Christopher Hitchens never shied away from telling the truth - at least the truth as he saw it - and when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in June, 2010, he started "living dyingly," writing about his experiences with the illness. The stoicism with which he wrote, and the lucidity in the face of immanent death ("there is no stage 5"), go very well with the way Hitchens faced the rest of his life. Having only recently completed a memoir, Hitch 22, and on his book tour when he had symptoms which led to his diagnosis, Hitchens realized that he needed to tell the story of this cancer as he had just told the story of his life.
If you're familiar with Hitchens' writings, you'll certainly recognize the trenchant approach here to becoming a resident of "tumortown." In this brief book, composed of essays he wrote for Vanity Fair, Hitchens explains what it feels like to be dying, yet doesn't feel sorry for himself or for his lifestyle that may have contributed to his cancer. (His father died of the same cancer as well, so part may be genetic.)
You'll read this book in an hour or two, but you'll also want to come back to it from time to time. While the chapters are composed - these are articles, not journal entries - there is a spontaneity throughout them, as his condition worsens, and as hope seems to recede.
Hitchens again shows with his words that cut like scalpels that he was one of the finest voices of his generation, and we're not likely to see another like him for a very long time.
It came as no surprise that one of the greatest and most remarkable troublemakers and polemicists Britain has ever produced didn't leave without having a few important things to say. The late great Christopher Hitchens used the pages of Vanity Fair during his battle against a tumor in his esophagus to partly apply the maxim of Dylan Thomas to "rage, rage against the dying of the light". That said you sense throughout the pages of "Mortality", a book collecting those special essays, that Hitchens instinctively felt that this was one argument he wasn't going to win. As such his tangle with death is a level headed but poignant dalliance with the slow degradation of a body which graphically charts the "wager" with chemotherapy taking "your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest and the hair on your head". He is painfully honest and reflective throughout about his predicament not least the "gnawing sense of waste" and the reality of becoming an early "finalist in the race of life". Yet it wouldn't be Hitchens if the opportunity for settling some old scores was not taken and in particular his restatement of his vociferous views on atheism despite the fact that September 20th 2010 was designated by one religious website as "Everyone pray for Hitchens day".
Others were less charitable for in some quarters at the onset of Hitchens illness produced a vicious form of schadenfreude not least amongst his many enemies in the Christian right where his strong opinions on religion had provoked and outraged those not prepared to countenance any debate. He quotes an opinion from an religious blog that viewed his throat cancer as "Gods revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him". Undoubtedly most Christians would find such a view repugnant but in any case Hitchens would have no truck with such nonsense. In his autobiography "Hitch 22" he was candid about a lifestyle that some described as "convivial" while others though "excessive" a better term. He argued alternatively that a cigarette permanently locked in his hand and the love of a "second bottle" were as much sources of inspiration for his writing as his limited repertoire of heroes like Paine and Orwell. He knew the source of his problems but that's not the point of this book. It is in essence a slow diary of his journey through ""Tumortown" its excruciating levels of pain, the corresponding fatalism and resignation, its false hopes and eventual knock out blow. There are brilliant passages on figures as diverse as Leonard Cohen, and Nietzsche, a revisiting of the waterboarding torture which Hitchens endured to attack the Bush administration with a about with a searing polemic and finally a weariness at the offerings of possible cancer cures. `You sometimes feel that you may expire from sheer ADVICE", he exclaims in frustration
This short book concludes with a chapter of fragmentary jottings which are in every sense the most affecting part of the book. The broken phrases and quotes show a mind that thinks deeply, still questioning, still at work and debating until the very last. This is despite of "Chemo-brain. Dull, stuporous" and fears that this "lavish torture is only the prelude to a gruesome execution". Hitchens also brilliantly unearths a quote from Saul Bellow which argues with simple insight that "death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything". Christopher Eric Hitchens was a man who did his fair share of seeing not least on his many travels to chart despotism and dictatorship and to rally against it with clarity not heard since George Orwell. He also always had the right words even when he was fundamentally wrong and the best of his writings are furiously brilliant, deserving the widest readership whether you agree with him or not. Hitchens died on 15th December 2011, and this the book concludes with a tender "Afterword" from his widow Carol Blue. At one point in "Mortality" the author quotes Horace Mann's observation that "Until you have done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die". In the case of the sadly lamented and much missed Christopher Hitchens there was no need to worry about this, you did more than enough.
