Sad news this week, as Christopher Hitchens has written in detail for the first time about his cancer: “In whatever kind of a “race” life may be,” he writes, “I have very abruptly become a finalist.” In his piece “Topic of Cancer” for September’s Vanity Fair, Hitchens speaks candidly of his illness as a new terrain. Known as much for his unapologetic love of booze and cigarettes as for his mammoth published ouevre and coterie of literary friends, Hitch’s tone has always been worldweary. But now it seems the weary is winning out.
In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me…. To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
Of course, knowing Hitchens, it’s a painfully well-written piece but as he says, even his trademark irony is little comfort. There are writers who you can feel you know intimately just from reading their work, and Hitchens is surely one of the strongest writing personalities of our generation. His opinions aren’t for everyone but he will happily share them nonetheless, and with erudite style, flintily logical argument and linguistic grace. Personally I will always gravitate to writers who embrace humour rather than shy from it, and in that regard Hitchens has always been a delight – check out any of his work for Vanity Fair and revel in his wit.
A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to see Hitchens interviewed. He was in Sydney for the Writers’ Festival and shilling his latest book, the memoir Hitch-22, and I joined the studio audience at ABC as he recorded a special episode of The First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer Byrne.
Somewhere along the line I lost my copy of Hitch-22, before even getting far beyond the opening chapters on his childhood and education. I found his ego and name-dropping a little grating but the writing sharp and witty enough to carry the reader through. Hitchens’ relationship with his mother Yvonne is one of the formative relationships of the book, and his account of learning about her suicide, while he was studying at Oxford, was very sad. That said, there is always something a bit unsettling about hearing a man in his middle age refer to his “mummy”.
Can I just say what a lovely interviewer Jennifer Byrne is? She’s always impeccably researched, intelligent and articulate; but she’s also got a bit of a twinkle in her eye, conveys a real interest in whatever’s being discussed, and isn’t afraid of having a laugh. Nor is she afraid of asking the tough questions, or of having an opinion. The latter of which isn’t always appropriate in an interviewer, but when talking about books and ideas tends to work.
She was visibly shocked at Hitchens’ attitudes toward women (CH: “no Mrs Hitchens will ever need to work; but if she wants to I’ll allow it.” JB: “how generous of you”), and cheekily wrapped the interview by thanking “the charming, but sexist, Christopher Hitchens”. Byrne seems like she’d be wicked fun to have a few glasses of wine with; can you even imagine the level of conversation at hers and her husband Andrew Denton‘s dinner table?! I hear she’ll be fronting a new current affairs show on Network 10 at 6.30 weeknights.
Finally, I was very taken with an excerpt from WH Auden’s poem Death’s Echo which Hitchens used to set the scene in his memoir:
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews
Not to be born is the best for man
The second best is a formal order
The dance’s pattern, dance while you can.
Dance, dance, for the figure is easy
The tune is catching and will not stop
Dance till the stars come down with the rafters
Dance, dance, dance till you drop
Here’s hoping Hitch has plenty more dance left in him yet – we need guys like him around.