Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Hitch 22 - A Memoir

I thought I'd collect a list of some of my favorite passages from Christopher Hitchens' autobiography Hitch 22: A Memoir. I've read this book probably a dozen times. Actually I have it on audiobook, and it's The Hitch himself narrating. Very enjoyable. You will experience the full range of human emotions from this book. Hitchens sounds like "The Most Interesting Man In the World."

He coins many reusable phrases. "The sheer balls-aching tedium." I don't even remember the context for this one. "Hammer-blow heart attack", describing the very sudden death of his father who had "never spent a day in bed in his life." Referring to adolescent self-discovery, so to speak, at an English boarding school he says, "Most boys decided quite early on that, since their penises would evidently give them no rest at all, they would repay the favor by giving their penises no respite in return."

Describing his disenchantment with conventional politics: "I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries, to experience a furious disillusionment with 'conventional' politics. A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there and felt it for yourself...I hope never to lose the access to the outrage that I felt then." Maybe this falls flat on the page, but hearing his voice rise in pitch as he says, "you should fucking well have been there" makes me almost feel like I had "been there."

Referring to Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: "I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me."

He recounts a hilarious story where his friend Martin Amis ropes him into going to a "massage parlor" with him. Martin Amis, himself a successful author, is doing research for a book (titled Money) and apparently clears his research with his wife. "I was later startled, not to say impressed, when I learned that he had "cleared" all this "research" with his then-wife, the fragrant and lofty Antonia. He telephoned her in London and, rather than temporize, informed her right away that: "I'm going to a hand-job parlor with the Hitch." Hitch didn't want anything to do with this expedition, but was unable to say "no":
He even had one all picked out: its front-name was the "Tahitia," a dire Polynesian-themed massage parlor, on lower Lexington Avenue. "And you," he informed me, "are fucking well coming with me." I wanted to say something girlish like, "Have I ever refused you anything?" but instead settled for something more masculine like "Do we know the form at this joint?" I could not possibly have felt less like any such expedition: I had a paint-stripping hangover and a sour-mouth, but he had that look of set purpose on his face that I well knew, and also knew could not be gainsaid. How bad could it be?...Pretty damn bad as it turned out.
I bust up laughing at "and you are fucking well coming with me" every time I get to this part. Every time. And "paint-stripping hangover" is one of those reusable phrases strewn throughout the book. (Apparently in the print edition he writes "paint-bubbling"; if "paint-stripping" is an improvisation for the audiobook it is absolutely brilliant.) I know exactly the feeling. He goes on:
Some of the working "hostesses" may have to simulate delight or even interest - itself a pretty cock-shriveling thought-but when these same ladies do the negotiating, they can shrug off the fake charm as a snake discards an unwanted skin.
The story is anti-climactic, by which I mean he doesn't have to go through with the sex (for all we know). He describes the bargaining process, in which "I wearily started to count out the ever-steepening fee, which was the only thing in the room that showed any sign of enlarging itself." It is the cash question that saves him, as he puts it.

With respect to "identity politics":
People began to intone the words "The Personal Is Political". At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was -cliche is arguably forgiven here-very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic "preference," to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: "Speaking as a..." Then could follow any self-loving description.
He is describing 1969 in the above passage, but he could be talking about today.

"The one thing that the racist cannot manage is discrimination. He is indiscriminate by definition."

From Martin Amis: "He once rebuked some pedantic antagonist by saying the man lacked any sense of humor, but added that by this accusation he really intended to impugn his want of seriousness."

Quoting another literary friend, who apparently had a gift for hyperbole, describing someone's halitosis: "At this point his breath was undoing my tie."

A poem from Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror:
The history of Soviet Russia in five verses. 
There was an old bastard named Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in,
That's a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That old bastard Stalin did ten in.
There is a long and sad section on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding as credible threats were made against his life.
It was about this time that he took the "Proust Questionnaire" for Vanity Fair. One of the regular questions is: "What do you most dislike about your appearance?" His response: "Its infrequency."
Rushdie is the one who supplies The Hitch with his book title while listing off book titles that never were meant to be: The Big Gatsby, A Farewell to Weapons, Hitch-22. Hitchens, who was looking for a title to his autobiography, says, "Aha, got it!"

He describes "hoofing it" through Belfast at night in the era of IRA activity and being thrown against the wall by British soldiers with blackened faces. "Getting my breath back and managing a brief statement in my cut-glass Oxford tones, I was abruptly recognized as nonthreatening, brusquely advised to fuck off, and off I duly and promptly fucked." I love the split infinitive on "fuck off."

Correcting a Churchillism that goes "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." The Hitch had been to several war zones himself and had a few near misses. He corrects, "Catching the plane out with the whole skin is the best part by far." Perhaps you need to hear him read it in his own voice with his emphasis on "by far."

The book is a wonderful mix of humor, sadness, outrage, pride, and gratitude. Pick up a copy.

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