Christopher Hitchens is truly sui generis: a popular television pundit, a raconteur par excellence, an unpredictable analyst of contemporary politics, a foreign reporter who has hit almost every hot spot in the past two decades, a confirmed atheist, and — perhaps above all — a gifted writer and essayist.
At one time, Hitchens was well known as a man of the political Left, an ally of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and Edward Said. Although he had already strayed from his early orthodox Trotskyist roots, his perspective was still well within the confines of acceptable leftism and his columns in The Nation were de rigueur for those looking for a smart take on issues from that point of view. Then came 9/11, and, like many others, Hitchens began to rethink many of his old assumptions. He soon emerged as a fierce defender of the invasion of Iraq even if carried out by George W. Bush. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was consistent with his lifelong commitment to anti-fascism.
Now, Hitchens, who was born and raised in Britain, gives us an entertaining and riveting memoir. His father, whom he always called “The Commander,” was an officer in the Royal Navy during World War II. In his first and most personally moving chapter, Hitchens writes about his mother, Yvonne, who committed suicide when he was 24. It wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he learned she had been born Jewish, a fact that she had hidden from the family. Although baptized in the Church of England, Hitchens acknowledges that by Jewish law he is a member of the “tribe.” But, as an atheist, he has let this have little impact on his religious identity. In any case, he tells us, for him “the sage Jews are those who have put religion behind them and become in so many societies the leaven of the secular and the atheist.”
At the age of eight, Christopher was sent off to boarding school. As Yvonne told her husband, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it.” Fortunately for Hitchens, the very good education he would later receive at the Leys School in Cambridge and at Oxford introduced him to literature, philosophy, and grand theory. But, in addition to his studies, by the time he arrived at Oxford he was leading a “double life”: a full-fledged socialist militant, secretly living as an aristocrat on the side. Writes Hitchens, “I was determined as far as I could to have it both ways.” He would go from giving out Trotskyist pamphlets at factory gates and joining picket lines, to an evening out with the other set — “confident young men who owned fast cars, who had ‘rooms’ rather than a room, who wore waistcoats and cravats and drank wine and liqueurs instead of beer,” part of the “more gorgeous and seductive Oxford” his revolutionary comrades studiously avoided.
Some of his later confidence came from early revelations while at school not only that those he regarded as heroes were only human, but also that he already knew as much as they did. “Was it possible,” he writes, “that the class of celebrated ‘experts’ were all like this, that there was an academic kingdom of Oz where it was only pretended that the authorities were absolute?” He was to learn, he writes, after being up close with major thinkers and world leaders, of how “ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country.” This realization would give him the confidence to become the celebrity iconoclast we know him as today.