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by Christopher Hitchens

More books on Death

(LT Review)

Death does not become him — or writing about death anyway. This is a slim volume of Hitch’s last Vanity Fair columns about the progress of his cancer, bulked out with an introduction by Graydon Carter, his editor, and a postscript by Carol Blue, his wife. Both are excellent — Graydon writing about “his saucy fearlessness” and being a bit saucy himself, reminding readers that Hitch had an affair with Anna Wintour “back when he was young and relatively fragrant”. ­Graydon claims “everlasting credit” for hiring Hitch when he became editor of Vanity Fair in 1992 and he is right to do so: the magazine now has a gaping hole where Hitch used to be, and Graydon himself might be the person to fill it. He has the right sort of mischievous wit.

But Hitch, inevitably, is not at his best. You will say: “Well, what do you expect, given that he was having chemo, throwing up, losing his voice, undergoing ­hideous ‘procedures’ all the time he was writing.” But, actually, that’s not what I mean. Death does not become him because it is too personal a subject. He always had a fear of self-indulgence and made a note to himself at the beginning: “Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centred.” But how can you write about dying without being self-centred? His fierce and fearless rationalism — so cherishable in other contexts — somehow doesn’t work with death.

He writes brilliantly about the initial diagnosis, when he collapsed in his New York hotel room on June 8, 2010, and had to summon the emergency services: “Now that I view the scene in retrospect, I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” The medics sorted out his heart and lungs so that he was able to fulfil two speaking engagements that night (he was just embarking on a book publicity tour), but he was soon back in hospital, the land of the sick.

“The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism… 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 country has a ­language of its own — a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication — as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck.” The ­fingers in his neck detected a palpable tumour, and led to the diagnosis of stage-four oesophageal cancer — “and there is no stage five”. His father had also died of oesophageal cancer, but he was 79 and Hitch was only 62. “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.”

Once Hitch’s cancer became public knowledge, armies of religious fundamentalists wrote to tell him either that he was being punished for his atheist polemic, God Is Not Great, or that they were praying for him. There was even an Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day on ­September 20, 2010. As an atheist, Hitch must have been relieved that it didn’t work — as a patient, perhaps not so much.

He says a book of cancer etiquette is badly needed. He hates any talk of a ­“battle” against cancer, and is depressed by friends who tell him, “If anyone can beat this, you can.” He also resents all the unsolicited advice and weirdo diets that people send him and is cheered when a Native American friend tells him that everyone she knew who had resorted to tribal remedies had died almost immediately. He says that stories about people who had other forms of cancer and survived are of no interest at all. He is only interested in stage-four metastasised oesophageal cancer — “So, if your own first- or secondhand tale is about some other organs, you might want to consider telling it sparingly.” And he is shaken to the core by a friend asking if he’s afraid he’ll never see England again. That was precisely what he was afraid of but, “I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. ‘I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too.’ ”

He writes poignantly about losing his voice and equates it to losing part of his personality. “To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me… And ­timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now, if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way.”

With the loss of his voice comes, inevitably, a loss of brio and the last columns, in which he describes his torturous treatments, are almost too painful to read. One wonders why the ­doctors put him through it, when all agreed there was no hope of a cure. He died on December 15, 2011, and by then he must have been ready to go.

Hitchens was a truly great writer, but Mortality is not a great book. He was too much a public figure, too conscious of the need to keep up a brave front, too determined not to betray weakness or doubt. But weakness and doubt are what dying is all about. Journalists are always castigated for asking the question “How do you feel?”, but it’s precisely the question you want answered when reading about death.

For a proper taste of him, read his autobiography, Hitch-22, or Letters to a Young Contrarian. And if you want a seriously good book about dying, read Tom Lubbock’s Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.

Alive to the moment Christopher Hitchens’s essays poignantly show just how energetically he was writing until his death. Included in the collection are his notes, among them reminders to look at certain books, and snippets he intended for future use, some of which are starkly moving. ‘Ordinary expressions like expiration date,’ he muses at one point. ‘Will I outlive my Amex? My driver’s licence? People say — I’m in town on Friday: will you be around? What a question!’

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