Review: Hitch-22: A Memoir

The journalist and cultural provocateur reveals his star-laden journey from the 1960s rebel to solid citizen


By Vernon Bogdanor, June 3, 2010
Follow The JC on Twitter
Defining moment: 9/11 changed Hitchens utterly

Defining moment: 9/11 changed Hitchens utterly

By Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, £20

Christopher Hitchens is a quintessential product of the 1960s. A student revolutionary and anti-Vietnam protester, his polemical targets have included Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa. But 9/11 changed him utterly, leading him to break with his erstwhile comrades, and support the Iraq war against what he calls "Islamofascism".

His memoir, its title echoing Joseph Heller's Catch-22, begins with a veritable orgy of name-dropping. The reader is left in no doubt that Hitchens is well-connected. The first four pages alone mention Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Norman Mailer, James Fenton, Martin Amis and Gore Vidal, in addition to such long-dead authors such as W H Auden, John Clare, James Joyce, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and Robert Graves. It is not as if Hitchens has much to say about any of these luminaries. They merely indicate that he is in the swim.

In his early 40s, Hitchens had a shock. His brother, Peter, the Mail on Sunday polemicist, took his fiancée to meet their grandmother. "She's Jewish isn't she?" she asked, adding: "Well, I've got something to tell you. So are you".

Hitchens’s naval commander father had an intellectual outlook akin to Denis Thatcher’s

Hitchens's mother's family came from Kempen, now Kempno, in Upper Silesia, home of the great physicist, Max Born, and the German socialist, Lassalle, whom Marx once called a "Jewish nigger". It is not a place that evokes romantic memories. "If this is Upper Silesia," observed P G Wodehouse when interned by the Nazis in 1940, "what on earth must Lower Silesia be like?" But no Jews have lived in Kempno since 1945 and its Jewish cemetery is "like a memorial to Atlantis or Lyonesse; these are the stone buoys that mark a drowned world".

It would require a subtler psychologist than Hitchens to analyse the motivation of a parent who hides details of a child's origins from him, and its consequences for his emotional and intellectual development. Hitchens's mother had married a naval commander, whose intellectual outlook was akin to Denis Thatcher's. Desperate for her sons to "pass" as English gentlemen, even though, as Hitchens says, the market for such a product "was undergoing a steep decline" in the 1960s, she scrimped and saved to send him to private schools, from which he won a place at Balliol. "If there is going to be an upper class in this country," his mother insisted, "then Christopher is going to be in it".

She has in a sense been vindicated. What could be more "Establishment" than the life of a left-wing journalist in the 1960s and celebrated champagne socialist thereafter? "I was working and hoping for the overthrow of capitalism"', Hitchens claims. Disappointed in his hopes, he has, nevertheless, "done somewhat better out of capitalism than I had ever expected to do".

Hitch-22 reads like a glorified and over-extended gossip column, recounting the often tedious alcoholic and sexual adventures of the progressive cognoscenti of the era, most of whom have been deservedly forgotten. But, for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011