Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, was one of the most admired — and loathed — writers of his generation. The best of his writing, notably as an essayist and contributor to Vanity Fair and The Atlantic burns with passion and integrity.
In the posthumously published Mortality (Atlantic, £10.99), there are passages of brilliance, proving his creative powers had not diminished, despite his body being ravaged by advancing cancer of the oesophagus and aggressive chemotherapy.
This is a remarkable book, brutally honest, breathtakingly lucid and surprisingly humorous, often simultaneously: “the thing about Stage Four (cancer) is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.”
This slim volume can be read as a cancer journal, rather like John Diamond’s a decade earlier. But whereas Diamond’s account was occasionally optimistic, Hitchens’s is far bleaker. He rages against any attempt to mitigate his disease by spiritual or emotional means. He identifies with Voltaire who “when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
He dismisses Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s seminal five-stage theory of bereavement and loss as “notorious”.
Celebrated as a charismatic raconteur and speaker as well as for his writing, Hitchens remained an unapologetic atheist to the end. Nonetheless, he was surprisingly proud of his Jewish heritage.
He was 38 when he discovered that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and, in 2002, told the Observer that the revelation “thrilled” him.
There is a pathos and possibly unconscious ambivalence here — perhaps he did protest too much.