on August 25, 2012
Other reviewers have already made comment on this book's overall structure. This is a fine reprinting of Hitch's award-winning essays as he approached his final hour, so there is no new information in most of the book. In his inimitable way, he draws you in not only with his fine prose, but his humanity. You can't help but feel pathos in this work. And where the emotion ends, he lines up the last words and wisdom of so many other literary figures as evidence for his case on "dying livingly."
What makes this book worthy to add to your bookshelf is the final chapter, the unpublished scribblings of Hitchens which give us a window not only into his final thoughts, but perhaps how the master crafted his essays...first as an idea, then a polished quip or two. For me, these classic one-liners and Hitch-slaps are worth the price of the book. The final tribute, by his wife Carol, gives us more insight into the private man than he allowed himself in his memoir, Hitch-22. If there is one error, it was made by Hitchens himself, who lamented that he might not live to write the obituaries of his villains--Kissinger and Pope Benedict. In fact, he had already done so in his canon of work, from "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" to "god is Not Great." In these works, he managed to in fact, have the final word on Kissinger, Catholicism, and many other sacred cows that are "dead enough"--as he might have quipped. He now joins the pantheon--pardon the word--of past great critics, from Twain to Mencken. For the literate, he will always live on. Overall, A moving, swift read that will linger in your mind long after the last page.
on October 6, 2012
This book is very, very good - as with most of the author's work. However, it's also the about the length of a Vanity Fair article yet look at the (kindle) price! While I don't begrudge the author the length or his family the royalties I do want to take the publishers to task (and hope Amazon will actually print this review): You had the last work of a truly great man and you decided to rip off his loyal readers! Shame on you. This book is the second super short kindle book I've downloaded in the past month (at full price) and I'm done. I will no longer trust that a kindle version is worth buying until I check the length and reviews.
Honestly, I feel bad docking the author's review on this...he wrote a great article. But I wish another reviewer had done the same and had pointed out the length (they may have more recently; I checked the reviews shortly after the book came out and didn't recheck before buying). I would not have bought the book had I noted the length - my mistake but I just didn't think a major publisher would do such a thing. I won't do it again.
To anyone wanting to read Mortality - it's touching and brilliant and deeply honest. A great read. But don't get the kindle edition!
on September 9, 2012
The brilliant and provocative, Christopher Hitchens exercised his freedom of speech with breathtaking results--as in, one literally gasps out loud at some of his statements. His new book, "Mortality," reprints a selection of his Vanity Fair articles--those in which he muses on his own impending death. Fans who missed these essays have been given one more chance to "spend time" with a remarkable personality.
I approached the slim book with some trepidation. Did I really want to read an honest account of death by a writer with the skills to make it all very vivid? I feared I might be holding the atheist equivalent of C.S. Lewis's heartwrenching "A Grief Observed" (about the death of Lewis's wife). Also, I had already said a sad goodbye to Hitchens by reading "Hitch 22: A Memoir." That ramble-y autobiography, alternating between on-the-spot reporting and analysis of huge world events and chapter-long tributes to individual friends and family members, includes a preface updating his story to include a recent, grim diagnosis: Stage Four esophageal cancer.
"Mortality" begins with a slightly stunned, journalistic account of the author's "very gentle and firm deportation . . . from the country of the well . . . [to] the land of malady": "The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everyone smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism . . . As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited." He ponders his new predicament, trying out different ways of looking at it (Is this a battle? Can suffering make one stronger?) He engages with great minds throughout history (how did they approach death?). He wonders how to handle things in a dignified manner.
There are vague references to blood and sores, but, you will be glad to know, Hitchens's English restraint prevents him from oversharing. His proposed handbook on cancer etiquette would "impose duties on me as well as upon those who say too much, or too little, in an attempt to cover the inevitable awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and its neighbors." It is reassuring to see that Hitchens's lifelong concerns remain his concerns to the end. When these issues are not front and center, as in a long section ridiculing prayer, they pop out as asides: a second-hand tip to "write `more like the way you talk'"; a Hitchslap to the Calvinists; a beautiful praise of free speech; frivolous word play; surprising observations and odd connections in the continuous search for truth.
