a word I  first learned from Christopher, along with so much else.

A few years later, we found ourselves living in the same city, Washington. I  had come to work in an Administration; he had come to undo that Administration.  Thirty years later, I was voting for Obama and Christopher had become one of the  most forceful, and persuasive, advocates for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. How  did that happen?

In those days, Christopher was a roaring, if not raving, Balliol Bolshevik.  Oh dear, the things he said about Reagan! The things—come to think of it—he said  about my father. How did we become such friends? I only once stopped  speaking to him, because of a throwaway half-sentence about my father-in-law in  one of his Harper’s essays. I missed his company during that six-month froideur (another Christopher mot). It was about this time  that he discovered that he was in fact Jewish, which somewhat complicated his  fierce anti-Israel stance. When we embraced, at the bar mitzvah of Sidney  Blumenthal’s son, the word “Shalom” sprang naturally from my lips.

A few days ago, when I was visiting him at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center,  in Houston, for what I knew would be the last time, his wife, Carol, mentioned  to me that Sidney had recently written to Christopher. I was surprised but very  pleased to hear this. Christopher had caused Sidney great legal and financial  grief during the Götterdämmerung of the Clinton impeachment. But now Sidney, a  cancer experiencer himself, was reaching out to his old friend with words of  tenderness and comfort and implicit forgiveness. This was the act of a mensch.  But then Christopher was like that—it was hard, perhaps impossible, to stay mad  at him, though I doubt Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton or any member of the  British Royal Family will be among the eulogists at his memorial service.

I first saw his J’accuse in The Nation against—oh, Christopher!—Mother Teresa when my father mailed me a Xerox of it. He had  scrawled a note across the top, an instruction to the producer of his TV show “Firing Line”: “I never want to lay eyes on this guy again.” W.F.B. had provided  Christopher with his first appearances on U.S. television. The rest is  history—the time would soon come when you couldn’t turn on a television without  seeing Christopher railing against Kissinger, Mother (presumptive saint) T.,  Princess Diana, or Jerry Falwell.

But even W.F.B., who tolerated pretty much anything except attacks  on his beloved Catholic Church and its professors, couldn’t help but forgive. “Did you see the piece on Chirac by your friend Hitchens in the Journal  today?” he said one day, with a smile and an admiring sideways shake of the  head. “Absolutely devastating!

When we all gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a few years later, to see  W.F.B. off to the celestial choir, Christopher was present, having flown in from  a speech in the American hinterland. (Alert: if you are reading this, Richard  Dawkins, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph.) There he was in the  pew, belting out Bunyan’s “He Who Would Valiant Be.” Christopher recused himself  when Henry Kissinger took the lectern to give his eulogy, going out onto  rain-swept Fifth Avenue to smoke one of his ultimately consequential cigarettes.

“It’s the fags that’ll get me in the end, I know it,” he said once, at  one of our lunches, tossing his pack of Rothmans onto the table with an air of  contempt. This was back when you could smoke at a restaurant. As the Nanny State  and Mayor Bloomberg extended their ruler-bearing, knuckle-rapping hand across  the landscape, Christopher’s smoking became an act of guerrilla warfare. Much as  I wish he had never inhaled, it made for great spectator sport.

David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic Monthly, to which  Christopher contributed many sparkling essays, once took him out to lunch at the  Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. It was—I think—February and the smoking ban  had gone into effect. Christopher suggested that they eat outside, on the  terrace. David Bradley is a game soul, but even he expressed trepidation about  dining al fresco in forty-degree weather. Christopher merrily countered, “Why  not? It will be bracing.”

Lunch—dinner, drinks, any occasion—with Christopher always was. One of our  lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine  o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision  for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went  home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his  erudition and wit.

When we made a date for a meal over the phone, he’d say, “It will be a feast  of reason and a flow of soul.” I never doubted that this rococo phraseology was  an original coinage, until I chanced on it, one day, in the pages of P. G.  Wodehouse, the writer Christopher perhaps esteemed above all others. Wodehouse  was the Master. When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours,  he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of  Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better  than that,” he said, and who could not agree?

The other author that he and I seemed to spend most time discussing was Oscar  Wilde. I remember Christopher’s thrill at having adduced a key connection  between Wilde and Wodehouse. It struck me as a breakthrough insight; namely,  that the first two lines of “The Importance of Being Earnest” contain within  them the entire universe of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Algernon plays the piano while his butler arranges flowers. Algy asks, “Did  you hear what I was playing, Lane?” Lane replies, “I didn’t think it polite to  listen, sir.” And there you have it.

Christopher remained perplexed at the lack of any reference to Wilde in the  Wodehousian oeuvre. Then, some time later, he extolled in his Vanity  Fair column the discovery, by one of his graduate students at the New  School, of a mention of “The Importance” somewhere in the Master’s ninety-odd  books.

During the last hour I spent with Christopher, in the Critical Care Unit at  M. D. Anderson, he struggled to read a thick volume of P. G. Wodehouse letters.  He scribbled some notes on a blank page in spidery handwriting. He wrote “Pelham  Grenville” and asked me, in a faint, raspy voice, “Name. What was the name?” At first I didn’t quite understand, but then, recalling P.G.’s  nickname, suggested “Plum?” Christopher nodded yes, and wrote it down.

