Reviews — From the December 2011 issue

Man of the World

Christopher Hitchens’s marks and misses

Discussed in this essay: Arguably: Essays, by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve. 788 pages. $30.

Writing of John F. Kennedy’s numerous ailments, Christopher Hitchens describes this would-be Achilles as a “poxed and suppurating Philoctetes” and notes that his life was remarkable not for being cut so short but for lasting so long. Of a later president, George W. Bush, Hitchens observes that his eyes are set close enough together for him to use a monocle rather than a pair of glasses. Prince Charles he dismisses as “a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts,” while the late English poet Stephen Spender “never quite succeeded in overcoming the widespread impression (which he may have privately shared) that there was something vaguely preposterous about him.”

The surreal figure of the upper-class English author W. Somerset Maugham, a man described by Quentin Crisp as “one of the stately homos of England,” comes in for some particularly devastating treatment. Maugham, as Hitchens points out, is the unacknowledged subject of Anthony Burgess’s superb novel Earthly Powers, which opens with a parody of Maugham’s style in what is probably the most eye-catching first sentence of any work of fiction in history: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite [boy lover] when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” The parody, Hitchens acidly remarks, “is so much better than anything that W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote himself.”

All this is the kind of scabrous wit that readers of the Great Contrarian have come to relish. The verve and panache of Hitchens’s prose, its tonal range and opulent texture, contrast sharply with the colorless, flat-footed style of so many homegrown American commentators. He mixes the unstanchable eloquence of a literary stylist with the barfly loquaciousness of a hack, and could not write a dull sentence if he tried. His columns are also full of fascinating nuggets of knowledge. North Koreans, we learn from this book, are on average six inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts, while Hitler’s favorite movie was the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The pieces in Arguably, culled from a clutch of mostly U.S. journals and spanning the past decade, are as striking for their scope as they are for their brio. They range from the condition of Afghan women to the King James Bible, from Thomas Jefferson and Saul Bellow to the fine art of fellatio. (The Victorians knew the act as a “below-job,” which may explain why the word “blow” came to be used of an act which involves its opposite.) The elegance of Hitchens’s upper-middle-class English background is combined with the unflagging energy and omnivorous curiosity of his adoptive country. He could tell you just who to talk to about Kurdish nationalism in the southeastern Turkish city of Batman, as well as what to order in the only decent restaurant there. He can give you the lowdown on everyone from Isaac Newton to Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He has been everywhere, endured a number of forms of torture—from being experimentally waterboarded to being thwacked on the backside by Margaret Thatcher—­and has spent his life assiduously courting everybody who is anybody.

Like a querulous infant, he wants everything and he wants enormous helpings of it. His desire to belabor the social establishment is rivaled only by his gratification at belonging to it. This card-carrying atheist’s fantasy of paradise is to be fêted by the rich and powerful at the sleekest of Washington dinner parties for having machine-gunned a marauding gang of terrorists outside the U.S. embassy in Sana’a while remaining a Marxist. No club must be closed to this man-about-town. One is reminded of the aristocratic woman in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies who has heard rumors of an Independent Labour Party and is furious that she has not been invited. Hitchens, in the tradition of Yogi Berra, thinks you can “follow” a fork in the road, a feat beyond even the most vacillating of politicians. He continues to imagine in postmodern fashion that all certainties are dogmatic, as he did in his recent autobiography, Hitch-22, while being as full of them as the rest of us.

