Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Martin Amis, Paris 1979
I admired Christopher Hitchens, as did even those who came to disagree with him after 9/11. There is, in Martin Amis's Experience, a photo of Amis, Fenton and Hitch together, three brilliant people, all radical in their ways, all glamorous, all somewhat Byronic, all exactly my age. The photograph is 1979, the year my first book came out.
For someone like me they were unattainable larger-than-life figures, supremely educated (Hitchens left Oxford with a Third, like Auden), privileged, with several heads start. I considered Fenton - and still do - the most gifted, most princely English-language poet of the latter end of the twentieth century, as well as a sharp writer on theatre, not to mention his background as foreign correspondent in Vietnam. Amis was not only the major force in fiction but, inventive and dominant, he more or less 'named' the Martian poets, more of my exact contemporaries. Hitchens? I knew less of him then of the other two, but maybe only because he entered public consciousness, or my public consciousness at any rate, later than they did.
The obituaries today all recognised the loss of an important figure. The comparison with Orwell was recalled and confirmed. For me, he was as much Swift as Orwell. The fierceness, passion and sheer display of his polemic was charged with Swift's saaeva indignatio, that savage indignation inherited from Juvenal. His was a bigger world than Orwell's, one less concerned with England, English identity, and English history.
Hitchens was essentially a moral writer who grounded his morality in literature as well as in history, philosophy, and politics. That is to say he 'heard' language for what it is, not just as a polemical tool. The morality is in the style. A moral writer remains a moral writer even if his earlier admirers turn away from him or he turns away from them. His later opinion may be different from the earlier but the moral force is the same, in fact stronger as the style in which it is asserted develops. What made his so thrilling was his roundedness: his remarkable knowledge and memory of books, of poems, of stories, anecdotes. He drank and smoked and argued. Eloquent? He was thunderously eloquent.
Some lines of Martin Bell's in his 'Ode to Groucho' seem appropriate, not because they describe Hitchens but because they point to his world, his style:
All the shining rebels
(Prometheus, of course, and that old pauper
Refusing cake from Marie Antoinette,
And Baudelaire's fanatical toilette,
And Rimbaud, striding off the Africa,
And Auden, scowling at a cigarette...)
Striding off, scowling and shining. Then gone.