There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in . . .
— Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory
Something I owe to the soil that grew —
More to the life that fed —
But most to Allah who gave me two
Separate sides to my head.
— Rudyard Kipling: Kim
I OF COURSE do not believe that it is “Allah” who determines these things. (Salman Rushdie, commenting on my book god Is Not Great, remarked rather mordantly that the chief problem with its title was a lack of economy: that it was in other words exactly one word too long.)
But whatever one’s ontology may be, it will always seem tempting to believe that everything must have a first cause or, if nothing quite as grand as that, at the very least a definite beginning. And on that point I have no vagueness or indecision. I do know a little of how I came to be in two minds. And this is how it begins with me:
I am standing on a ferry-boat that is crossing a lovely harbor. I have since learned many versions and variations of the word “blue,” but let’s say that a brilliant if slightly harsh sunshine illuminates a cerulean sky-vault and an azure sea and also limns the way in which these two textures collide and reflect. The resulting tinge of green is in lambent contrast with the darker vegetation on the hillsides and makes an almost blinding combination when, allied with those discrepant yet melding blues, it hits the white buildings that reach down to the edge of the water. As a flash of drama and beauty and seascape and landscape, it’s as good an inaugural memory as one could wish.
Since this little voyage is occurring in about 1952 and I have been born in 1949, I have no means of appreciating that this is the Grand Harbor at Valletta, the capital of the tiny island-state of Malta and one of the finest Baroque and Renaissance cities of Europe. A jewel set in the sea between Sicily and Libya, it has been for centuries a place of the two-edged sword between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Its population is so overwhelmingly Roman Catholic that there are, within the walled city, a great plethora of ornate churches, the cathedral being decorated by the murals of Caravaggio himself, that seductive votary of the higher wickedness. The island withstood one of the longest Turkish sieges in the history of “Christendom.” But the Maltese tongue is a dialect version of the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb and is the only Semitic language to be written in a Latin script. If you happen to attend a Maltese Catholic church during Mass, you will see the priest raising the Communion Host and calling on “Allah,” because this after all is the local word for “god.” My first memory, in other words, is of a ragged and jagged, but nonetheless permeable and charming, frontier between two cultures and civilizations.
I am, at this stage, far too secure and confident to register anything of the kind. (If I speak a few phrases of Maltese, it is not with a view to becoming bilingual or multicultural but in order to address my priest-ridden nannies and the kitchen maids with their huge broods of children. This was the place where I first learned to see the picture of Catholicism as one of plump shepherds and lean sheep.) * Malta is effectively a British colony — its most heroic recent chapter the withstanding of a hysterical aerial bombardment by Hitler and Mussolini — and it has remained a solid possession of the Royal Navy, in which my father proudly serves, ever since the Napoleonic Wars. Much more to the immediate point, I am standing on the deck of this vessel in company with my mother, who holds my hand when I desire it and also lets me scamper off to explore if I insist.
* Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of “the flock.”
So, all things being considered, not too shaky a start. I am well-dressed and well-fed, with a full head of hair and a slender waist, and operating in a context of startling architectural and natural beauty, and full of brio and self-confidence, and on a boat in the company of a beautiful woman who loves me.
I didn’t call her by this name at the time, but “Yvonne” is the echo with which I most piercingly and yearningly recall her memory to me. After all, it was her name, and it was what her friends called her, and my shell-like ear detected quite early on a difference between this and the various comfortable Nancys and Joans and Ethels and Marjories who — sterling types all — tended to be the spouses and helpmeets of my father’s brother-officers. Yvonne . A bit of class there: a bit of style. A touch or dash of garlic and olive and rosemary to sweeten the good old plain English loaf from which, the fact must be faced, I was also sliced. But more of this when I come to Commander Hitchens. I mustn’t pretend to remember more than I really do, but I am very aware that it makes a great difference to have had, in early life, a passionate lady in one’s own corner.
For example, noticing that I had skipped the baby-talk stage and gone straight to speaking in complete sentences (even if sometimes derivative ones such as, according to family legend, “Let’s all go and have a drink at the club”), she sat me down one day and produced an elementary phonetic reading-book, or what used to be known to the humble as “a speller.” This concerned the tedious adventures of a woodland elf or goblin called Lob-agob (his name helpfully subdivided in this way) but, by the time I was done with it, I was committed for life to having some sort of reading matter within reach at all times, and was always to be ahead of my class in reading-age.
