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Reviewed: Unhitched - the Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour

George Eaton reviews an embittered, polemical take on the late writer's life.

Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens
Richard Seymour
Verso, 160pp, £9.99

With the defendant “in absentia”, as Richard Seymour phrases it, there are some who will deem this book to be in poor taste. But Christopher Hitchens, who rightly regarded the injunction not to “speak ill of the dead” as an invitation to hypocrisy, would not have been one of them. For Hitchens, it was both a duty and a pleasure to combat the sanitised memorials that greeted the passing of his opponents. “If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox,” was his pithy verdict on the late US televangelist.

His only proviso, he told me when I interviewed him for the New Statesman in 2010, was: “You should never say anything that you weren’t prepared to say when the person was around to defend themselves.” But as the author of a 2005 piece entitled “The genocidal imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, Seymour can hardly be accused of concealing his loathing of the polemicist.

Confirming the adage that the left seeks traitors and the right seeks converts, we find Hitchens arraigned for the crime of apostasy. The sense of fratricide is enhanced by the book’s title (a deliberate echo of Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger) and its publisher, Verso, the radical imprint responsible for putting out Hitchens’s indictments of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Kissinger. A Trotskyist in his youth (his party of choice, the International Socialists, was the fore - runner of Seymour’s Socialist Workers Party), Hitchens, the author claims, ended his life as an apologist for imperialism and its most toxic representative, the Bush administration.

One is reluctant to listen to lectures of this kind from a member of a party that uncritically aligned itself with Hezbollah and Hamas (both of which make George W Bush look positively libertarian) during the 2006 Lebanon war, not least one whose prose is as tediously inflated as Seymour’s. To take only the most egregious example, he writes early in the book of Hitchens’s “tendency to opportunistically strip-mine the cynosures of his old faith in order to defend his new alignments in the conjuncture of the ‘war on terror’”.

Seymour undermines his case from the outset by deploying “left” as a synonym for “things I like” and “right” as a synonym for “things I don’t”. In common with Michael Foot’s Labour Party, Hitchens supported the Falklands war on the anti-totalitarian grounds that it would lead to the downfall of the Galtieri regime (a prediction that proved entirely correct). However, the myopically anti-imperialist Seymour can only view this as evidence of Hitchens’s jingoism.

He concedes that Hitchens, unlike self-declared apostates such as Paul Johnson, David Horowitz and Melanie Phillips, recanted almost none of his early positions. Hitchens never stopped campaigning for Henry Kissinger to be brought to justice, for the abolition of the death penalty and for Israel to surrender the Occupied Territories.

For Seymour, Hitchens’s enduring leftism was but a rhetorical veneer for rampant imperialism. Such a judgement ignores the extent to which his stances remained leftist in substance, rather than merely style. Hitchens was wrong – unforgivably wrong – about Iraq but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of his long-standing solidarity with the country’s Kurds (see his long 1992 piece for National Geographic, “The Struggle of the Kurds”, collected in Love, Poverty and War) and his belief that even war was preferable to the survival of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime (“a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it”). Only the most unreflective leftist would conclude that there is no reasonable debate to be had on these points.

Hitchens, we are told, became a “flack”, a “courtier”, an “amanuensis” of the Bush administration. If so, the president should have ordered a replacement. Among other things, Hitchens acted as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the administration for its warrantless wiretapping programme, accused Bush of “near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning” and denounced him as an “idiotic and psychically damaged Sabbath-fanatic”. One searches in vain for any mention of this in Seymour’s hatchet job.

A more apposite criticism of Hitchens is that having no patience for social democratic gradualism, he wrote little of the unglamorous but worthy duty of improving the lot of the poorest. His eventual conclusion that a leader’s character mattered more than his or her beliefs was a profoundly conservative one. When I asked him for his opinion of David Cameron, he replied: “He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, ‘What do you think of him?’ And my answer is: ‘He doesn’t make me think.’” This judgement is now celebrated but I was dismayed by it. Did Hitchens have nothing to say about Cameron’s austerity economics or his sinister alliance with Europe’s far right?

Yet there was no more formidable defender of the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and internationalism. Any left that is worthy of the name will seek to learn from such a figure, not impugn him. But if one seeks evidence of why Hitchens so often felt the need to deny this association, Seymour’s embittered polemic provides ample proof.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide