This is the portrait of Christopher Hitchens as sketched by his close friend, Graydon Carter, in the Forword to Hitchens’ last book, Mortality, It goes part of the way to articulating why the essayist, author and orator, became one of the most popular, if contentious, literary figures of our modern times. And why a lucky few so cherished invitations to one of his legendary dinners “at a table crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, university students…when he would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny 20 minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and joke: ‘How good it is to be us’.”
Mortality is a collection of seven essays Hitchens wrote in the period between he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and his death in December 2011. They are an eloquent, wry, shrewd observation about the process of death and the “inevitable awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and it neighbours.”
These aren’t necessarily his best writing but they are undoubtedly amongst the most moving. Even his failing health did not that soften that sharp, intellect and scathing wit. His clinical observations of the ravages caused to his body by both disease and treatment are both horrifying but enlightening.
From diagnosis to his death, the speed of the physical attack on his body was frightening. Almost overnight, Hitchens found himself transported from elite, cosmopolitan New York to “sick country” where: “Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humour is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.”
The book is completely devoid of sentimentality. He dismisses whining about his fate, or descending into rage, as “boring”. But he admits to being overwhelmed by “the gnawing sense of waste” for all those experiences he would now miss like his children growing up or being asked to write the obituaries of “elderly villains” like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger.
Hitchens has been a giant on the literary scene for decades and a contributing editor to some of the most respected and influential magazines in the world, most notably Vanity Fair. He has written numerous books including biographies of George Orwell, Mother Teresa and Richard Nixon and his memoir, Hitch 22, was an international best-seller. But he was also an unrivaled force as an orator whose resonating voice was both beautiful and a dangerous weapon. Like Leonard Cohen (whose CDs well-wishers inundated him with) Hitchens’ words are indissoluble from, his voice. The thread of his sorrow at losing this faculty weaves through the narrative sometimes more visceral than his thoughts of death.
Mortality is a slight book, just 104 pages including the Forword and Afterword (in the print version of the book, somehow I could not imagine reading it on the Kindle).
Perhaps the most poignant part is the final chapter which consists solely of notes and jottings which Hitchens had left strewn about his home and tucked away in books. Some are clearly fragments of a longer line of thought: “Tragedy? Wrong word. Hegel versus the Greeks. Others just fleeting observations: “Misery of seeing oneself on old videos or You Tubes.”
His wife Carol Blue, who wrote the Afterword to the book, described how months after his death she would pick up a book and find one of the notes. “Time after time,” she says, “Christopher has the last word.”
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens is published by Allen and Unwin.