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Hitch’s Rolls-Royce mind is still purring

The great polemicist is certain to be remembered, but perhaps not as he would like.

The great polemicist is certain to be remembered, but perhaps not as he would like.

"Nothing concentrates the mind more than reading about oneself in the past tense", quipped Christopher Hitchens on discovering that his death had been prematurely announced by the National Portrait Gallery. A catalogue previewing an exhibition entitled "Martin Amis and Friends" had included a photograph of the polemicist, erroneously captioned, "the late Christopher Hitchens". A month later, he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, lending his words a haunting new resonance.

Hitchens, who is being treated at the M D Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas, is still very much alive, but anyone misled by the National Portrait Gallery could have mistaken an event one recent evening at the Royal Festival Hall in London for a memorial service. It was originally billed as a conversation between Hitchens and Stephen Fry, but Hitchens, now afflicted by pneumonia, was too unwell even to appear via video-link on 9 November. He has not visited London since May 2010, when I interviewed him for the New Statesman, and fears he will never see the country of his birth again.

Rather than cancel the event, the organisers assembled an extraordinary selection of Hitchens's comrades and friends to pay tribute to him. Richard Dawkins, Hitchens's fellow anti-theist, joined Fry on stage, while Amis appeared on a video-link from New York, as did James Fenton and Salman Rushdie.

The line-up also included the actor Sean Penn (with whom Hitchens plays pool), the former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham and the novelist Christopher Buckley, son of the conservative intellectual William F Buckley, with whom Hitchens often debated. It felt like a hyperintelligent version of Question Time.

McEwan and friends

Wreathed in clouds of smoke and looking as if he had just climbed out of bed, Penn opened proceedings, discussing the political significance of The Trial of Henry Kissinger - Hitchens's 2001 account of the former US secretary of state's "one-man rolling crime wave" - until the satellite link failed ("God damn you, Google!" cried Fry). But the most significant interventions came from two figures who did not appear that evening.

The first was from the novelist Ian McEwan, who watched the event online with Hitchens and his wife in Texas. "I talked until late last night with Hitch; we were discussing the non-communist left of the early 1950s," he wrote in an email read out by Fry. "He can't run a mile just now but be reassured his Rolls-Royce mind is purring smoothly." The truth of this statement will be clear to anyone who has read Hitchens over the past year. The series of essays he wrote for Vanity Fair about his illness stands as the finest writing on the subject since John Diamond's C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. Without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality, Hitchens confronted his fate with pure reason and logic.

"To the dumb question, 'Why me?'" he wrote, "the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: 'Why not?'" Nor has his humour deserted him. To a Christian who insisted that God had given him "throat" cancer in order to punish the "one part of his body he used for blasphemy", he replied: “My so-far uncancerous throat . . . is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed."

The second notable intervention came from Hitchens himself. "More Bosnia, less Iraq," he wrote in a text message to Fry. It felt as if he was trying to edit his own obituary. As he told the New Statesman, though he is unrepentant about his support for the invasion of Iraq and believes that history will vindicate him, he does not want to be "defined by it". His reference to Bosnia was an attempt to place his support for the war in the context of a wider commitment to anti-totalitarianism. It was also a reminder that he supported a war that saved Muslim lives, rather than ended them.

Hitchens was already preoccupied with his legacy when I interviewed him. He spoke of his desire to write a memoir before it was "too late", almost as if he knew even then that something was wrong. Now, as he prepares for death, he is determined to ensure that he is not remembered simply as a "lefty who turned right" or as a contrarian and provocateur. Throughout his career, he has retained a commitment to the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and pluralism. His targets - Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, God - are chosen not at random, but rather because they have offended one or more of these principles.

The tragedy of Hitchens's illness is that it came at a time when he enjoyed a larger audience than ever. Of his tight circle of friends - Amis, Fenton, McEwan, Rushdie - Hitchens was the last to gain international renown, yet he is now read more widely than any of them. The great polemicist is certain to be remembered, but, as he is increasingly aware, perhaps not as he would like.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis