No fear and much loathing

Writers in Conversation with Christopher Bigby - Unacknowledged Legislation
April 12, 2001

Christopher Wood investigates the politics of literary journalism.

One would not want to get on the wrong side of Christopher Hitchens. An exile from Britain since the Thatcher era, he has established himself as a formidable campaigning journalist in the United States, where from his eyrie in Washington DC he casts an eagle eye over wrongdoing, corruption and hypocrisy. He delights particularly in exposing wrongdoing in high places and has published books about the wickedness of figures as diverse as Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton. Since the publication of the Clinton book, No One Left to Lie to (1999), the ex-president himself has given Hitchens's reputation a boost through the farcical clumsiness of his list of presidential pardons, which revealed him to be a bigger rogue than even Hitchens supposed. Hitchens has since set his sights on another piece of big game, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, whose torrid career he details with the same unflinching moral stance and awesome facility for rooting out condemnatory documentary evidence that distinguished his catalogue of Clinton's mendacities.

Although Hitchens is of the political left (despite a refreshing refusal to subscribe to much of the left's programme of approved and disapproved causes), one cannot simply say he is the scourge of the right, or a critic of the thuggishness that has characterised much of postwar America's foreign policy (although he is these things). Hitchens can do better than that. This collection of some of his literary journalism of the past few years, in which politics is always to the fore, soon reveals the dazzling range of potential targets. He is anti-Israel, and also anti-anti-Semitism. He despises the right, yet has no time for bien pensant middle-class liberals, reserving special contempt for the generation that was too blinkered to see through the utopian smokescreen to the bloody reality of Stalin's regime. He is anti-communist and, of course, anti-fascist. He heaps scorn on religion (he finds "physics more awe-inspiring than religion") and condemns the Muslim theocracies that supported the fatwa pronounced against his friend Salman Rushdie (whom he gamely nominates for a Nobel prize). He loathes the British monarchy. The sensitivity with which he reacts to perceived slights against gays or non-white racial groups often makes him sound politically correct: but he hates the people who espouse political correctness and is therefore also anti-PC.

One would not know from the introduction to Unacknowledged Legislation that its author was such a negativist. Here Hitchens strikes a note of idealism that the rest of the book ignores, as if it were a youthful enthusiasm long forgotten. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," claimed Shelley; and for Hitchens they are something else - clairvoyants. He asks if it is "merely 'romantic'" to credit Auden with the gift of foresight in reference to a poem of 1968 that a generous interpretation might see as prefiguring the collapse of communism. Yes, is the answer. And Hitchens portrays himself as more naive than he is when he quotes George Eliot prescribing a way to salvation for a sinner with the words: "He had no sense that there was strength and safety in truth." As Hitchens well knows, strength and safety would not be the result of Kissinger's telling all about Vietnam, unless a criminal trial in The Hague qualifies as such.

"Poets" must not be taken literally here, for there are hardly any in the book. Rather, we get some incisive and entertaining critiques of a range of prose writers, in which Hitchens's sympathies are never difficult to discern. Oscar Wilde is portrayed as a near-saint, having suffered nobly at the hands of small-minded Victorian conservatism and, equally important, always being ready with a devastating one-liner. As Hitchens writes after quoting a Jessica Mitford put-down: "The crisp one-line comeback is among the least ephemeral things in the world." If only Isaiah Berlin had been any good with one-liners (even his biographer Michael Ignatieff admits that none has been transmitted to posterity), he might have escaped being mauled quite so severely by Hitchens. Berlin further prejudiced his case as a thinker and a human being by his equivocal attitude to the Vietnam conflict: something of a touchstone for Hitchens, as for many of his generation.

Aphoristic writers are always liable to get a sympathetic hearing. Dorothy Parker was not only this, but also bequeathed her copyrights to Martin Luther King, in the event of his death to be passed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - which action gets a resounding thumbs-up from Hitchens. His article on Parker is one of the best: excellently researched, full of fascinating and little-known (to me at least) details, and unconcerned with subjecting Parker's politics to chemical analysis (perhaps the bequest said it all). Tom Wolfe does not escape such a test and fails badly, but Hitchens makes a slight mess of his assault, expending too much energy deriding Wolfe's incompetent attempts in A Man in Full to write a convincing dialogue between two blacks.

Gore Vidal is another quotable writer whose delight in shocking and waspish wit - sometimes indistinguishable from straightforward unpleasantness - find favour with Hitchens. He quotes part of Christopher Isherwood's diaries in which Vidal at a dinner party referred to the friend of someone present as "a crook, a fortune hunter and a cocksucker". "Thank heaven for a breath of fresh air from Mr Vidal," enthuses Hitchens.

