Book review: And Yet... essays

WHEN Christopher Hitchens died from oesophageal cancer in December 2011, the world of letters lost one of its most compelling and provocative minds. 

Christopher Hitchens

Atlantic Books, £16.99;

e-book, £11.29

Renowned as a courageous journalist, critic, essayist, and the author of more than two dozen books, he reported from over 60 countries, including the danger zones of war-torn Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even North Korea, suffered voluntary water-boarding in an effort to better understand the nature of torture, and achieved probably his most significant fame and even notoriety for his explosive, contrarian views on politics and religion, haranguing everyone from Kissinger, Clinton, and Islam to Mother Teresa.

A one-time socialist and, to the end of his life, a conservative-Marxist, his devout opposition to tyranny, and his steadfast refusal to suffer fools or deify sacred cows, earned him as many enemies as admirers. For the late Mr Hitchens, nothing was beyond the pale.

And Yet..., his sixth book of essays, gathers together a plethora of previously uncollected pieces that span an eclectic range of subjects. 

Sensibly resisting the urge to categorise, the scattershot order of these commentaries gives a greater sense of the sheer breadth of the man’s intellect, covering topics as diverse as great books and writers, politics, world affairs, religion, and the state of America (for some 25 years his adopted home), while still making time to indulge in a little — often delightfully self-deprecating — personal reflection.

Selecting stand-outs from a book like this is almost an exercise in futility because there is nothing here that’s less than enjoyable.

The considerations of all things political are predictably astute and erudite, full of sharp historical detail and fuller still, where he deems it deserving, of rage.

Opening with a sift through the hyperbolic bluster of the Che Guevara legend in an effort to uncover the revolutionary’s true legacy, he goes on to acknowledge the “cool cat” nature of Barack Obama, warns that “engaging with Iran is like having sex with someone who hates you”, and saves the most poisonous of his considerable venom for a potential future US President (while managing at the same time to land a kick on a former one):

“Indifferent to truth, willing to use police-state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on health care, and flippant and fast and loose with national security: the case against Hillary Clinton is open-and-shut,” and “She has rivalled, if not indeed surpassed, the disbarred and perjured hack who is her husband and tutor.”

Passion seems as apt a descriptor as any when looking for a single word to define Hitchens. 

He lived life in a full-blown way, was indulgent of vices, relentless in his quest to better understand human nature, and trenchant in the face of (perceived) injustice and hypocrisy.

But following a different tack, quite a proportion of the essays here are devoted to his passion for literature, and the attention he pays the work, careers and, best of all, personalities of everyone from Dickens, Chesterton and Orwell to Rushdie, Paul Scott and VS Naipaul leads to some wonderfully entertaining and thoughtful conclusions. 

The Naipaul essay proves particularly interesting because of how it separates the magnificence of the work from the apparently unpleasant aspects of the man.

Ultimately, though, when considering a book like And Yet…, it is the personal essays that most brilliantly shine. 

Among the most charming are the triumvirate of essays “On the Limits of Self-Improvement”, and his waging of all-out war on Christmas — in his atheistic mind, the month of December has “the atmosphere of a one-party state. 

On all media and in all newspapers, endless invocations of the same repetitive theme… an insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music.”

These pieces display all the élan that long-time fans have come to expect, rich and comfortable with their own intellect, harsh and humorous in tone, and all presented in a voice uniquely his own. 

Reading a book like this is to remember a maestro, and to feel his passing all the more acutely.


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