His illness becomes terribly painful near the end, but he only barely sketches this, as if there is little to be gained by staring at his own ravaged body. Instead, his pain causes him to worry aloud about those who are purposely tortured, to wonder whether sick people in Catholic hospitals might be disturbed viewing all those crucifixes, and to reflect on the issue of assisted suicide--in the abstract (he himself seems more inclined to try everything to survive).
The last chapter (not a reprint) is poignant because it consists of scraps of disconnected notes--a reminder that death always comes before we are "done." It is also poignant as it reveals that Hitchens probably constructed his startling works from notes rather than writing them out in one inspired flourish (while gloriously drunk?) as one is tempted to imagine. But in the end we learn that he is only mortal, like the rest of us.
Still, some of the last lines he jotted down are absolutely perfect! I leave it for you to discover these treasures; but they clearly show he died true to himself.
And that message is as much, and as little, consolation as we are going to get from this short, thoughtful book.
on August 23, 2012
First: some disclosures. (1) I just received this book today, and immediately began to read it. (2) I'm not done yet. (3) I have read most of it already in VANITY FAIR (4) I am an atheist and (4) an unapologetic admirer of the late Christopher Hitchens.
I also work in a medical field. I see death, if not every day, then five out of the seven days of a week. It is never commonplace, or run-of-the-mill. Everyone I see who struggles with the end of life is precious and unique. And why not? They are our fellow humans, part of the multi-colored weave of the cloth of our species.
Not too long ago, I attended a conference that had the dubious honor of being addressed by the smug and self-satisfied chaplain of the Senate of the United States. (His topic, perversely enough, was on the value of pain. No one but a theist devoted to a death-obsessed religion could even consider such a perverse topic; but there it was, complete with the usual proof-texts that impoverished money-changers roll out to comfort the disaffected, and esnure the collection plate stays comfortably cushioned.) Now, it being a matter of historical record that the so-called Father of the United States Constitution, James Madison, thought it was a violation of the very first article of the Bill of Rights for chaplains to be employed by the US military, let alone the US Senate, I found the prospect of listening to one so employed, for a salary sure to be far above that of most of his audience and with such manifestly poor results, rather paradoxical. Nonetheless, if for nothing but the continuing education credits, I stayed put. And soon enough heard that canard which most atheists, including myself, find not only so goddamned offensive, but an unwitting witness to the poverty of religious belief itself:
THERE ARE NO ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES.
This statement gives the game away: that is, every religion of which I am aware (I exclude Buddhism on the grounds that it is, properly, more philosophy than religion) relies, in the final analysis, on the fear and terror: the threat of hell, eternal torture or loss, as its ultimate ace-in-the-hole. The ignorant fool (and I have heard more than one person trot forth this overworn, inaccurate and ill-fated witticism) who threw out this slander upon the unwashed ranks of the heathen betrayed more than he knew, or, I dare say, cared to consider.
It is not for nothing that Hitch recalls, when he sees the crucifix upon the wall of his hospital room, how in the days of the Inquisition the torturers would hold up the cross before the eyes of the condemned victim, smoldering at the stake, in the hope that they would at the very last recant and die, if not whole, at least as ashes of one destined for eternal life at the throne of the god in whose name humans were put to the rack, the flame, the trial by water and worse.
In truth, there are plenty of atheists in foxholes; but I have yet to know of one at, say, a cross burning of the Ku Klux Klan. Or trying to foist their very idiosyncratic brand of sexual morality upon an entire nation. We tend to mind our own lives, and wish only that the less secure would mind their own damned business and leave the rest of us alone. Death, while sad and even tragic, is not an excuse for us to surrender our humanity, our truth, and our reason.
And this, really, is the point of Hitch's final (and it is truly saddening to speculate that that is indeed the proper word) book.