More deserving of celebration is George Orwell, whom one suspects is Hitchens's hero. He receives special commendation for having seen earlier than most where the Soviet Union was heading, and is triumphantly rescued by Hitchens from the petty attacks of Raymond Williams, whom Hitchens squashes with sarcasm that shows no sign of being blunted by long exposure to the US.

As well as being an acute political barometer, Hitchens is keenly attuned to his subjects' use of language. Berlin and Williams are both condemned for tautology, while Anthony Powell is ticked off for using "minimised" where Hitchens would have preferred "underestimated". A joint statement from the Iranian and British governments concerning the Rushdie affair is welcomed, but not without the lament: "It could have been more beautifully phrased, I must say." Williams is at fault again for the quality of his final sentences: "There's a tendency... for Williams's works to end with deflated or inconclusive or even vapid sentences" - an area in which Hitchens creates occasional difficulties of his own by trying too hard to sign off with a rhetorical flourish. He is again on shaky ground when he picks up Wolfe on his overuse of the word shuck: throughout Unacknowledged Legislation "trope", "sapient", "declension" and "hostages to fortune" appear again and again like nervous tics. Not only words but anecdotes are repeated: Wilde's subversiveness in contriving to have "earnest" (apparently Victorian slang for gay) up in lights in the West End is mentioned more than once, as is Hitchens's conceit that Wilde's trial and his most famous play were both dramas in three acts.

Another characteristic of the Hitchens style is sweeping and eloquent abuse, as in a diatribe against the countryside: "The great secret about the English rural idyll... is that the bucolic scene is very often one of cruelty, surliness, and resentment, rife with inbreeding and inefficiency, and populated quite largely by people who would, had they only the talent or the resources, do anything to sell up and move to the city." Sometimes the eloquence is omitted, leaving just the abuse, as in a predictable description of Princess Diana as a "gold-digging airhead" - penned by the fearless Hitchens when Diana was still alive. Elsewhere on the subject of the monarchy, Hitchens becomes suddenly squeamish, referring to "C and D (I'm sorry, I just can't give them either their titles or their familiar names)".

But reservations aside, Hitchens is decidedly a force for good. He speaks out about corruption and abuses that others are happy to pretend they have not noticed. His targets are almost exclusively deserving ones, whom he pursues with wit backed up by exemplary research. His readings in literature are trenchant, and result in excellent essays about subjects one would not expect to engage his sympathies, such as Conan Doyle and Kipling. With British politics in the state it is in, America's gain is certainly our loss.

Writers get altogether gentler treatment in Writers in Conversation , a series of 22 interviews with a few stars of Brit lit (Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro), a host of American heavyweights (John Irving, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, et al ) and some significant others (Wole Soyinka, Mario Vargas Llosa, Derek Walcott).

Bigsby's enterprise puts one in mind of Vladimir Nabokov's attitude to the literary interview. After a couple of bruising experiences, Nabokov decided that, in future, questions would have to be submitted to him in writing, answered by him in writing and reproduced verbatim - "three absolute conditions". He knew (and did not care) that he was being a spoilsport:

"The interviewer wishes to visit me. He wishes to see my pencil poised above the page, my painted lampshade, my bookshelves, my old white borzoi asleep at my feet. He feels he needs the background music of bogus informality..." The Nabokov method might have kept Martin Amis's foot out of his mouth, who not for the first time is seen got up in the magic robes of cultural prophet: "I think one is attracted towards the centre of the earth, which is really, culturally, America. It is never going to be Japan culturally. There aren't going to be sushi bars in Hendon... There is never going to be a Japanese Clint Eastwood." Surely Amis, with time to reflect, would have recalled that Eastwood's early spaghetti westerns derived from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), in which the "man with no name" was played by Toshiro Mifune, and that therefore there was a Japanese Clint Eastwood before there was an American one?

Bigsby's introduction draws attention to some common themes that emerge:

"The pressure of two world wars, the significance of the Kennedy assassination... an attraction to extreme circumstances, a sense of the importance of early years..." If this all sounds a bit obvious, then so do the interviews. The questions tend to be either prosaic or over-elaborate and earnest - in the modern sense of the word. Fans of the writers interviewed may find something of interest, but the general reader will get a good deal more instruction and entertainment from Hitchens.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on literature and the arts.

Writers in Conversation with Christopher Bigby

Author - Christopher Bigby
ISBN - 1 902913 07 8
Publisher - EAS Publishing
Price - £12.99
Pages - 422

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