Christopher Hitchens

The ABC Radio National broadcast this review before September 11, 2001, and hence the failings identified became rabid.

Unacknowledged legislation
Writers in the public sphere
Verso, London, 2000

The Trial of Henry Kissinger
Verso, London, 2001

The Trial of Henry Kissinger should be read by everyone. In its 150 pages, Christopher Hitchens reminds us why so many people became outraged at the US imperium’s war against the Indo-Chinese. Equally, by detailing how Kissinger and the CIA used diplomatic bags to smuggle weapons into Chile in 1970 to kidnap the Chief of its Armed Forces, Hitchens takes us behind today’s headlines. General Rene Schnieder had declared that his troops should remain neutral if the Chilean Congress voted the Marxist Allende in as president. Schneider’s murder paved the way for Pinochet’s caravan of death.

The only danger in focussing on Kissinger is that it implies that his crimes were the result of an malignant individual and not the outcome of the militarised plutocracy that remains in power no matter which party machine is more successful at rigging the electoral process.

Because Hitchens cannot hold back from the personal, it’s important to distinguish an insult from a charge sheet. For Hitchens to say that Kissinger is a serial killer is not to make a personal attack. But when Hitchens writes that Kissinger is “pudgy”, he has crossed that line, thereby marring his brief for the prosecution.

In the hands of a prose master, the combination of personal affront and political onslaught can be irresistible. Hitchens quotes one such exemplar from Joseph Heller’s 1976 novel, Good as Gold. The protagonist rails against a New York publishing world which has become so corrupt that: “Even that fat little fuck Henry Kissinger was writing a book”.

By contrast, when Hitchens attempts to score from a backhander, he is the one who appears callous. In discussing Kissinger’s involvement in “the extirpation of the Timorese”, Hitchens has a bit of fun by writing of “those doing the extirpating”.

“Extirpation” is not a word to play with if you want people to believe that you care about the dead.

Early in his collected literary essays, Christopher Hitchens endorses George Orwell’s proposition that the use of language measures of the worth any political stance. Applying this precept, Hitchens recounts that he once “parsed” the diaries of the Watergate criminal, H. R. Haldeman. Now, before the 1960s, parsing tested a student’s grasp of grammar, the task being to tag each word or phrase as a past participle, a gerund, or some other part of speech.

Continuing as the pedagogue, Hitchens chastises the editor of a British scholarly journal who “let stand the misuse of the word “Hopefully”. Hitchens wonders whether that editor had read the article he published. That question can be raised about how much attention Hitchens himself has paid to the essays he has republished. Hitchens poses as the master grammarian and stylist, tarting his essays with sneers at infelicities perpetrated by his subjects. He therefore should expect to have his own prose evaluated. The standard will be the one he applies to others, if not always to himself.

Like many a schoolboy, Hitchens gets carried away by qualifiers and modifiers. For instance, he writes of a “debased simulacrum”. A simulcarum is either any kind of representation, or a superficial likeness. In both cases, an appeal to quality seems beside the point. If Hitchens meant fraud, why not say so? One reason might be that plain English would not have let him show off with “simulacrum”, which is jargon among the Post-Modernists whom he otherwise affects to despise.

His prose turns brackish with cliched intensifiers. Calamities are hideous, pogroms bloody, fact-checkers punctilious, books wonderful, amazing or great, while this, that and the other are all famously so. In full flight, Hitchens can gather into one sentence an impunity which is egregious, a war criminal who is notorious, and standards which are exalted. In this vein, he has Bosie Douglas writing “florid hothouse verse” for a “highly affected magazine”. Christopher Hitchens would not have been out of place as its editor.

Hitchens also decorates his prose with foreign words, a sin according to Orwell. To make matters worse, these uses prove inept. Even if there is such a thing as a Catholic Iconostasis, what was wrong with altar piece? Elsewhere, he has a spy novel from the Reagan years “influencing the local zeitgeist”, which is German for spirit of the age, surely an inflated concept for that administration. Historikerstreit is the German term for a 1980s dispute among historians over whether Soviet mass murder in the 1930s had given the Nazis their licence for the Holocaust. Given its provenance, this coinage should not be devalued by being applied to the letters-to-the-editor that a Gore Vidal novel provoked about Abraham Lincoln.

As an observer of Washington, Hitchens is infected with its bureaucratese,  telling us that an allegation has been “likewise uncontroverted by any official denial”, before stumbling into diplomat-speak as “Events continued to gather pace”.

