Book review: ‘Arguably’ by Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens’ writings on politics and his public face on a variety of TV programs and in other forums have earned him manifold tags, not always favorable ones (depending on whom is bestowing them) — he’s been called a provocateur, a contrarian, a ranter, a polemicist, a traitor (by former friends on the Left who disagree with his view of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq). But the essays in “Arguably” remind us of other dimensions to this singular writer and thinker that are sometimes overshadowed by the range of his political commentary.
Though there are plenty of essays on politics to be found here, the book also treats us to other arrows in Hitchens’ proverbial quiver, including his bracing, exhilarating approach to important literary figures. He addresses not only his long-admired Orwell, but many other writers as well — popular and contemporary — which is why this book merits a lasting place on your bookshelf in company with collections such as John Bayley’s “The Power of Delight” or George Steiner’s “No Passion Spent.”
In literary matters, Hitchens lays out issues swiftly for his readers (the majority of the pieces collected here have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and Vanity Fair): The complicated relations, for example, between Roman Catholics and English Anglicans is given with suppleness and economy — a mere paragraph — before he embarks on an assessment of “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel about the life and end of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fallen enforcer. He admires her way of “demystifying … one of history’s wickedest men,” and demystification has been his life’s work, whether directed at the big questions in his books (“God Is Not Great”) or else at smaller ones in this collection (“How,” he asks in a piece about the Harry Potter series, “can Voldemort and his wicked forces have such power and yet be unable to destroy a mild-mannered and rather disorganized schoolboy?”)
Earlier this year “The Quotable Hitchens” was published, but pithy excerpts aren’t enough to fully enjoy Hitchens — these amount to a snack and what you really should have is the full meal that “Arguably” furnishes. That being said, however, it’s hard to resist his one-liners in “Arguably,” even though they are deployed in the service of learned, timely, shrewd meditations on everything from popular tastes to the way novelists sometimes provide an unexpected, apt commentary on current circumstances abroad.
While Mantel earns his praise, for instance, Stieg Larsson receives his scorn, delivered in Hitchens-esque style: Larsson “conjured a detective double act so incongruous that it makes Holmes and Watson seem like siblings.” Elsewhere, in the popular works of George MacDonald Fraser about 19th century rogue Harry Flashman’s adventures abroad, he finds a compelling picture of the true nature of imperialism: “The empire on which the sun never set was also the empire on which the gore never dried.”
The earlier comment that “Arguably” deserves a long shelf life in your home calls to mind the short, funny piece with which Hitchens closes this collection, “Prisoner of Shelves.” There he describes his own bibliomania and why many people, especially writers, have trouble letting go of books. The reason? Three simple words: You never know:
“It used to be such a pleasure to get one of those padded envelopes in the mail, containing a brand-new book with the publisher’s compliments. Now, as I collect my daily heap of these packages from my building’s concierge, I receive a pitying look,” he writes. “It ought to be easy to deal with this excess..... Give them away to friends or take them to a secondhand bookseller. But the thing is, you never know. Two new histories of the Crusades have appeared in the past year, for instance, and I already have several books on those momentous events. How often, really, do I need to mention the Crusades in a column or a review? Not that often — but then, it suddenly occurs to me, not that seldom either. Best be on the safe side.”
The comedy of Hitchens’ effort to justify why he keeps all of his books doesn’t, I think, apply to “Arguably” — its value is clear and needs no justification. And since his diagnosis of esophageal cancer last year, opportunities to hear him, understandably, have been fewer. Which is another thing “Arguably” inadvertently addresses — for in reading this collection of his thoughts, immersing yourself in the particular turns of phrase and associations of Hitchens’ wit, you suddenly realize something else: You’re hearing his voice again.
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