Christopher Hitchens began his memoir, Hitch-22, on a note of grim amusement at finding himself described in a British National Portrait Gallery publication as “the late Christopher Hitchens”. He wrote, “So there it is in cold print, the plain unadorned phrase that will one day become unarguably true.”
On June 8, 2010, several days after the memoir was published, he awoke in his New York hotel room “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement”. And so commenced an 18-month odyssey through “the land of malady”, culminating in his death from esophageal cancer last December, when the plain unadorned phrase that had prompted him to contemplate his own mortality became, unarguably, true. He was 62 years old.
Mortality is a slender volume – or, to use the mot that he loved to deploy, feuilleton – consisting of the seven dispatches he sent in to Vanity Fair magazine from “Tumorville”. The first seven chapters are, like virtually everything he wrote over his long, distinguished career, diamond-hard and brilliant. An eighth and final chapter consists, as the publisher’s note informs us, of unfinished “fragmentary jottings” that he wrote in his terminal days in the critical-care unit of the M D Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston. They’re vivid, heart-wrenching and haunting — messages in a bottle tossed from the deck of a sinking ship as its captain, reeling in agony and fighting through the fog of morphine, struggles to keep his engines going:
“My two assets my pen and my voice — and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I’d been ‘straying into the arena of the unwell’ and now ‘a vulgar little tumor’ was evident. This alien can’t want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centred.”
Those of his friends (I was one) who witnessed his pluck and steel throughout his ghastly ordeal will attest that he never succumbed to any of that.
“To the dumb question ‘Why me?,’ ” he writes, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” He was valiant to the end, a paragon of British phlegm. He became an American citizen in 2007, but the background music was always HMS Pinafore: “He remains an English man.” (Emphasis mine.)
Mortality comes with a fine foreword by his longtime Vanity Fair editor and friend Graydon Carter, who writes of Christopher’s “saucy fearlessness”, “great turbine of a mind” and “his sociable but unpredictable brand of anarchy that seriously touched kids in their 20s and early 30s in much the same way that Hunter S Thompson had a generation before.... He did not mind landing outside the cozy cocoon of conventional liberal wisdom”.
Christopher’s devoted tigress wife, Carol Blue, contributes a – I’ve already used up my “heart-wrenching” quota – deeply moving afterword, in which she recalls the “eight-hour dinners” they hosted at their apartment in Washington, when after consuming enough booze to render the entire population of the nation’s capital insensible, Christopher would rise and deliver flawless 20-minute recitals of poetry, polemics and jokes, capping it off saying, “How good it is to be us.”
He was a man of abundant gifts, Christopher: erudition, wit, argument, prose style, to say nothing of a titanium constitution that, until it betrayed him in the end, allowed him to write word-perfect essays while the rest of us were groaning from epic hangovers and reaching for the ibuprofen. But his greatest gift of all may have been the gift of friendship. At his memorial service in New York City, 31 people, virtually all of them boldface names, rose to speak in his memory.
There is no “frank terror of oblivion” in Mortality, but there is keen and great regret at having to leave the party early. But even as he stared into the abyss, his mordant wit did not desert him:
“The novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.”
In her afterword, Carol relates an anecdote about their daughter, then two years old, one day coming across a dead bumblebee on the ground. She frantically begged her parents to “make it start”. On reaching the end of her father’s valedictory feuilleton, the reader is likely to be acutely conscious of Antonia’s terrible feeling of loss.
104 pages; $22.99
©2012 The New York Times News Service