Changing Places | The Nation


Changing Places

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Permit me, as the English say, to declare an interest. I was first told the story of the death of Yvonne Hitchens by her oldest son on the weekend of April 8, 1989. Christopher and his wife, Eleni, put us up at their house in Washington on our way to an abortion rights march. Abortion was a touchy subject with the Hitchenses, and not just because Eleni was pregnant with their second child. There had been a party in the afternoon, but the atmosphere was hardly festive. Our hosts seemed to be attempting, with limited success, to suppress a long-running quarrel. (It can't have been much more than a month later that Christopher left Eleni for Carol Blue, whom he eventually married.) As the house slowly emptied I found myself alone with Christopher, who, either because he noticed my distracted air or wanted to change the subject, soon elicited the fact that I'd spent an earlier part of the day visiting my mother in the hospital where she was undergoing treatment for cancer.

A Memoir.
By Christopher Hitchens.
Buy this book

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

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I was feeling both anxious and guilty. Christopher's response was to sit me down, fill our glasses and tell me about being summoned to Athens too late to talk his mother out of taking her life. I wasn't making notes—his apotheosis as a world-historical figure and scourge of the believers was many years in the future—so I can't recall exactly how he introduced the topic. Nor can I recall all the sordid details, though I did come away knowing that his mother's suicide in 1973 had marked him in ways he generally preferred not to consider. What I can recall was my sense of a man whose life seemed, on many levels, to be a kind of performance, allowing himself to be "off," and to offer the only consolation he could: not cheerfulness, not competitive misery, but an acknowledgment that sometimes life just sucks. If any more evidence on that question were needed, in recent weeks the Internet has buzzed with the news that Hitchens is undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus, a disease, as ABC announced with barely restrained glee, "associated with smoking and drinking, habits Hitchens extolled as virtues."

The pathetic circumstances of Yvonne Hitchens's last days have been told many times, and to many journalists. After a long, passionless marriage to a midranking officer in the Royal Navy, himself forcibly retired and working as a bookkeeper in a boys' boarding school, Yvonne fell in love with a former Anglican priest, only to have both their lives end in a suicide pact far from home. When I say that those last days have never been told so movingly, or with such filial tenderness, as in the pages of Hitch-22, you may think I am hardly an impartial witness. Fair enough. But where Hitchens is concerned, neutrality is liable to be in short supply.

Described as "a memoir," this book is a full-frontal self-portrait, not an apologia; as the author would doubtless want us to note, "Never Apologize, Never Explain" was the title of Edmund Wilson's 1944 New Yorker tribute to Evelyn Waugh. By turns beguiling, annoying, fascinating and infuriating, Hitch-22 catches the tone, if not the totality, of the man. We learn that the object of his earliest amorous attentions was a classmate named Guy, "a sort of strawberry blond, very slightly bow-legged, with a wicked smile that seemed to promise both innocence and experience." Later on, after his tastes turned more conventional, Hitchens allowed himself a "mildly enjoyable relapse" with "two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher's government." Of his two wives, however, he says almost nothing. Readers expecting a full account of our hero's life and loves—or even of how he went about earning his trench coat—will be disappointed. So too will anyone expecting the kind of tough-minded dissection Hitchens practiced with such panache on the self-serving delusions of Henry Kissinger, Isaiah Berlin, Norman Podhoretz and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Yet the book is a reminder that even on his worst days, Hitchens still writes well enough to be entertaining. At his best he is an unrivaled polemicist: a "strong writer" whose style leaves a lasting furrow in the reader's mind and whose arguments, no matter how seemingly wrongheaded, are almost always worth taking seriously. Hitch-22 also has a built-in advantage: all self-portraits are illuminating, though not always in the way the artist intended. You would hardly guess from the brief, warm allusion to O'Brien as "a man of considerable mind" that while alive the Irish writer had been on the receiving end of a comprehensive kicking by Hitchens. Nor would Hitchens's past relish in repeatedly putting the rhetorical boot into Podhoretz seem credible to anyone encountering the rare, anodyne invocations of the father of neoconservatism here. Hitchens's new friends on the right might be tempted to trace his earlier lèse-majesté to the malign influence of his former friend, co-conspirator and fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn—himself a conspicuous absence in these pages. But before we examine what Hitchens leaves out, we might consider what he leaves in.

Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. His father, Eric Hitchens, had come off a very good war, surviving the notoriously dangerous Murmansk run escorting convoys to Russia; his ship, the HMS Jamaica, fired the torpedoes that sank the German battleship Scharnhorst, one of the most celebrated Allied victories in the North Atlantic. The war had also brought Commander Hitchens together with Yvonne, a volunteer in the Women's Royal Naval Service. The Hitchenses were Baptists, which in British terms meant not officer material; the Lynns (Yvonne's mother's maiden name) had originally been Levins, from Poznan in Poland—not exactly officer material either. "The Commander," as Christopher and his brother, Peter, called their father, never knew of his wife's exotic background; his sons found out only when Peter, engaged to a Jew, presented his prospective bride to his maternal grandmother. "On hearing the tidings," Christopher wrote in Grand Street in 1988, "I was pleased to find that I was pleased."

At the time of this discovery Hitchens was Washington editor of Harper's Magazine and a columnist for The Nation; he was also the co-editor, with Edward Said, of Blaming the Victims, a collection of essays devoted to the Palestinian question. It would thus be unfair and inaccurate to say that Hitchens's coming out as "Jew-ish" (in Jonathan Miller's cringe-inducing but in this case apt phrase) in any way licensed his criticisms of Israel, which long predated it. But it certainly didn't hurt.

More pertinent is the light Yvonne's secret sheds on her determination, as remembered by her older son, to ensure that "If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it." This was her response to the Commander's observation that school fees were well beyond their means. Sacrifices were made, the requisite funds somehow found, and at the tender age of 8 Christopher was sent away to boarding school. Noblesse Oblige, Nancy Mitford's guide to the folkways of the English aristocracy—and the book that, Hitchens writes, served as "my first introduction to the Mitford sisters, and their impossible glamour and charm"—declares "there is one method of effecting a change of voice" so that a non-upper-class speaker can convincingly adopt the accent of his betters: "send him first to a preparatory school, and then to a good public-school." What is meant by "public-school" is what we Americans would call a private high school or prep school. The Leys, in Cambridge, where Hitchens enjoyed his first triumphs in debate and took the essay prize several years running, was what boys who do go to a "good public-school" might patronizingly refer to as "MPS" (Minor Public School). Founded by nineteenth-century Methodists, The Leys isn't even the most distinguished private school in Cambridge; it can, however, claim the distinction of having inspired Goodbye, Mr. Chips, whose author, James Hilton, was an Old Leysian, as was J.G. Ballard.

Such matters may seem trivial to us, but the gap between The Leys and a place like Eton is, to a certain kind of Englishman, nearly as precipitous as the chasm that separates MPS from the horrors of "MIF"—serving tea "Milk in First," which as Evelyn Waugh remarks in his contribution to Noblesse Oblige is "not normally done in the drawing room" and hence the mark of the servant class, not the swells. (Readers naïve enough to think that young Hitchens's mastery of the Marxian dialectic would have armored his indifference should consult his 2008 Vanity Fair paean to "The Eton Empire," in which, having been taken for an Old Etonian by the writer Julian Barnes, he records a "flush of guilty pleasure.") George Orwell, who disagreed with Waugh on many topics, was unbendingly orthodox on the makings of "A Nice Cup of Tea," specifying "one should pour tea into the cup first." But then Orwell really was an Etonian.

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