Saturday, 20 August 2011

Amis and Hitchens.

'Mmm yes, we're really great, shnrah, chumble'
I just read Martin Amis's article about his mate Christopher Hitchens, written I think on the occasion of Hitchen's cancer diagnosis.I hate to be cold but it struck me as pretentious. Unlike Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, whose friendship was of lasting literary interest, Martin and Christopher have been flattered by privilege and modern celebrity into thinking themselves into near gods.  It's material for a great novel, ironically. It's the tragedy of a son unable to compete with his great novelist father, displacing him by idolizing a thundering bore. The bore sadly, is now seriously ill, adding pathos to the story. While Amis is the product of a great but unpushy father, Christopher Hitchens is the product of an ordinary but pushy Mum.  ('If there's going to be an upper class...Christopher's going to be in it'.)So both Amis and Hitchen have achieved fame with help, accompanied by the sound of doors swinging open, and they accept each others' right to be feted unquestioningly. Perhaps that's why the Amis tribute is horribly overblown for the ordinariness of what he describes.  As he starts his paragraphs he invokes the Gods and the titans of the literary world, only to end each time with something quite funny Hitchens said at a dinner party.

"You're going to hate us for this."
And Christopher said, "We hate you already."
Yeah, it's funny,  but no funnier than any put-down overheard in any pub, any day of the week.  Nor do you have to be in a tavern in a university town, a packed Wetherspoons before a QPR match would do.

"Christopher and His Kind runs the title of one of Isherwood's famous memoirs. And yet this Christopher doesn't have a kind"

So why reference the book at all?  He might just as well say: John Keats once wrote 'Much have I traveled in the realms of gold' And yet my friend John Smith hates traveling. His main thesis is unconsciously daft.  He notes that Nabokov once mocked his own shortcomings in conversation with the phrase: 

'"I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child."
This is in contrast to his friend Christopher, says Amis.
'He writes like a distinguished author'
'He speaks like a genius.'
'He thinks like a child.'

To anyone not in his thrall,  this simply means Hitchens is a grandiloquent idiot, a man who covers egotistical simplicity with a show of book-learning. Amis reveres the effortless fluency of Hitchen's speech, but then goes on to undermine the point by quoting one this great witticisms, including its clumsy mid-sentence revision.

"Don't forget the miseries of others," said Christopher. "Don't forget the languid contemplation of the miseries of others."

Why did he revise the point to include 'languid'? This reveals that Hitchen's is maybe not after all,

"one of the most terrifying rhetoricians the world has seen"

 but, tragi-comically, someone who is straining to fulfill the role for his friend. There's further unintentional mirth  (or as Amis and Hitchens would call it Sophoclean Irony) in Amis's non-literary compliments.

"One evening, close to 40 years ago, I said: "I know you despise all sports – but how about a game of chess?" Looking mildly puzzled and amused, he joined me over the 64 squares. Two things soon emerged. First, he showed no combative will, he offered no resistance (because this was play, you see, and earnest is all that really matters). Second, he showed an endearing disregard for common sense."

Or as I would put it,  Hitchens is shit at chess. Here's another of Hitchen's being a legend of the quip.

"I can't understand a word you're saying."
"I'm not in the least surprised," 
said Christopher, and moved on."

While I'm sure Nabokov couldn't have competed, it's not really worth the build up Amis gives it. It's OK as a recovery tactic after you've just talked drunken rubbish, but eulogy material? To get an idea of the Olympian feats of pretension these two are capable of in their pomp, consider this anecdote.  The punchline I have already given away so you can immerse yourself in every gloopy detail of self-regard

"In the summer of 1986, in Cape Cod, and during subsequent summers, I used to play a set of tennis every other day with the historian Robert Jay Lifton. I was reading, and then re-reading, his latest and most celebrated book, The Nazi Doctors; so, on Monday, during changeovers, we would talk about the chapter "Sterilisation and the Nazi Biomedical Vision"; on Wednesday, "'Wild Euthanasia': The Doctors Take Over"; on Friday, "The Auschwitz Institution"; on Sunday, "Killing with Syringes: Phenol Injections"; and so on. One afternoon, Christopher, whose family was staying with mine on Horseleech Pond, was due to show up at the court, after a heavy lunch in nearby Wellfleet, to be introduced to Bob (and to be driven back to the pond-front house). He arrived, much gratified by having come so far on foot: three or four miles – one of the greatest physical feats of his adult life. It was set point. Bob served, approached the net, and wrongfootingly dispatched my attempted pass. Now Bob was, and is, 23 years my senior; and the score was 6-0. I could, I suppose, plead preoccupation: that summer I was wondering (with eerie detachment) whether I had it in me to write a novel that dealt with the Holocaust. Christopher knew about this, and he knew about my qualms.Elatedly towelling himself down, Bob said, "You know, there are so few areas of transcendence left to us. Sports. Sex. Art … "
"Don't forget the miseries of others," said Christopher. "Don't forget the languid contemplation of the miseries of others.""

The pond-front house, wrong-footing pass and nearby Wellfleet are so absurdly irrelevant to the actual story that it makes you giggle at the whole poncy business. You could argue these details are reminders of good times spent with Christopher,  were it not for the fact that Christopher wasn't present.  He is a comedy character wheezing in at the end to misdeliver a pay off line. Were it not for Amis's obvious love of his subject, you'd wonder if Amis is simply using him to show off his own powers. 

"Christopher's personal devil is God, or rather organised religion, or rather the human "desire to worship and obey"."

So is God Christopher's personal devil or did he just want to start a sentence by saying something clever?  Perhaps we are not supposed to be reading it at all, this is just another performance by Amis, for Hitchens.

"Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now."

Christ on a bike. The personal address is touching, and I'm sure Hitch is a great guy to be around, but per-leaase, save it for the funeral. 


Chris Jennings said...

Excellent post - honest, eloquent and funny - which would compete with any similar article in the broadsheets. I do hope you keep up this blog as I think you are an extremely good writer. I'd like to see more lit-crit type posts, to be honest.

Best wishes.

Dom Gettins said...

Thank you, Chris. I'm pathetically appreciative of any compliment.