I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ writing in the columns and articles he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine. This had two effects – one, it made me realise that Vanity Fair was much more than just a fashion magazine, and two, it made me a fan of Hitchen’s writing.
Hitchens was a talented journalist, initially in Britain and then America. He was a prolific writer, not only of columns, but also of numerous biographies (ranging from Mother Teresa to the Clintons) and a controversial bestseller, god is not Great (I’ve not read it yet but will soon), in which he tackles the sensitive subject of religion. His memoir, Hitch-22, was also a bestseller.
Hitchens died in 2011 of oesophageal cancer and Mortality is the short book that he wrote as he was dying. It is a reflection of his thoughts about cancer and death, yet it is never morbid, never self-pitying. There is an underlying chronological order to the text, however this is not account of what-his-cancer-did-next. He writes about religion, about pain, the side-effects of chemo, the knowledge that he might lose his voice – and he was such a vocal man, both literally and through his writings – and many other issues he encountered along the way.
He refers to cancer as being another land, where the cancer patient has leave his old domicile and move to a new country:
The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism.
He refers to the image that is so often brought up with cancer – people don’t have cancer, they battle cancer – ‘you can beat this‘. He tells, however, that while sitting having chemo dripping into his arm, he felt merely ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water‘.
He manages to look at his life with such objectivity that I found the book a joy to read. For example, he says:
The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism…while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.
I felt sad reading the book, knowing that he was doing to die, but I never felt pity for him. The last chapter is made up of fragmentary jottings that were left unfinished at the time of his death and these, for me, are the most poignant, as they are private insights into a dying man’s thoughts.
Both the foreword and the afterword paint a picture of a man greatly liked and highly respected as an intellect.
In the foreword, Graydon Carter (present editor of Vanity Fair) says Hitchens was, “a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing and, above all, for conversation.”
Carter tells of Hitchen’s enthusiasm when writing for Vanity Fair – how Carter persuaded him to go on a course of self-improvement, which included dental treatment and a ‘sack, back and crack’. Apparently he paled when Carter explained what that was, yet agreed, saying “In for a penny…” (in case you don’t know, it is a wax to remove hair from the back and the other nether regions).
The afterword is written by his wife, Carol Blue, and she write about his larger than life personality, even when he had cancer – amongst others, how he organised a huge family gathering in Toronto for Thanksgiving even when he was sick from the effects of chemo. She tells us that his charisma never left him, his ‘artful conversation’ never ceased. She also writes, however, with the wistful tone of being the one who got left behind.
I miss his perfect voice…I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of ‘his morning voice’…his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night.
I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send when we sat in different rooms…and when he was on the road.
Mortality was a quick read but I found it to be an intensely personal book at the end of which I felt I privileged to have read it.