When, in 2010, the nation's and perhaps the world's foremost atheist (only the great Richard Dawkins could then vie for the honor) was diagnosed with what was in all likelihood a terminal case of cancer, people who cared about such things took notice. The righteous wondered whether the near prospect of the Big Sleep would bring Hitch around, perhaps to join in total surrender that which he had already allied himself with in the foreign policy of the American neoconservative junto, in the name of fighting whatever wars were to be found in the Near East for Freedom, Democracy, and against the Axis of Evil. Or, at the very least, Hitch would come to Jesus, admit he was a miserable sinner, and follow the Roman Road to Redemption, Salvation, and, finally... Bliss. At the minimum, Hitch would embrace the cynical logic of Pascal and, betting that he had nothing to lose but possibly everything to gain by bowing to worship the god who bade Abraham to murder his son as a sign of -- what was it -- faith? would at the end become the most treasured of religion's adherants: the sinner who has, if not seen the light, at least been so frightened of the fiery glow that he would traduce his very intelligence and, finally, recant.
But those of us who had followed Hitch's career for a while, and for whom he was our foremost guiding light in defense of Reason, the life of the mind, and the more-than-occasional bottle of scotch, knew better. Our hero (he would eschew that term, saying that he had none, and that if he did, George Orwell would be the closest he could come to naming one; I have no such quibbles) would prove that his life was not a charade, but rather the articulate expression of a lover of the very things we held -- hold -- most dear. This was a man who, upon becoming a US citizen, thus aligning his fate with those of us born to this proud estate and attacked on 9/11 by people who hated everything for which we stand, swore his oath of allegiance to our land at the Jefferson Memorial, clutching in his left hand a copy of Jefferson's Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom.
So this small volume is, and promises to be, a memoir of the journey of that great and good man towards nothingness. It is a companion to hold and to which we who have concluded that Nothing lies beyond the final veil can recur again and again, for companionship, sustainance and, yes, comfort.
For in the final analysis, what truly matters -- what is our final legacy -- is that we go forth into that good night as women and men of integrity, true to what we have been, hopeful that our lives on this small planet have made a difference, however small and, in the life of our galaxy, however temporary; and content in the knowledge that our lives, however truncated thay may be, must not be measured in the drama of our exit so much as in the brilliance of our noonday sun. This little book demonstrates that truth for our dear and beloved Hitch so very , very well.
Without even looking at the blurbs on the book jacket of this slender volume, one might guess at some of the adjectives that appear, words like "poignant," "courageous," inspiring." These are words that the living invariably apply to obituaries and to published accounts of a terminal disease. Such words would no doubt make Christopher Hitchens laugh. One of the best parts of Mortality is when he mocks the ubiquitous term "battle" as applied to cancer.
And one might guess that reviewers will call Mortality "lucid," "eloquent," and "witty." Well sure. That kind of writing is what made Hitchens so compulsively readable.
Mortality is not, however, a personal account of Hitchens's last days. It is not, thank goodness, a memoir. Instead, the book is the story of how the public man known to his friends and his readers as "Hitch" thinks about the disease that will end his life. The private man, the husband, father, and friend, is hidden away, and that is how it should be.
I have an adjective for this book. It is sad.
But there is joy to be had in opening any of Hitchens's other books. Don't let this little tombstone of a book be your introduction to his writing. Give the man an afterlife.
on September 17, 2012
Just as he embarked on a tour to promote his memoir HITCH-22 in June 2010, Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with Stage Four esophageal cancer. "The thing about Stage Four," he writes with his customary directness, "is that there is no such thing as Stage Five." Nineteen months later, he died of pneumonia in a Houston hospital. In that interval, which included debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments that brought with them side effects often more painful than the disease that was "battling him," Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair magazine the seven blunt, combative, unfailingly honest essays collected in MORTALITY.
As much as can be done in a work that encompasses fewer than 100 pages of his words, the book offers a snapshot of what made Hitchens' opinionated, intellectually wide-ranging and usually infuriating (to someone) work so captivating. He was "one of life's singular characters," as his Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter puts it in a foreword to this slim volume, and nothing in these parting essays contradicts that description.
