Book club: Arguably

Finbarr Bermingham heralds Hitch's engrossing collection of essays


Christopher Hitchens

Atlantic Books, 2012

Self-styled contrarian Christopher Hitchens once told an interviewer that he couldn't go through a day without having "three fully blown arguments". It's a quirk that permeates his professional life too. The Vatican turned to him in their search for a Devil's advocate to oppose the beatification of Mother Teresa (whom Hitchens has billed "the Ghoul of Calcutta"). Many of his fans were surprised when the ex-Trotskyist both lent his support to the war in Iraq and argued vehemently in its favour. He has, for many years, been the poster boy of contemporary atheism (although he would prefer the term "antitheist"), and has expelled much effort and many vitriolic words against the creeds of the world.

His new book, then, couldn't have been more appropriately named. Arguably is a compilation of essays written and published over a period spanning more than a decade, and draws wonderfully from his simultaneous careers as a literary critic, political writer and social commentator.

Arguably goes some way toward challenging the grandiloquent nuisance persona often ascribed to Hitchens in the mainstream media. Sure, he likes a scrap, but there are few who could hold their own over such a huge range of subject matter in such well-reasoned, methodical fashion. Hitchens is as equally at home extolling the virtues of Philip Larkin as he is picking apart the sociological problems facing Tunisia. Helpfully for fans of focus, the book is divided into self-explanatory chapters. All American, for instance, contains extended musings on figures from Hitchens' adopted home - his evaluation of the effects of JFK's infrequently reported medical condition on his presidency is particularly enlightening. Eclectic Affinities is a collection of sketches on characters he has felt some loose affiliation with, many through his university days in Cambridge (his essay on Sir Isaac Newton is hilarious).

Offshore Accounts collects the best of Hitchens' foreign reporting and opinion, and it's here that the reader gets to understand the staggering amount of research that goes into his work, and the level of access he has to notorious figures and places. In Hugo Boss, he recounts his time spent flying around Venezuela by helicopter as a guest of Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez. North Korea: a Nation of Racist Dwarves draws from his experiences in the reclusive state around the turn of the century. In Childhood's End, he relates segments of his conversations with members of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.

Christopher Hitchens has a photographic memory. He is a prolific reader and writer. He has spoken on occasion of his disregard for regular sleeping patterns, preferring instead to while the wee hours away on digesting or producing reams of text. It's a lifestyle which may not have lent itself to good health, but which has given him an incomparable ability to pull together influences, sources, quotes and opinions from obscure manuscripts and forgotten situations. It's this bedrock of knowledge (in which there are very few cracks) which helps knit these disparate essays together. The tone throughout is authoritative yet humorous. Hitchens is unafraid to ruffle feathers, but is loathe to do so unless he has a well conceived argument, and plenty of ammunition.

At the time of writing, Hitchens, who is seriously ill with stage four oesophageal cancer, had just cancelled a series of appearances, including one with Stephen Fry and an address to the Atheist Alliance of America, due to a deterioration in his condition. Arguably, then, may end up as his epitaph, and there could be no better tribute to a man who has been a bulwark of intellectuality and journalistic integrity when many of his peers have been determined to drag his profession's name through the mud.