I took comfort that, during our last time together, I was able to provide him  with at least that. Intellectually, ours was largely a teacher-student  relationship, and let me tell you—Christopher was one tough grader. Oy.  No matter how much he loved you, he did not shy from giving it to you with the  bark off if you had disappointed.

I once participated with him on a panel at the Folger Theatre on the subject  of “Henry V.” The other panelists were Dame Judi Dench, Arianna Huffington,  Chris Matthews, Ken Adelman, and David Brooks; the moderator was Walter  Isaacson. Having little original insight into “Henry V,” or into any Shakespeare  play, for that matter, I prepared a comic riff on a notional Henry the  Fifteenth. Get it? O.K., maybe you had to be there, but it sort of brought down  the house. Nevertheless, when Christopher and I met for lunch a few days later,  he gave me a tsk-tsk-y stare and sour wince and chided me for “indulging in  crowd-pleasing nonsense.”

I got off lightly. When Martin Amis, his closest friend on earth, published a  book in which he took Christopher to task for what he viewed as inappropriate  laughter at the expense of Stalin’s victims, Christopher responded with a  seven-thousand-word rebuttal in The Atlantic that will probably have  Martin thinking twice before attempting another work of historical nonfiction.  But Christopher’s takedown of his chum must be viewed alongside thousands of  warm and affectionate words he wrote about Martin, particularly in his memoir, “Hitch-22,” which appeared ironically—or perhaps with exquisite  timing—simultaneously with the presentation of his mortal illness.

The jacket of his next book, a collection of breathtaking essays, perfectly  titled “Arguably,” contains some glowing words of praise, including my own  (humble but earnest) asseveration that he is—was—”the greatest living essayist  in the English language.” One or two reviewers demurred, calling my effusion “forgivable exaggeration.” To them I say: O.K., name a better one. I would alter  only one word in that blurb now.

Over the course of his heroic, uncomplaining eighteen-month battle with the  cancer, I found myself rehearsing what I might say to an obituary writer, should  one ring after the news of Christopher’s death. I thought to say something along  the lines—the air of Byron, the steel pen of Orwell, and the wit of Wilde.

A bit forced, perhaps, but you get the idea. Christopher may not, as Byron  did, write poetry, but he could recite staves, cantos, yards of it. As  for Byronic aura, there were the curly locks, the unbuttoned shirt revealing a  wealth—verily, a woolly mastodon—of pectoral hair, as well as the roguish,  raffish je ne sais quoi good looks. (Somewhere in “Hitch-22,” he notes  that he had now reached the age when “only women wanted to go to bed with me.”)

Like Byron, Christopher put himself in harm’s way in “contested territory,” again and again. Here’s another bit from “Hitch-22,”a chilling moment  when he found himself alone in a remote and very scary town in Afghanistan,

in a goons’ rodeo duel between two local homicidal potentates (the  journalistic euphemism for this type is “warlord”; the image of the goons’ rodeo  I have annexed from Saul Bellow). On me was not enough money, not enough food,  not enough documentation, not enough medication, not enough bottled water to  withstand even a two-day siege. I did not have a cell phone. Nobody in the  world, I abruptly realized, knew where I was. I knew nobody in the town and  nobody in the town knew (perhaps a good thing) who I was, either…. As all this  started to register with me, the square began to fill with those least alluring  of all types: strident but illiterate young men with religious headgear,  high-velocity weapons and modern jeeps.

His journalism, in which he championed the victims of tyranny and stupidity  and “Islamofascism” (his coinage), takes its rightful place on the shelf along  with that of his paradigm, Orwell.

As for the wit … one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that  Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a  priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the  more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?”

I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our  three-decade long tutorial—Wow.

A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I  ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of  the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually  tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted,  but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author  of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed  and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”

Yes, everything he said was brilliant. It was a feast of reason and a flow of  soul, and, if the author of “God Is Not Great” did not himself believe in the  concept of soul, he sure had one, and it was a great soul.

Two fragments come to mind. The first is from “Brideshead Revisited,” a book  Christopher loved and which he could practically quote in its entirety. Anthony  Blanche, the exotic, outrageous aesthete, is sent down from Oxford. Charles  Ryder, the book’s narrator, mourns: “Anthony Blanche had taken something away  with him when he went; he had locked a door and hung the key on his chain; and  all his friends, among whom he had been a stranger, needed him now.”

Christopher was never a “stranger to his friends”—ça va sans dire,  as he would say. Among his prodigal talents, perhaps his greatest was his gift  of friendship. Christopher’s inner circle, Martin, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie,  James Fenton, Julian Barnes, comprise more or less the greatest writers in the  English language. That’s some posse.

But in leaving them—and the rest of us—for “the undiscovered country” (he  could recite more or less all of “Hamlet,” too) Christopher has taken something  away with him, and his friends, in whose company I am so very grateful to have  been, will need him now. We are now, finally, without a Hitch.

The other bit is from Housman, and though it’s from a poem that Christopher  and I recited back and forth at each other across the tables at Café Milano, I  hesitate to quote it here. I see him wincing at my deplorable propensity for “crowd-pleasing.” But I’m going to quote it anyway, doubting as I do that he  would chafe at my trying to mine what consolation I can over the loss of my  beloved athlete, who died so young.

Smart lad to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not  stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose. or

Photograph by Brooks Kraft/Corbis. or

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1 comment

    • Mike Nunn on December 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Love the man. Disagreed with him on some points – I am more anti-war than he was, but he was a great writer and essayist and needless to say had a great philosophy.

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