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Mortality by Christopher Hitchens – review

There is a timeless, aphoristic quality to the writer's final work.

Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, 240pp, £10.99

For much of the last decade of his life, Christopher Hitchens was spoken of in terms normally reserved for the supposedly immortal. In his memoir, Experience, Martin Amis wrote of his friend, “Against the Hitch, physical and intellectual opposition are equally futile”. That one man could write so much, talk so much, smoke so much and drink so much was, his theist opponents would occasionally quip, persuasive evidence of the supreme being he rejected. In 2005’s Love, Poverty and War, Hitchens wrote, with a mixture of pride and surprise, “I have never had a serious illness or injury”. Five years later, after a diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, he conceded: “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction”.

This collection, the first to be published since Hitchens’s death at the age of 62 last December, includes the six elegant pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair chronicling his illness and a closing chapter of dying reflections from what he called “Tumourtown”. Hitchens’s traditional strengths – his mastery of irony, his range of reference, his contempt for euphemism – are all in evidence here but there is a timeless, aphoristic quality to these essays that distinguishes them from his writings on politics and literature. “To the dumb question, ‘Why me?’” he writes, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’” Following a series of adulatory proto-obituaries, he observes: “it seems that rumours of my life have also been exaggerated.” After enduring the petty humiliations of chemotherapy (he suffered from a permanently runny nose after discovering that “hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils”), he appreciates “the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body”.

The title’s eloquent brevity calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s declaration that “when I die I shall rot”. For Hitchens, the corollary of this atheistic conclusion was that life should be prized above all else. Though his chances of survival were slim (his cancer had already reached stage IV at the time of diagnosis), he underwent the severest course of radiotherapy available, while also having his entire genome sequenced in order to receive an experimental treatment developed by Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project (a privilege that prompted him to donate his body to medical science).

In the case of Hitchens, the aim was not so much to continue living as to continue writing. For him, the two were indistinguishable. When I interviewed him for the New Statesman in London in May 2010, I asked him what he would have been had he not been a writer. “Have been someone else, because writing is all I ever wanted to do,” he told me. “It’s what I am, rather than what I do.” From most writers, this would sound absurdly grandiose but the range and quality of Hitchens’s output and his work ethic meant that, from him, it did not. In his remembrance of Hitchens, Ian McEwan, who visited him in his final weeks, wrote movingly of how “his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line”. There is a natural journalistic temptation to immortalise the above as Hitchens’s “greatest battle” or his “final struggle” but it is one that he repudiates as powerfully as John Diamond did. When your body is slowly filled with “chemo-poison”, he writes, “the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

Being Hitchens, whose motto could have been “I argue, therefore I am”, Mortality also continues and deepens his confrontation with the religious. Though he occasionally adopts a tone of indignation towards those who contend that his cancer is a punishment from God, more often than not he appears to relish such dialectical combat. “Those who say I am being punished are saying that god can’t think of anything more vengeful than cancer for a heavy smoker,” he laconically observes. Wit, irony, the consolations of philosophy – these are the reserves we draw on when medicine can do no more. And rarely were they more formidably deployed than by Hitchens.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special