MORTALITYBy Christopher HitchensAllen & Unwin, $26.99
WHEN Christopher Hitchens was sick with cancer, and had already penned most of his ”cancer essays” for Vanity Fair, his friend Martin Amis wrote the foreword for what was then his newest book, The Quotable Hitchens. Amis scolded him for some of the quotes in the book, taken from times when he had written things so hostile they ruined the rest of his own articles (”Ronald Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife”). He then compared those busted pieces with the recent essays Hitchens had written about the reality of his cancer and its treatment.
It was because of those essays, Amis argued, that ”if [Hitchens’] story has to end too early, then its coda will contain a triumph”. Mortality collects those pieces together into a single volume. It also includes a last chapter of unfinished material that is unlike anything else in Hitchens’ oeuvre.
The story begins in June 2010, when Hitchens – an eager smoker and drinker for much of his life – wakes in his hotel room in New York, mid-book tour, to find he can barely breathe. He is rushed to a hospital to have emergency work performed on his heart and lungs, and is told he ought to see an oncologist. He’s later diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.
What follows is a series of serious and thoughtful tours, written eloquently and with humour, of a land Hitchens dubs ”Tumortown”. Despite occasional lapses into self-pity, he’s determined to spend his time there as someone who is reasonable, and reasoning: ”The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.”
Hitchens once reminded his readers that the word ”essay” can also be used as a verb: ”an ‘essay’ is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure. It also holds its meaning as a test … and as a trial.” In that sense, one can think of Mortality as his attempt in prose to come to terms with his curtailed life. So after brutal cancer treatment robs him of his voice, he writes a delicate meditation on the human voice and the importance of being able to speak.
He dismantles the maxim, attributed to Nietzsche, that ”whatever doesn’t kill one makes one stronger” after being nearly killed by a month-long blast of protons designed to try to burn away his cancers (his immune system shot, he picked up staph pneumonia from hospital).
Some people might be turned off by the rational tone of this work. Hitchens spends few words on his family, as one might expect in the circumstances, but dedicates entire passages to his love for conversation and the need to live without illusions.
And when he does speak of those who are close to him, some names can be noticeably absent. Here he is on the time when he nearly sank below a wave of fatalism and resignation: ”Only two things rescued me from betraying myself and letting go: a wife who would not hear of me talking in this boring and useless way, and various friends who also spoke freely.”
No matter how many times he might have told his children he loved them, one can’t help but think they will sometimes return to this passage with a pang.
The last chapter contains a surprise: nine pages of notes written by the author for himself that allow us to see how he pulled some of his essays together.
Compare this passage, from an earlier chapter, with his record of the conversation that inspired it: ”An especially close friend inquired, ‘Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?’ As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness.” In the notes: ”Carol asking about Rebecca’s wedding ‘Are you afraid you won’t see England again?”’
It’s a precious thing to possess: we’ve just found Hitchens throwing leaves over the footprints of his wife, Carol, by substituting the masculine pronoun for the feminine: ”As it happens he was exactly right … I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness.”
He does the same thing for his friend ”Ian”, who one assumes is Ian McEwan, by ascribing his words to the feminine pronoun in the finished essay.
It’s a wonderful collection.
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