NYT Review of ‘And Yet…’

Reprinted from the New York Times (Nov 24, 2015)

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Christopher Hitchens died of complications from esophageal cancer in 2011. Were he living, he’d turn 67 in the spring.

Were he living, he’d be staring down the holidays, like the rest of us. Mr. Hitchens was an observant and entertaining writer about holidays, as he was about most things. He liked Thanksgiving, which made immigrants like himself (he was born in England) feel welcome. He disliked Christmas almost entirely.

“And Yet …,” a very good new collection of Mr. Hitchens’s work previously unpublished in book form, includes a “Bah, humbug” for the ages in the form of two Christmas-skewering essays, one composed for Slate and the other for The Wall Street Journal. He hoped at least one would be reprinted annually.

Mr. Hitchens deplored the “collectivization of gaiety” at Christmas, the “compulsory bad taste,” the “long letters of confessional drool” that families mail. He held in special contempt news outlets that gin up angst about a “war on Christmas.” He would not have minded a Starbucks cup absent its snowmen.

Here is Mr. Hitchens on those who fret that religion has been drained from the holiday: “There are millions of well-appointed buildings all across the United States, most of them tax-exempt and some of them receiving state subventions, where anyone can go at any time and celebrate miraculous births and pregnant virgins all day and all night if they so desire. These places are known as ‘churches,’ and they can also force passers-by to look at the displays and billboards they erect and to give ear to the bells that they ring. In addition, they can count on numberless radio and TV stations to beam their stuff all through the ether. If this is not sufficient, then god damn them. God damn them everyone.”

“And Yet …” is a miscellany, a book of essays and book reviews and reported pieces on topics political, social and literary. Mr. Hitchens was that rare public intellectual who was as comfortable pronouncing on V. S. Naipaul and Joan Didion and Edmund Wilson as he was on Bosnia and Iraq and Hezbollah. Few other writers would (or could) compare Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., as Mr. Hitchens does in this book, to Fabrizio in Stendhal’s novel “The Charterhouse of Parma.”

This book revisits Mr. Hitchens’s animus toward the Clintons. It includes “The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” an essay written during the 2008 presidential campaign. Mr. Hitchens asked: “What would it take to break this cheap little spell and make us wake up and inquire what on earth we are doing when we make the Clinton family drama — yet again—a central part of our own politics?”

Mr. Hitchens was a man of the left in nearly all the important ways, but increasingly held his share of contrarian and unorthodox views. This book rehashes, for example, his support for the Iraq war. There is little doubt, I suspect, where he would stand on admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. This book’s final seven words are these: “Internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”

It’s a shame Mr. Hitchens isn’t here to comment on Donald Trump’s political moment. He saw in the ideas behind Ross Perot’s candidacy some of what he might have distrusted in Mr. Trump’s, that is the idea that “government should give way to management.”

As a book critic, Mr. Hitchens was sui generis. He tended to pronounce on the topic rather than the book at hand. There is one miraculous performance in “And Yet …” in which he “reviews” for The Atlantic three books loosely about imperialism while mentioning their authors only in fleeting asides and their titles not at all. Somehow he makes this work for him.

He could read very closely indeed, when he felt like it. About critics, he declared: “One test of un homme sérieux is that it is possible to learn from him even when one radically disagrees with him.”

There is a major essay in “And Yet …” about the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, whom he admired, and the fading art of the non-sycophantic interview. Mr. Hitchens pivots to lightly roast Charlie Rose’s telegraphic interview style (“‘Your book. Why now?’”) and mocks the way Larry King lobs softballs in a weirdly aggressive manner. (“‘So — you got the big advance. Movie rights up the wazoo. Married to a babe everybody loves. Top of your game. What’s with that?’”)

The piece about Ms. Fallaci appeared in Vanity Fair, where Mr. Hitchens had a column. His work for that magazine shines in this book. Vanity Fair (which paid him better than Slate or The Atlantic could) had the good sense to get him out of his office and point him at things.

Thus the essay in this book about a road trip through the South, in which he described a Texas town as “one of those places where if the wind drops, all the chickens fall over.”

The best reason to read “And Yet …” may be its inclusion of a three-part essay, “On the Limits of Self-Improvement,” that Mr. Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair about trying to get himself in shape. It is as hilarious as it is wise, and I predict it will be published before long as its own pocket-size book.

He was fond of cigarettes and whiskey, and not so fond of exercise. “This walking business is overrated,” he wrote. “I mastered the art of doing it when I was quite small, and in any case, what are taxis for?” He describes himself as resembling, from the neck down, “a condom hastily stuffed with an old sock.”

He was suspicious of the whole self-improvement enterprise. He did not “want to look as if I have been piloting the Concorde without a windshield, and I can’t imagine whom I would be fooling if I did.” He is cheerful that, his teeth newly whitened, they no longer look like “a handful of mixed nuts.”

The moment when Mr. Hitchens undergoes the male version of a Brazilian bikini wax — it is called a sunga, he reports — has yet to be recognized, but surely will be, as among the funniest passages in this country’s literature.

“As I look back on my long and arduous struggle to make myself over,” Mr. Hitchens wrote, “and on my dismaying recent glimpses of lost babyhood, I am more than ever sure that it’s enough to be born once, and to take one’s chances, and to grow old disgracefully.”

Would that he were here to do so.

 

And Yet ...
Essays
By Christopher Hitchens
339 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

		
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