September 3, 2012
Mortality by Mr. Hitchens
by Christopher Buckley (08-30-12)
Christopher Hitchens began his memoir, “Hitch-22,” on a note of grim amusement at finding himself described in a British National Portrait Gallery publication as “the late Christopher Hitchens.” He wrote, “So there it is in cold print, the plain unadorned phrase that will one day become unarguably true.”
On June 8, 2010, several days after the memoir was published, he awoke in his New York hotel room “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.” And so commenced an 18-month odyssey through “the land of malady,” culminating in his death from esophageal cancer last December, when the plain unadorned phrase that had prompted him to contemplate his own mortality became, unarguably, true. He was 62 years old.
“Mortality” is a slender volume — or, to use the mot that he loved to deploy, feuilleton — consisting of the seven dispatches he sent in to Vanity Fair magazine from “Tumorville.” The first seven chapters are, like virtually everything he wrote over his long, distinguished career, diamond-hard and brilliant.
An eighth and final chapter consists, as the publisher’s note informs us, of unfinished “fragmentary jottings” that he wrote in his terminal days in the critical-care unit of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. They’re vivid, heart-wrenching and haunting — messages in a bottle tossed from the deck of a sinking ship as its captain, reeling in agony and fighting through the fog of morphine, struggles to keep his engines going:
“My two assets my pen and my voice — and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I’d been ‘straying into the arena of the unwell’ and now ‘a vulgar little tumor’ was evident. This alien can’t want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centered.”
“The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.”
“If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”
“Ordinary expressions like ‘expiration date’ . . . will I outlive my Amex? My driver’s license? People say — I’m in town on Friday: will you be around? what a question!”
Fans of the movie “Withnail and I” will recognize “arena of the unwell” and “vulgar little tumor.” Readers of his 2007 atheist classic, “God Is Not Great,” will get the frisky “convert” bit; more than a few of the pages in “Mortality” are devoted — as it were — to a final, defiant and well-reasoned defense of his non-God-fearingness.
As for the “jaunty words,” those are of course from Chapter 1 of the memoir whose promotional tour was so dramatically interrupted by the tap-tap-tap of the Reaper. Self-pity? Those of his friends (I was one) who witnessed his pluck and steel throughout his ghastly ordeal will attest that he never succumbed to any of that.
“To the dumb question ‘Why me?,’ ” he writes, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” He was valiant to the end, a paragon of British phlegm. He became an American citizen in 2007, but the background music was always “H.M.S. Pinafore”: “He remains an English man.” (Emphasis mine.)
“Mortality” comes with a fine foreword by his longtime Vanity Fair editor and friend Graydon Carter, who writes of Christopher’s “saucy fearlessness,” “great turbine of a mind” and “his sociable but unpredictable brand of anarchy that seriously touched kids in their 20s and early 30s in much the same way that Hunter S. Thompson had a generation before. . . . He did not mind landing outside the cozy cocoon of conventional liberal wisdom.”
Christopher’s devoted tigress wife, Carol Blue, contributes a — I’ve already used up my “heart-wrenching” quota — deeply moving afterword, in which she recalls the “eight-hour dinners” they hosted at their apartment in Washington, when after consuming enough booze to render the entire population of the nation’s capital insensible, Christopher would rise and deliver flawless 20-minute recitals of poetry, polemics and jokes, capping it off saying, “How good it is to be us.” The truth of that declaration was evident to all who had the good fortune to be present at those dazzling recreations. Bliss it was in those wee hours to be alive and in his company, though the next mornings were usually a bit less blissful.
“For me,” he writes in “Mortality,” “to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.” In support of this, he adduces several staves of William Cory’s translation of the poem by Callimachus about his beloved friend Heraclitus:
They told me, Heraclitus; they told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed.
I wept when I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.
He was a man of abundant gifts, Christopher: erudition, wit, argument, prose style, to say nothing of a titanium constitution that, until it betrayed him in the end, allowed him to write word-perfect essays while the rest of us were groaning from epic hangovers and reaching for the ibuprofen. But his greatest gift of all may have been the gift of friendship. At his memorial service in New York City, 31 people, virtually all of them boldface names, rose to speak in his memory. One selection was from the introduction Christopher wrote for the paperback reissue of “Hitch-22” while gravely ill:
“Another element of my memoir — the stupendous importance of love, friendship and solidarity — has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience. I can’t hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.”
One of the “fragmentary jottings” in the last chapter of “Mortality” is a brush stroke on Philip Larkin’s chilling death poem, “Aubade”:
“Larkin good on fear in ‘Aubade,’ with implied reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either.”
For a fuller version of that terminal pensée, turn to his essay on Larkin in his collection “Arguably”: “Without that synthesis of gloom and angst we could never have had his ‘Aubade,’ a waking meditation on extinction that unstrenuously contrives a tense, brilliant counterpoise between the stoic philosophy of Lucretius and David Hume, and his own frank terror of oblivion.” The essay ends with two lines from another Larkin poem that could serve as Christopher’s own epitaph:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
What discrepant parts were in him: the fierce tongue, the tender heart.
There is no “frank terror of oblivion” in “Mortality,” but there is keen and great regret at having to leave the party early. But even as he stared into the abyss, his mordant wit did not desert him:
“The novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.”
In his first collection of essays, “Prepared for the Worst” (1988), he quoted Nadine Gordimer to the effect that “a serious person should try to write posthumously. By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints — of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and perhaps especially intellectual opinion — did not operate.”
He refers back to that in “Arguably,” the introduction to which he wrote in June 2011, deep in the heart of Tumorville. He was still going at it mano a mano with the Footman, but by then he was at least realistic about the odds and knew that the words he was writing might very well be published posthumously. As it turned out, he lived just long enough to see “Arguably” hailed for what it is — inarguably, stunning. What a coda. What a life.
He noted there that some of the essays had been written in “the full consciousness that they might be my very last. Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another, this practice can obviously never become perfected.”
Being in Christopher’s company was rarely sobering, but always exhilarating. It is, however, sobering and grief-inducing to read this brave and harrowing account of his “year of living dyingly” in the grip of the alien that succeeded where none of his debate opponents had in bringing him down.
In her afterword, Carol relates an anecdote about their daughter, then 2 years old, one day coming across a dead bumblebee on the ground. She frantically begged her parents to “make it start.” On reaching the end of her father’s valedictory feuilleton, the reader is likely to be acutely conscious of Antonia’s terrible feeling of loss.
Christopher Buckley’s latest novel is “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?”
A version of this review appeared in print on September 2, 2012, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Staying Power.