By this period, however, our family had left Malta and been posted to the much more austere surroundings of Rosyth, another naval base on the east coast of Scotland. I think Malta may have been a sort of high point for Yvonne: all British people were a cut above the rest in a semicolony and there was that club for cocktails and even the chance of some local “help.” Not that she longed to wallow in idleness but, having endured a girlhood of scarcity, slump, and then war, she couldn’t have minded a bit of color and Mediterranean dash and may well have felt she’d earned it. (On our way back from Malta we stopped for a few hours at Nice: her and my first taste of the Riviera. I remember how happy she looked.) The grayness and drabness of “married quarters” in drizzle-flogged Fifeshire must have hit her quite hard.
But she and my father had first been thrown together precisely because of drizzle and austerity, and the grim, grinding war against the Nazis. He, a career Navy man, had been based at Scapa Flow, the huge, cold-water sound in the Orkney Islands which helped establish and maintain British control over the North Sea. She was a volunteer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service or, in the parlance of the day, a “Wren.” (My most cherished photograph of her shows her in uniform.) After a short wartime courtship they had been married in early April 1945, not long before Adolf Hitler had shoved a gun into his own (apparently halitosis-reeking) mouth. One young and eager girl from a broken Jewish home in Liverpool, wed to one man twelve years her senior from a sternly united if somewhat repressed Baptist family in Portsmouth. Wartime was certainly full of such improvised unions, in which probably both at first counted themselves fortunate, but I know for a fact that while my father never stopped considering himself lucky, my mother soon ceased to do so. She also decided, for a reason that I believe I can guess, to engage in the not-so-small deception of not mentioning to anyone in the Hitchens family that she was of Jewish descent.
She herself had wanted to “pass” as English after noticing some slight unpleasantness being visited on my grandmother, who in the 1930s toiled in the millinery business. And Yvonne could pass, too, as a light brunette with hazel-ish eyes and (always to my fancy and imagination) a “French” aspect. But more to the point, I now feel sure, she did not want either me or my brother to be taxed with die Judenfrage — the Jewish question. What I do not know is quite what this concealment or reticence cost her. What I can tell you something about is what it meant for me.
The paradox was this: in postwar Britain as in Britain at all other times, there was only one tried and tested form of social mobility. The firstborn son (at least) had to be educated at a private school, with an eventual view to attending a decent university. But school fees were high, and the shoals of class and accent and social position somewhat difficult for first-timers to navigate. Neither of my parents had been to college. One of my earliest coherent memories is of sitting in my pajamas at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping on a domestic argument. It was an easy enough one to follow. Yvonne wanted me to go to a fee-paying school. My father — “The Commander” as we sometimes ironically and affectionately called him — made the heavy but obvious objection that it was well beyond our means. Yvonne was having none of this. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country,” she stated with decision, “then Christopher is going to be in it.” I may not have the words exactly right — could she have said “ruling class” or “Establishment,” terms that would then have been opaque to me? — but the purport was very clear. And, from my hidden seat in the gallery, I silently applauded. Thus a further paradox discloses itself: my mother was much less British than my father but wanted above all for me to be an English...
Revue de presse
"In this frank, often wickedly funny account, Hitchens traces his evolution as a fiercely independent thinker and enemy of people who are convinced of their absolute certainty ... Revealing and riveting."―Kirkus Review
"The most erudite and astute political and social commentator of this era has written a memoir that not only give the reader a view of the man behind the words but also a perceptive look at society over the past decades. Hitchens fascinates with the life he has lived and observed and, as always, relates his story with precision and consideration."―Bill Cusamano, Nicola's Books
"Hitch is as Hitch does, and he's not apologizing to anyone."―Drew Toal, Time Out New York
"[H]e has so many great quotes and quotables . . . that one cannot read his latest masterpiece for having to stop, find a pencil and page stickers in order to underline and signify his many remarks, each greater than the other."―Liz Smith, wowOwow.com
"Few writers can match his cerebral pyrotechnics. Fewer still can emulate his punch as an intellectual character assassin. It is hard not to admire the sheer virtuosity of his prose ... With Hitchens one simply goes along for the ride. The destination hardly matters."―Ed Luce, The Financial Times
"[D]electable, sassy fun . . . this book is intelligent and humane . . . Hitch-22 reminded me why I love the author of The Missionary Position, his fervent slapping of Mother Teresa, and his book about the war crimes of Henry Kissinger. Hitchens takes no prisoners, not even himself."―Mark Oppenheimer, The New Haven Review
"After reading Hitch-22, the only thing you can be sure of is that this flawed knight will not breathe contentedly unless he has a dragon to slay."―Ariel Gonzales, The Miami Herald
"... a fat and juicy memoir of a fat and juicy life."―Diana McLellan, The Washington Post
" ... a complex portrait of a public intellectual."―Alexandra Alter, The Wall Street Journal
