The Belligerati

Letters shows Hitchens's best and worst sides. A born contrarian, he makes entertaining mincemeat of self-satisfied politicians, and shreds received ideas and media-spun consensus with a fearlessness that is invaluable in our mealymouthed punditocracy. But there are times when that innate oppositional streak seems purely knee-jerk. As much as one savored the callousness of his infamous phrase "the Spencer girl" to describe the newly deceased Princess Di, Hitchens was clearly blinkered by his own rationality, refusing to grapple with the real popular emotions behind the Diana cult.

The self-portrait that emerges in Letters is of Hitchens as a man's man: a lover, a fighter, someone as happy roughing it in a war zone as savoring fine wine in the company of famous dissidents. He's a swashbuckler who makes radicalism look macho (though obviously it doesn't have to be—plenty of activists have ovaries). Amis attests to Hitchens's combativeness in another Experience anecdote: He recalls going "mano a mano" with the Hitch when the latter deserted the lefties at New Statesman to work for Tory paper The Daily Express. Amis and Hitchens stood "looking implacably into each others eyes, squeezing [a wine glass] till it began to creak." Amis soon backed down, "Because I suddenly knew that he would not desist, not in a million years, and when we went off to Casualty together . . . Hitch would have no regrets, no regrets about that gashed palm, that missing finger. . . . "

Real politics, though, involve compromise, negotiation—methods for resolving conflict that are traditionally considered female, and ones that Hitchens rejects. He argues the usefulness of taking an extreme position and being "well-equipped . . . because if you are not then the 'center' will be occupied without your having helped to decide it or determine where it is." This looks fine on the printed page—but back in the real world of blood and sinew, we might do well to be more wary of collateral damage, more timorous of sacrificing limbs for principles.

Martin Amis, A language warrior, has declared a fatwa on poorly placed commas.
photo: Michael Birt
Martin Amis, A language warrior, has declared a fatwa on poorly placed commas.

Details

The War Against Clichť: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000
By Martin Amis
Talk Miramax, 512 pp., $35
Buy this book

Letters to a Young Contrarian
By Christopher Hitchens
Basic, 141 pp., $22
Buy this book

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Mocking machismo in The War Against Cliché, Amis disses Robert Bly's Iron John, with its calls to the warrior inside every man. He writes of Bly in terms that sound rather Hitchens-esque: a "strong personality" whose " 'hurricane energy' . . . sweeps all before it. Would you want to tell Zeus to take out the garbage? Would you want to ask a hurricane to wipe its feet on the mat?" Yet a footnote reports an encounter with Iron Bob himself after Amis had read this lecture at Harvard. "Standing tall, Bly asked me why I was so frightened of male grandeur. I wanted to say, 'because it's so frightening;' instead I shrugged and mumbled, feeling I had already answered his question." "Because it's so frightening"—such a sweet and startling admission, you almost miss it.

Hitchens's stridency and certainty will always be politically potent, but Amis's willingness to commit his vulnerability and confusion to the page ultimately makes him the more subtle and resonant writer. Letters is a primer on How to Be Christopher Hitchens. The War Against Cliché is a motley heap of literary judgments that nevertheless offers us a peek at the evolution of Martin Amis.

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