I fall in love pretty easily. With writers. With writing. Recommend a good book to me and I will then read everything by that author. Often I am disappointed. I recently returned The Burgess Brothers to the library, unread after p.95. The novel by Elizabeth Strout, whose Olive Kittredge was breathtaking, was overpopulated with characters I cared not a wit for. Nicole Krauss’ Great House left me similarly meh, despite my certainty that The History of Love, her first, might be one of the greatest novels ever.
I have longer-term relationships with columnists, marriages of the convenience of regular delivery. I read Dan Shaughnessy on sports religiously, and Joe Fitzgerald and the art, theater, dance, film and television critics at both local papers. But it is Christopher Hitchens who I have loved longer and more deeply than all others. Vanity Fair, like Spy Magazine, was a decades-long addiction, and Hitchens’ cultural criticism was the rock in the crackpipe.
He wrote deliberately provocative and often inflammatory pieces, like “Bring the Pope to Justice,” calling for the arrest of newly-installed Pope Benedict XVI; “Widow of Opportunity,” which characterized Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as “savvy, manipulative, disingenuous—and lacking the class for which she was so admired,” and “Mommie Dearest,” his denunciation of Mother Teresa (MOTHER TERESA!!) as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” Oh my.
I had never read any of Hitchens’ books, despite my idolatry–not his full-length discourse on Mother Teresa nor his writings on organized religion and atheism, topics on which I share Hitchens’ perspective, if not passion–until Mortality, a slim memoir compiled from a series of already-published columns, and written after his diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
An early passage:
“However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound…
In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”
After reading these and more of Hitchens’ almost crystalline words, I wondered aloud how I ever thought I could write. A kind friend answered, “We have our own words. As someone once said to me, if you think you can write like Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward Angel), quit now.”
I was comforted. And then I read this, on writing, from Mortality:
“Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.”
It’s like he was talking to me, an experience that Hitchens heard described often by his readers, and one he most appreciated.
After I had finished Mortality, I searched my iBooks account for something new, and downloaded a sample of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. I find McEwan a mixed bag–I never finished Atonement, not because I did not love Part I, more because I did not need a Part II, and some of his short stories are downright disturbing–but I always give him another chance. As I swiped through the opening pages, there was McEwan’s dedication:
To Christopher Hitchens
The message from the universe seems clear. Find my own voice.