When Hitchens' diagnosis became public, there was much speculation about questions like whether perhaps the world's most unabashed atheist would renounce his beliefs and embrace religion, or how he felt about the many people (including prominent clergy and theologians he'd battled in public debate) who earnestly offered prayers for his recovery. Hitchens quickly dispels any doubt on the first point, vowing to "continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until its hello darkness my old friend."
While Hitchens is mildly grateful to the "quite reputable Catholics, Jews and Protestants who think that I might in some sense of the word be worth saving," he's quick to "sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies." And as much as he would like to discourage the people who insisted on praying for him, he at least acknowledges the possibility that their intercessions might serve the purpose of making them feel better. In one of the fragments of unwritten essays gathered in a concluding chapter, he observes, "If I convert it's because it's better that a believer dies than that an atheist does." It doesn't require a careful parsing of these sentiments to understand that Hitchens left this world clinging firmly to his atheist convictions.
But Hitchens doesn't confine himself to philosophical musings or score settling with his theological rivals here. Some of the book's most riveting passages are its most intensely personal, detailing, as they do, Hitchens' darkest moments in the place he names "Tumorville," as he makes the journey "from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." He devotes an entire essay to debunking Nietzsche's pronouncement that "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger," concluding it with a grim description of the mounting difficulty phlebotomists encounter trying to draw blood from his battered veins. When his voice and hands begin to fail him, he's keenly attuned to the irony that the two instruments that have fueled his career may be the first gifts taken from him.
Yet even amid this account of illness, decline and death, Hitchens' caustic wit remains undiminished. Writing of one website comment that predicted an agonizing death followed by eternal damnation as his well-deserved fate, he observes, "The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former `lifestyle' would suggest that I got." And he confesses to what would be a sense of irritation if he "pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered."
Hitchens' widow, Carol Blue, concludes the book with a touching tribute to her late husband. Describing a typical "raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinner" at the family's Washington, DC apartment, she recalls Hitchens rising to proclaim, "How good it is to be us." There's nothing in that heartfelt sentiment to suggest any sense of overweening pride. Instead, it rings out gloriously as the expression of joy of a man intoxicated by his zest for all that life offers. It's no consolation to his family to say this, but Christopher Hitchens lived every day of his 62 years fully and deeply. He wished for more, and whether or not we shared his views, we, his readers, shared that wish.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
This is a wonderful book, both serious to the point of tears and incredibly funny. He had me laughing out loud. It is very short and I've already read it twice. He was an outspoken man, particularly about religious belief (or rather the lack of it) but he had many friends on all sides from serious believers to non-believers. The book is full of wisdom and profound insights. Although Christopher was always insightful, the death sentence of stage four cancer seems to have immensely sharpened his wit We have lost a great man and a poignant voice. His family must miss him dreadfully. I HIGHLY recommend this book. I'm trying to decide which ones of my lucky friends to share it with.
on August 31, 2012
In writing this review, I can't help but also feel that I'm writing an obituary.
The greatest thing about Hitchens was his humanity. Like the classic figures he so admired he was defined by his flaws as much as by his strengths. Yet, he sure was brilliant. His humour, erudition, pomposity and boldness, combined to form a true tempest of a public speaker. You cannot get bored while listening to Christopher Hitchens.
But he is gone now, and for those who miss him, this book is surely his last offering. It could be described as a collection of wandering dispatches from Hitch, as he struggles to acclimatize to life in `tumourtown.' In his `year of living dyingly' the author muses on the inconvenience, humiliation, pain and tedium of his final days with esophageal cancer. He speaks about torture, prayer and predestination, euthanasia, his loss of voice (his very personality fading away). It is a deeply, to be frank, troubling book, given colour and life through Hitch's extraordinary turns of phrase. The New York Times called Elie Wiesel's Night (Oprah's Book Club) `a slim volume of terrifying power.' The same description is apt for this work.
I miss Christopher Hitchens like almost no other past intellectual hero. I miss him even though on most major respects I disagree with his opinions. I miss him for his humanity, his language, his extraordinary courage. I miss him for that strange twinkle of rebellion that could be seen almost always flickering across his brow.
This is, of ninety or so books read so far, my favourite of 2012.