I first met Christopher Hitchens about eight years ago, at a party in Arianna Huffington’s Brentwood manse. Months before, I had given a mostly rave review to his volume of essays Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere. He introduced me to his then-dear friend Gore Vidal, who rose to his feet, threw his arms around me and excitedly declared, “The great Lee Siegel!” (he had no idea who I was) and returned with serpentine contentment to his stone bench under a palm tree on the crowded patio. Mr. Hitchens was feeling warmly toward me. I had compared him to Shelley, Prince Kropotkin and (natch) Orwell. I had excused his inexcusable defense of David Irving, one of the most tenacious and influential Holocaust deniers still unfortunately in existence. I had called Mr. Hitchens “an Achilles who writes with his heel. A truth-compulsion is the poultice that he applies to whatever is inflaming him from within. He is gorgeously and eternally pissed-off.”
I meant that and I still mean it. The rest-the elevated comparisons, the excuse for Irving-were a result of the sudden closeness to all kinds of people that had descended on me in the weeks after 9/11, and also the sense of relief that comes from piling praise on someone in order to bury your unease about him.
He went about male bonding with a twinkling, conspiratorial quality that was also strange and ancient, as if friendship between men was the elemental social arrangement.
Mr. Hitchens was gracious and grateful; charming, and curious, and kind; and determined to give me a memorable night. He and his lovely wife, Carol, treated me to dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel, after which we returned to their room there, where Hitchens and I kept drinking Scotch, talking as his wife lay asleep in the bed a few feet away. He went about male bonding with a twinkling, conspiratorial quality that was also strange and ancient, as if friendship between men was the elemental social arrangement. It was playful and pre-adult. By dawn I was semi-conscious, and he half-carried me down the stairs and gently deposited me in a taxi. We exchanged a few friendly emails after that and ran into each other once, pleasantly, at a party in New York. Still, something made me keep my distance. Following he invasion of Iraq, I began to tweak Mr. Hitchens’ obstreperous warmongering in my writing. After I attacked him viciously online for a column he wrote ripping a drunken, slur-spewing Mel Gibson, he published a stunned reply, as if betrayed by a friend, and we never communicated after that.
I bring all this up on the occasion of Hitchens’ new memoir, Hitch-22. It is a fascinating, absorbing book: the rare contemporary memoir that it is the record of a life of true accomplishment and authentic adventure, not a souped-up account of sensational affliction. Mr. Hitchens is bravely, or at least defiantly, candid about qualities detractors might use to undermine or perhaps explain his love of war and his rabid hatred for religious people, even the most decent and unfanatic among them.
He makes allusions to sexual impotence, and insinuates throughout the book that he is gay, while also denying it, and at the same time asserting about sex and love that “repression is the problem in the first place.” He admits, several times, that he finds other people “boring” and “tedious.” And he allows himself to express a blunt woman-hatred-he and Martin Amis have fun speculating that “there is a design flaw in the female form, and that the breasts and the buttocks really ought to be on the same side.” There are entire chapters devoted to Mr. Amis, James Fenton and Salman Rushdie, beloved friends and celebrated figures. Does Mr. Hitchens have similarly worshipful friendships with the uncelebrated? Or is it simply too boring, too tedious, to write about them? He likes to compare himself to Orwell, but Orwell lived alone in a rural town, while Mr. Hitchens has become the Sally Quinn of Washington journalists. His after-party following the White House Correspondents Dinner has conferred on him a precious potency protecting him against the slightest public criticism from his peers.
There goes my exasperation again, suddenly rising out of my admiration. For Mr. Hitchens has come through so triumphantly. His mother introduced him to her lover when he was a young man and shortly afterward killed herself in a double suicide with her paramour in a hotel room in Athens. About his naval-officer father, he sadly writes that “I am rather barren of paternal recollections.” He tells us that his motto, drawn from Zola, is “Allons travailler!-Get on with it!”-and that is what he has done, stoically. But there is the alcohol. Mr. Hitchens is like the hero of Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin, who acquires power through a magical shagreen that shrinks and saps his will every time it allows him to victoriously assert himself. He has tried to turn the drinking into an arch, refined joke, into the insouciant habit of an unflappable dandy, and the result is a loyal audience that feels reassured by weakened, buffoonish figures.
And the unholy obsession with Jews: Mr. Hitchens had spent years defending certain details of the “historical research” Mr. Irving used to deny the existence of the Holocaust. But there he was, those many years ago, damning Mr. Gibson for being the son of a Holocaust-denying father! We are all ultimately in the dark about ourselves, but seeing the manner in which Mr. Hitchens had projected his own inner monsters onto someone else was like, well, suddenly realizing that your priest was guilty of all the things he was so passionate about condemning.
Mr. Hitchens learned about what he claims is his mother’s Jewishness after her death and conveniently revealed his half-Jewishness to all the world in a 1988 essay, after years of frenziedly attacking Israel in the pages of The Nation and alienating just about every powerful Jewish figure in American intellectual life. Yet his very own brother, who has scrutinized the family genealogy, has concluded that he and Christopher could not be more than 1/32 Jewish-a drop of water in a quart of Scotch. In the memoir, this militant atheist spends an entire chapter simultaneously insisting that he is Jewish; denying the validity of Judaism as a religion, once again using the fact of some Jews’ complicity with evil-i.e. Jewish Stalinists in Poland-to tar Judaism as a religion; and continuing to argue with his sentimentally Zionist mother about the right of Israel to exist. The rabbis call this mishegoss.
I saw Mr. Hitchens once more, at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales. Sitting in the cafeteria as the rain poured down outside, I watched him speaking to an audience about the indignities of religion. Holding a glass of wine in his hand, he mocked the idea that faith could be consoling: Can you imagine, he sneered, lying on your deathbed and being told that someone was speaking to you out of a burning bush? I thought of Milosz’s beautiful lines: If there is no God/Not everything is permitted to man/He is still his brother’s keeper/And he is not permitted to sadden his brother/By saying that there is no God. When I glimpsed Hitchens in a makeshift corridor later, I wanted to touch his arm, to ask him why he kept saddening his brothers. But he looked too sad and tired, so I walked on by. Allons travailler.