AN ATTACHMENT IN TIME: Reflections ready to be reconsideredby Christopher Hitchens
There was a time, in the late 1990s, when Christopher Hitchens’ byline was, or appeared to be, engraved in every respectable magazine and newspaper published in English. The Nation had its biweekly political columns. The London Review of Books and Newsday (where he wrote weekly) contained the bulk of his book reviews. He wandered through Condé Nast Traveler and The New Statesman and the TLS and The Atlantic and The New York Times Book Review and Slate and The New York Review of Books as if they were dive bars. Vanity Fair, where he wrote a monthly column, had the good idea of simply showing him things. The South of the United States, for example. Or her own Brazilian bikini wax. And his own drowning simulation.
Much of Hitchens’ fugitive material was printed, sometimes as block collections. (The largest block, with nearly 800 pages, “probably” dates from 2011, the year of his death.) But part of it has not been published. A few years ago, I received a bootleg assortment of his Newsday reviews in my inbox, which remain unpublished. And now here is “A Glitch in Time: Thoughts Ready for Reconsideration.”
These are book reviews and journal essays written for the London Review of Books between 1983 and 2002. None have been anthologized before. The pieces are almost equally divided between political subjects (Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, the Oklahoma bombings, Nixon and Kennedy, Kim Philby, the radicalism of 1968) and literary, academic and social subjects (Tom Wolfe, the Oscars, Salman Rushdie, PG Wodehouse, spanking, Gore Vidal, Diana Mosley, Isaiah Berlin). These sharp pieces often attracted angry letters, a few of which are printed here. Hitchens’s rebuttals are also published. They remind me of Kafka’s injunction in his diary to “use the attacker’s horse for your own ride.”
It’s no coincidence that this mix-up ends in 2002. That’s the year Hitchens, previously a self-proclaimed “far leftist,” came out in favor of invading Iraq. He broke with The Nation, The London Review of Books and many of his old friends. “The evening sky was crimson for all the bridges it burned,” writes James Wolcott in the introduction to this collection. Wolcott calls the post-Iraq War Hitchens “Hitchens 2.0.” The essays here return us the original and classic flavor.
Why bother with a pile of old book reviews? Hitchens’s was not like the others’. He had none of the formal manners. He rarely praised or blamed; instead, he made distinctions and accumulated the evidence. Often he barely mentioned the book he had on hand. This must have exasperated the authors, but his readers benefited from it. For him, books were opportunities; he picked up the pieces that interested him and ran with them. (“It’s a book review, not a broth cube,” as Nicholson Baker said, in response to Ken Auletta, who had complained about one of Baker’s equally lengthy reviews in Book Review. )
The breadth of Hitchens’ references makes you feel intellectually like you’re rotating your tires. And he seemed to know everyone, or at least the right kind of people. If he needed to verify an anecdote from a book, before the advent of the Internet, he would call the relevant person, usually an old friend. Should critics call in and hang out more often? In her review of Sidney Lumet’s film “Serpico” in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael mentioned that she recently took the real Frank Serpico out for a cup of coffee.
Reviewing a collection of Tom Wolfe’s journalism, Hitchens lamented Wolfe’s affectations and his leaden conservative politics. In the 1960s, he writes, Wolfe made people “feel embarrassed about their failures to commit.” Hitchens came of age in the late 1960s and knew Bill Clinton, at a glance, at Oxford. When it came to marijuana, Clinton didn’t need to inhale it, Hitchens writes, because there were always brownies and pot cookies.
Reading through a biography of the odious J. Edgar Hoover, he wonders how it is that the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation still bears his name. Considering Hoover’s hypocrisies, sexual and otherwise, he writes: “I am idly watching the new members of Congress in Washington, as well as the electronic moralists on the airwaves. They barely start bawling about sodomy and degeneration when I contently set my watch. Soon, Congressman Snort will be found on all fours in the men’s room of the Capitol. …” I will draw a discreet veil over the rest of this spicy sentence.
Hitchens had this quality, rarer than it should be, of knowing what to notice. In a review of Gore Vidal’s memoir, “Palimpsest,” he reminds us that Vidal wrote: “I should note that the only advantage to a child of having an alcoholic parent is that you acquire a certain amount of valuable data prematurely. » Spying Henry Kissinger in the Sistine Chapel, gaping at the Inferno section of “The Last Judgment,” Vidal commented, “Look, he’s looking for an apartment. »
Hitchens wrote quickly. He was known to get up from his own dinners, write an essay in less than an hour, and return to his seat. Sometimes there is haste; some of these bits end up in the weeds. “A Hitch in Time” is nevertheless Hitchens’ best. Her joy of war is apparent everywhere.
What’s more about Hitchens? Newsday’s critics deserve to find a home. They too are full of frankness and dissent, and are intellectual without being academic. Hitchens was sui generis. It gave most other book reviewers, to borrow Dorothy Parker’s words about the drama critic George Jean Nathan, “the impression that they were spelling out their reviews with alphabet blocks.”
A HITCH IN TIME: Thoughts ready for reconsideration | By Christopher Hitchens | Twelve | 336 pp. | $30