In one sense of the word, Hitchens is not really an intellectual at all. He is uneasy with abstract ideas, scraped an Oxford bachelor’s degree by the skin of his teeth, and grows stridently simplistic whenever he strays into the realms of science, philosophy, or theology. He prefers concepts charged with the raw stuff of everyday life, or which flesh themselves out in literary fiction. Part sage, part showman, a jack-of-all-trades who can glide with aplomb from the state of the novel to the state of the economy, his true ancestor is the Victorian man of letters, equally perceptive about theories of evolution and Thackeray. So Hitchens is as well versed in the fiction of J. G. Ballard as he is in the politics of Pakistan. As with his Victorian predecessors, his engagement with literature is more versatile and less technical than that of the specialized literary critic. He has a fine ear for tone but would be lost in a discussion of Formalist poetics. The versatility is exemplified in Arguably by a stinging critique of the Harry Potter novels delivered by an insider who actually did once travel to boarding school by steam train. He has a soft spot for novels by English toffs (Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, Jessica Mitford) and a regressive affection for thrillers, spy stories, ripping yarns, flag-waving fables, and imperial adventures. There is nothing the least adventurous about his literary allegiances. It is hard to imagine him writing about Wallace Stevens. There is a scrappy essay on Ezra Pound and an account of Flaubert that takes him for a straight realist, failing to see that style is the protagonist of his fiction from beginning to end.

In classic man-of-letters fashion, Hitchens sometimes loiters in the suburbs and borderlands of literature, the places where it shades off into real life, which is one reason he shares the perverse and peculiar English passion for biography. For certain types, biography is a convenient way of talking about authors without the bother of having to read their stuff. Hitchens can be exceptionally perceptive about literary works when he gets down to them, but he is too often to be found discussing Samuel Johnson’s politics and religion rather than his fiction and poetry, or filling us in on the social context of Animal Farm without noting how its allegorical form subtly distorts its political argument. Disinclined to dissect the narrative structure of Dickens’s Bleak House, he instead reminds us that its doughty author, champion of the dispossessed, once had a poor woman arrested for cursing in the street and robustly advocated the extermination of anti-British rebels in India. Literary criticism degrades into high-class gossip, biographical snippets, publication details, and a dash of history. Hitchens derides Somerset Maugham for being awarded an honor by the Crown for services to literature rather than for literature itself, but there are times when he himself sails perilously close to qualifying for that dubious distinction.

Even so, there are some memorable literary essays here, not least an invaluable account of the novelist and political radical Rebecca West and an incisive survey of the Trinidadian Marxist author C.L.R. James. A piece on Philip Larkin reminds us that the poet once glumly described the sexual act as a futile attempt to “get someone else to blow your nose for you.” Larkin’s provincial England, Hitchens writes with well-bred disdain, “is the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism.” It is a brutally precise indictment.

Hitchens is at ease in the upper-class world of Waugh and Mitford, and takes a mischievous delight in recording tumbrilisms, those callously cavalier, let-them-eat-cake remarks honed by the British aristocracy. Mitford once wrote briskly to her son that his bipolar disorder had become a bore and that he had better pull himself together. On a more tender note, she offered him her maternal aid “if you should ever tire of the manic condition.” One thinks of the Oxford aesthete Brian Howard on being asked for his name and address when confronted by a Scotland Yard officer at an illegal dive in London: “My name is Brian Howard, and I live in Berkeley Square, and you, my dear, I suppose, come from some dreary little suburb.” Hitchens admires the chutzpah of such comments, their comic effrontery, while registering their obnoxiousness. The ambiguity reflects his own socially amphibious condition, as a scion of the British establishment able to turn its own witheringly sardonic attitudes against it.

Hitchens is just as much an enthusiast of the more muscular lineage of Kipling, John Buchan, and Ian Fleming. In fact, the secret of his identity can be found at the confluence of these two traditions, the elusive spot where Bond meets Brideshead. Hitchens, whose father was a military man but who turned to Trotsky as a student, is a renegade in a long English tradition of well-bred bohemians and iconoclasts. Some of these men became Soviet spies, while others, like Graham Greene, lurked on the shadowy outskirts of that demimonde. These Oedipal children of the ruling order, who took a sadistic delight in biting the hand that reared them, have always proved useful to the political left. They have the grit, stylishness, effortless assurance, inside knowledge, and social contacts of their patrician backgrounds but can turn these assets to radical ends. The only problem is that they tend to revert to social type as they grow older and wealthier, or when the political going gets tough. Hitchens, who detests a cliché almost as much as he abhors a despot, has turned into one of the dreariest stereotypes of all: the revolutionary young hothead who learns to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz. With marvelous convenience, his support for liberal interventionism allows him to combine his radical hatred of oppression with the values of his posh military background.

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