When Hitchens has something to say, he displays few of these faults. His interrogations of the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and of the poet Philip Larkin, are models of demolition, their perceptiveness never stained by cleverness. Berlin is exposed as liberal seduced by power brokers. On Larkin, Hitchens opens by disparaging, though not denying, the usual line againt his racism and sexism. He admires Larkin’s poetic talents, but recognises that the Laureate’s view of the world was never quintessentially English, but essentially fascist. His father adored Hitler and Larkin himself went on being pro-German during the war.

Essayists are ill-advised to go about with a vacuum cleaner sucking in their every contribution. Reputations are preserved by pruning. Repetitions are unavoidable across a decade’s writing. It is egoism to suppose that, because one has told an anecdote in Vanity Fair in 1995, every reader of the New York Review of Books will remember it in the year 2000. Examples bear repeating in journalism, but not when collected into a volume as well indexed as this. Hitchens or his editors should have decided which quotation of the opening exchange from The importance of being Ernest to retain.

Oscar Wilde is one of Hitchens’s great subjects, a writer whom he admires without restraint, perhaps even emulates. So struck is Hitchens that he alleges that Max Nordau in his 1892 study of Degeneration had targeted Wilde “above all”.

That claim is believable if you’ve never so much as scanned Nordau’s 560 pages where Wilde gets done over in six pages, whereas the Pre-Raphaelites, French Symbolists, Ibsenites, Nietzscheans and Wagner cultists each receives a forty- or sixty-page diatribe. Is it possible that our erstwhile Oxford tutor has been cribbing?

Comparing Hitchens’s two reviews dealing with Oscar Wilde from 1995 and 2000, we find no sign of Hitchens’s having learnt anything from Douglas Murray’s biography of Lord Alfred. Wilde was not deserted by his lover. Hitchens could have indicated a change of mind in a footnote to the earlier essay, but there is not even the shadow of a doubt. Again on Wilde, Hitchens praises The Importance of Being Ernest for being as faultless a three-act play as has ever been written. This praise overlooks that this version had to be rescued from a lumbering four-act draft. Is this oversight another sign of a reluctance to re-write?

In a tribute to the boys’ own naval novels of Patrick O’Brian, Hitchens decides that the series appeals because its author “keeps before him the essential realisation that men like warfare”. Hitchens italicised like. The claim is disputable for the human species, and is one which Hitchens might have been expected to challenge had it come from a Pentagon bully. Be that as it may, the phrasing is exaggerated in this context. All Hitchens needed to say was that O’Brian remembered that “his characters like warfare”. Or does Hitchens’s emphasis expose an armchair warrior? The suspicion that it might is strengthened by the dedication of his Kissinger philippic to the “brave  victims” of the accused. Why only the brave? Does cowardice erase a victim’s right to justice?

Another instance of this  tough-mindedness appears when Hitchens reports that Germany and France made “land grants … just to consecrate the fallen”.

Insertion of “just” implies that the slaughtered got more than they deserve.

This carelessness with modifiers infects his case against Kissinger.

In an earlier review, Hitchens considered that “to judge is by definition to be arbitrary”. Is it? What is the role of precedent, and the rule of law? In some legal systems, arbitrariness is limited by considering each matter on “a case- by-case” basis.

At most, we can say that to judge is arbitrary in some particular sense, or at a given time or specific place. When Hitchens needs a modifier most, he fails to deliver.

The essays document the Englishness of Christopher Hitchens, passing himself off as a cosmopolitan. His subjects are predictable for a Navy Brat - Kipling, Conan Doyle, Anthony Powell and P. G. Wodehouse.

Hitchens quotes a previous staff member on Vanity Fair observing that the joy of being one of its contributors was that “You could write about any subject you liked, no matter how outrageous, as long as you said it in evening clothes”. In response, Hitchens confesses: “I have devoted my professional life to the emulation of this fine line”. What has been the impact of “evening clothes” on both the form and the content of Hitchens’s professional practice.

While Hitchens can poke fun at the Washington novel with its stock figure of a British Ambassador, such as Lord Claude Maudulayne, Hitchens himself fills another standard role in East Coast American life, that of the English toff, in this case, the Oxford tutor whose place at the dinner table is to assure his hostess that, with the publication of The Great Gatsby, “American literature grew up”. Such condescension would thrill Lady de Burgh.