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Peter Stothard on Christopher Hitchens
Posted on May 27, 2010
When Robert Scheer asked me three years ago to be Books Editor for Truthdig, I was granted sole authority to choose the books and pick the reviewers. Not once has either Scheer or the editors or the staff of Truthdig sought to influence my decisions. That continues to be the case and is emphatically so with regard to today’s review for which I bear sole responsibility. In the world of book reviewing, relationships between reviewers and authors should be disclosed. That would, of course, include any relationship between the assigning editor and the author under review. In the case of today’s book review, readers should know that I have been Christopher Hitchens’ literary representative for the past five years—years which have seen the publication of his “God Is Not Great” and now his memoir, “Hitch-22.” I believed Truthdig readers would be interested in a review by someone of stature and so assigned it, despite the appearance of a conflict of interest that might ordinarily have warranted my recusing myself. Peter Stothard, the former editor of The Times of London and the current editor of the distinguished Times Literary Supplement, is such a reviewer. He is familiar with the English milieu out of which Hitchens emerged, able to expertly parse the literary and political worlds Hitchens has made his own on both sides of the Atlantic over the past 40-odd years. That Stothard was at Oxford at the same time as Hitchens and would later come to know him concerned me less than the intimate advantage he would bring to bear on assessing the book’s literary merit. Whatever his take, pro or con, I was prepared to publish it. These are facts readers will wish to consider and which we wish to declare forthrightly.
Since there is so little surviving poetry by Christopher Hitchens, consider briefly the following:
I Am the King of China,
You don’t like it? Well, you may not be the only dissenter. Why am I asking you to read it? Surely, you say, I wouldn’t begin a piece about Susan Sontag or Edward Said with a bawdy invention from their sophomore years. Why does a review of “Hitch-22,” an opportunity for an essay on one of the most vigorously examined political writers in America, require an opening verse quotation about homosexual voyeurism in the Orient? Well, the answer lies here in a wonderful life story, glitteringly told by its author and subject. Stay with me.
First, there is the date of this particular Boxer Rising (circa 1969); and then the place (Oxford, England), and last, the occasion of this fine quatrain, the opportunity taken to contribute to a series of such “King of China” poems, each one written to strictly imposed rules set by a fellow International Socialist, one of the main Trotskyist groups at the time. A good many of what we now know as Frequently Asked Questions About Christopher Hitchens may be answered by a reflection on these themes of metrical respect and perpetual adaptation, principled fixity and mercurial art.
You still don’t get it? OK. True connoisseurs of politics and literature in our times—the readers who most of all will delight in this book—may like now to compare the Hitchens contribution to the poetic model set by James Fenton, that great poet then and now, to which ’60s followers of the “King of China” invitation had to adhere.
I Am the King of China
Better, perhaps you’re saying. But, before we get on to the rest of the Hitchens life and its fearless search for the correct side in any argument whatever the consequences, what exactly were those rules? Rules for the poetry, I mean. There were, we are told, only three. The first line, “I Am the King of China,” could not be changed. The second line had to be mildly obscene. And after that almost any sort of seriocomic point could be made. (If anyone still has the Sycamore Press edition from the time, the TLS editor’s library would much like to acquire it.)
These poems, filling less than a page of “Hitch-22,” are a vivid reminder of my own student days (normally an attractive thing once the golden days of one’s youth have had time to separate themselves from the dross). They are a useful reminder too that in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was both a greater seriousness and a greater comedy than you will find in Oxford or any other British city of students and workers today. A vast variety of Trotskyist thought was alive and well practiced alongside styles of life that, except for the introduction of sexually liberated women alongside the men, had changed only patchily since “Brideshead Revisited.” As well as all the fun that was to be had composing “King of China” variations on Magdalen Bridge, there was very much “a war on,” many wars, most notably in faraway but frequently rather close-seeming Vietnam. Washington versus Hanoi is one of a range of potent conflicts in “Hitch-22.” It even features obliquely—but only obliquely since business and pleasure must not be mixed too much—in the third and finest of the stanzas.
I Am the King of China
Why professor Steiner? In comparison with the placard-waving, picket-line protests of the local industrial estates that engaged much Trotskyist energy at the time, a proper Oxford response to American policy in Southeast Asia was of more significant concern to the famed polymath with an equally famous lack of fear for the heavily laden sentence. In Hitchens’ account here, the great man had challenged over dinner Fenton’s insouciant claim that “there were no great unifying causes left any more, no grand subject of the sort that had sent Auden to Spain or China.” Steiner had snapped back that Vietnam was worth a hard look. Fenton admired Steiner and had a copy of his book of essays “Language and Silence,” including the one titled “Trotsky and the Tragic Imagination.” From that Hitchens “realized that my new chum had suggested to me a possible relationship, which was that of politics to literature but this time beginning at the literary end and not at the ideological one.” It was a relationship that has lasted a lifetime, bringing a powerful purpose to literary criticism on George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh and a rare literary vigor to his political attacks, whatever their target.
“Hitch-22” is the story of its author’s youthful opposition to the Vietnam War, his later more direct involvement in other wars, his perpetual even more direct confrontations, against former comrades as well as more permanent foes in the ideological debates of the past 40 years. But it is also comic, self-deflating and sexually frank, epigrammatic well beyond the pages in which the “King of China” poems occur. Those who want to know the details of a lusty Italian lad’s most likely experience in the shared embrace of Gore Vidal and Tom Driberg will find their every desire met. In the George W. Bush years Hitchens’ support of the administration’s policy toward Iraq spawned a minor industry of questioning as to how so dedicated a man of the left should become so potent a spokesman for the neoconservative cause. For those who find these worthy works somewhat hard-going, for those whose early study of Trotsky was either nugatory or unleavened by Steiner, this book is an easier, gentler way.
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