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Wordy Review - Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

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Wordy Review - Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

Postby FrodoSaves » Fri Jan 13, 2012 12:10 pm

Hot-ish on the heels of Hitch-22, Arguably is a hand-picked collection of essays & articles intended to be a broad representation of Christopher Hitchens' enormous contribution to the printed word. Published only a few months ago, it feels like something of a post-script or appendix to his memoir. Five or ten years from now, I can imagine a shrewd publisher releasing both together as a companion edition, one tightly cross-referenced to the other. Truth be told, I had intended to wait a year or so to tackle this volume – but events have a way of overtaking intentions, and my departure from my job fell less than a week after Hitchens' death, making Arguably an apt and hugely appreciated leaving present.

Arguably is, in some ways, as autobiographical a text as Hitch-22. While the latter explored his background, explained his politics and journeyed through his employment by successive rags and mags, the former shows, rather than tells. This is Hitchens at his best: an essayist, a polemicist, an eloquent, vehement and tireless literatus and politico.

Those approaching this book from God Is Not Great may be surprised to learn the breadth of Hitchens' knowledge and interests. A considerable swathe, for example, is dedicated to book reviews ('Eclectic Affinities', some 250 pages). While interesting enough, and not requiring prior knowledge of the book under scrutiny or a particularly profound awareness of the subject matter, they do require a degree of existing interest and tenacity. While later painted with a conservative brush due to his unwavering support of the Iraq war, Hitchens was an avowed socialist throughout his tenderer years. This, however, begins to stick like a lump in his throat after the sixth or seventh review of a first-hand account of the interwar years in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. In fact, repetition is generally a frequent visitor: time and time again he draws on references to the same literary cabal to open and close, to compare and confer – WH Auden, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell – names that become so recurring you begin to wonder whether the much-vaunted canonical depth is mere window-dressing, a veneer to spruce up his polemics.

Hitchens' vocabulary is also a thing of legend, but the format of Arguably somewhat shakes the gloss from the impression. Considerable as it is, it's not long before you realize that he frequently relies on the same stock words & phrases, and it begins to render the prose staid, formulaic, and a little less 'magical'. "Saturnine", "dialectics", "casuistry" and "distinction without difference" are words I could happily forgo reading for a while. This may, however, just be me*. I expect these issues are a direct result of the format taken by the book – an unedited collection of essays, loosely grouped, with no consistent narrative tying them together other than, arguably, the title itself. (Sorry.)

There may be another explanation though. In my review of Hitch-22, I alluded to an impression given by that book – that Hitchens' growth as a writer & an intellectual was its own catch-22 – a typical English middle class brand of schizophrenia, pulled upon (but not quite torn apart) by perceptions of social justice from the leftists behind the working class, and the intellectual elitist tradition of the upper class. What resulted (I presume) was a need to show himself as an equal of the latter while championing the former. A sense of zealous self-awareness therefore pervades Arguably – verbosity for its own sake, gratuitous literary references – when all you really want is for Hitchens to write for the joy of it. Clearly, he couldn't give a damn how he's judged for the content of his message; stylistically, it's unfortunate that he couldn't follow through in the same fashion.

A final victim of the book's format is, on occasion, the fullness of Hitchens’ reasoning. Particularly in some of his later columns for Slate, the brevity of the pieces results in a few too many logical leaps, leaving holes in his arguments through which I felt reluctant to follow. Though this never borders on flippancy, or arrogance, quite, this impression arises particularly when Hitchens is fighting a rear guard action, e.g., as to his position on the Iraq war. And in describing the US as a banana republic, even in 2008, identifying the dollar as an “international laughingstock” seems far-fetched and self-serving.

Highlighting these shortcomings runs the risk of selling short what is ultimately a worthwhile, informative read. Falling somewhat short of ‘compelling’ as a collection in itself, individual articles stand out. His description of the pervasive, insidious effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam is damn right heart-wrenching; articles on Hitler and JFK add surprising new perspectives to the rises of figures who (I thought) had already been thoroughly exposed; and an ode to fellatio is welcome in any collection.

Seen this way, Arguably becomes less a book to read from cover to cover, and more an ensemble to dip in and out of. This approach would, I suspect, do much to allay my small misgivings. It may also be worth pointing out, however, that many of these articles are available online, for free – the question mark is then left over the value behind this particular collection of them. The answer is, I think, in the education administered through reading it cover-to-cover: you will circumnavigate Hitchens’ unique blend of literature and politics and sail into new discoveries on every page.

Apologies if this conclusion appears forced – but perhaps it’s an appropriate epitaph to Hitchens to say that Arguably’s greatest flaws – its repetition and lexical tarnish – are revealed through pursuing its greatest strength.


*Stephen King mentions in his On Writing that each author returns too frequently to the same word, like a security blanket, and once you notice it, it's impossible to remove the thorn from your paw. Funnily enough, I noticed several sentences later that King's own blanket word was "apt".
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Re: Wordy Review - Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

Postby E-lad » Fri Jan 13, 2012 1:01 pm

Thank you, Frodo. I thoroughly enjoy your reviews and consider them a highlight of these forums.
Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.- Horace Walpole
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Re: Wordy Review - Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

Postby zilch » Fri Jan 13, 2012 2:05 pm

I'll second the f-man (not for the first time), frodo- good review, lots of apt comments. I will just add that I also love the word "casuistry" and try to work it in wherever I can, so I can get behind where the Hitch was coming from. Did he also use the word "apposite" a lot?
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Re: Wordy Review - Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

Postby FrodoSaves » Sun Jan 15, 2012 4:44 am

Thanks fellas! Nice to have a place to write more than a few paragraphs without being greeted with a chorus of "tl; dnr"!
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