In less than 100 pages, Christopher Hitchens gives readers an authoritative dispatch from the land of “Tumorville” in his posthumous book, Mortality. Fulfilling a decades-old promise to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter which was that he would write about anything except for sports, these pages document the last 19 months of his life as he struggles with cancer of the esophagus – a period he coined as “living dyingly.”
The atheist was a bit of a lightning rod for the controversial topics he broached, often with unpredictable verve. He wrote for the New Statesman, a leftist magazine in London, before crossing the pond to write for The Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, among others. He set his razor sharp aim at both Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger. Hitchens also supported the invasion of Iraq.
We learn something new about the plucky Englishman in this new book and from Bob’s interview with Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow. In this Slate article, see previously unpublished photos of the couple and their wedding. One, he didn’t expect to die when he did. And two, he may have been a fighter, but he was also vulnerable.
Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, 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.
Involuntarily, Carol Blue is now the spokeswoman for the man otherwise never rendered speechless, and she captures his spirit, wit, and intellect surely as closely as anyone can. Blue modestly insists that he shall have the last word, and so from the eighth unfinished chapter of Mortality, “From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams, set in Berne in 1905: ‘With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.’”