"[An] extraordinary memoir by a truly astonishing figure of our literary age . . . This is among the most awaited books of the season, and while it confounds, misleads, exasperates and, on occasion, even bores, it also entertains to an almost shocking degree and illuminates almost as much. I laughed out loud - raucously and continuously - reading this book."―Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
"Hitch-22 is among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one's friends . . . I've ever read. The business and pleasure sides of Mr. Hitchens's personality can make him seem, whether you agree with him or not, among the most purely alive people on the planet."―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"If you find yourself in the midst of Christopher Hitchens's memoir and he hasn't said something to anger, inspire, or at least annoy you, wait a few pages. More the account of an intellectual and political odyssey than a conventional autobiography, HITCH-22 chronicles the critic-journalist-activist's often storm-tossed journey across the ideological spectrum. What makes it a most rewarding trip is that he's a traveling companion with a vigorous mind and a gift for sparkling prose."―www.bookreporter.com
"Whether he's dodging bullets in Sarajevo, dissing Bill Clinton, (with whom he says he shared a girlfriend at Oxford) or explaining his switch from leftist to Iraq war supporter, this foreign correspondent, pundit, and bon vivant makes for an enlightening companion. Give HITCH 22 an 11 out of 10 for smarts, then double it for entertainment value."―Kyle Smith, People Magazine
"a fascinating, absorbing book: the rare contemporary memoir that is the record of a life of true accomplishment and authentic adventure . . . Htitchens is bravely, or at least defiantly, candid about qualities his detractors might use to undermine or perhaps explain his love of war and his rabid hatred for religious people"―Lee Seigel, The New York Observer
"[Hitchens] indulges in both an endearing critical self-examniation and an action-packed adventure story."―The New Haven Advocate
"Christopher Hitchens may long to be a cogent man of reason, and he can certainly be a pitiless adversary. But he knows there are two sides to any decent match, and it's touching, in HITCH-22, to see how often he'll race to the other side of the court to return his own serve. Which may explain why, though he tries to be difficult, he's so hard to dislike."―The New York Times Book Review
"At its heart, Hitch-22 is a celebration of literature and a denunciation of idleness. "Hitchens is inarguably a man of action: He pursues history as it happens . . . eloquent, enlightening, and entertaining."―Gregg LaGambina, The Onion's AV Club
Hitchens expresses ambivalence about the term "public intellectual" but, as "Hitch-22" demonstrates, it suits him. The disputatious bon vivant is alive on the page, behind the speaker's podium and in "unglamorous houses on off-peak cable TV."―The Sunday Oregonian
Christopher Hitchens' memoir has the same nerve and frankness that first made me admire him . . . His perspective on becoming an American citizen is refreshing at a time when it's easy to become jaded about our role in the world.―Mark Rahner, The Seattle Times
"With the possible exception of Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd's, Christopher Hitchens' marvelous byline is the most archly kinetic in current-day American letters. Every article, review and essay has the romantic whiff of a durable vintage. You might disagree with him. You might question his motives. But not for a second will you ever be bored . . . goes on to call the memoir cunning, illuminating . . . Being able to shape-change, shed skins, sit on the hillside overlooking suburbia like a coyote, Hitchens represents a dying breed of public intellectual whose voice matters precisely because it can't be easily pigeonholed or ignored."―Douglas Brinkley, The Los Angeles Times
"One of the most engaging, exciting books I've read in years . . . The writing is lovely - introduction aside, which threatens early onset pretentia - Hitchens' cold-eyed evaluation of his younger self feels honest. To be sure, "Hitch 22'' is often a chronicle of Hitchens' best efforts. He teaches us that "cheap booze is false economy'' and reveals a youth engaged in boarding school homosexuality. But thankfully, Hitchens' efforts, friends, and close calls are rendered wonderfully in this strange book. Ultimately, "Hitch 22'' is about cultivating and maintaining one's intellectual integrity. As Hitchens writes, "[I]t is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think.''. . . But memoir generates pleasure through voice and sensibility, not through comprehensiveness. Nobody ever said self-awareness must lead to self-revelation, and even if you don't like what Hitchens thinks, it's easy to admire how he thinks."―Michael Washbum, The Boston Globe
"When the colorful, prolific journalist shares a tender memory, he quickly converts it into a larger observation about politics, always for him the most crucial sphere of moral and intellectual life."―The New York Times Book Review
"Hitchens offers up surprising revelations about the methods behind his madness as one of the world's most beloved and often hated scribes . . . bold and brassy Hitchens characteristically treats himself as the subject he knows best."―The Philadelphia City Paper
"Reading Hitch-22, his fascinating memoir of a career in combat journalism (both literal and figurative), one gets a sense that those looking for that tragic moment when a reliable man of the left became a fellow traveler of the right are asking the wrong question. On the big political issues that have long animated him-Middle Eastern politics, the dangers of religious messianism-his views have been surprisingly constant."―Michael C. Moynihan, Reason Magazine