Narratives about dying are among the least appealing genre of memoir. Whether first-person or narrated by some long-suffering beloved, it seems almost impossible to strike a tone that is sufficiently moving and engaging, while simultaneously avoiding the maudlin, predictable or downright dull.
Given this opinion, had he not been a close friend of mine, I would probably have avoided reading Christopher Hitchens’ final, posthumously published, book, Mortality. But it would’ve been a terrible mistake: this is painful but richly rewarding reading.
The last few chapters are either new, or among the essays I chose not to read when they were first published out of sheer cowardice as their subject matter and tone—mirroring his own condition—grew increasingly brutal. If one of the reasons for my generalized disinterest in memoirs of dying is that a certain lack of empathy, then a sudden and equally undignified excess of it blocked my ability to follow the last installments of my friend’s account of his illness’ final, inevitable outcome.
As I knew would be the case, Christopher spares us nothing regarding the ever-escalating physical and emotional trauma to which he was being subjected. I was probably right to avert my eyes at the time. My reaction wouldn’t have done anybody any good. But, as Christopher rightly admonishes us, “the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.”
Mortality manages to avoid almost all the pitfalls of the memoir of illness or dying. It’s brief and to the point. It’s learned and reflective. It’s unsentimental but cries out with genuine human emotion: for himself, those around him including caregivers, and for humanity in general.
Christopher doesn’t feel sorry for himself, exactly, but he does acknowledge that he was being tortured. He compares his illness and treatment to the time he was voluntarily waterboarded in order to test the patently false Bush administration claims the technique did not constitute torture.
A particularly haunting passage is an extended meditation on Nietzsche’s dictum “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”—an evidently ludicrous proposition. Nietzsche experienced a profound trauma when interfering to prevent the brutal beating of a horse. Christopher links this episode to “the awful, graphic dream [also of a horse being beaten] experienced by Raskolnikov on the night before he commits the decisive murders in ‘Crime and Punishment.'” Christopher manifestly compares his trauma with Nietzsche’s, but there’s also a latent, and clear, identification with the horses.
For more than 10 years I was a frequent visitor to his Washington apartment. Even though he writes that “Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries,” that was exactly what I decided to do from the outset. I never asked anything, and silently absorbed whatever he or his wife, Carol Blue (who writes a moving afterword to Mortality), chose to tell me.
The only thing I had to offer was the normalcy of friendship and of conversations about anything and everything except cancer. In a barely excusable way, it’s gratifying to read that this paltry offering was not in vain since, “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends.”
One of the most moving themes in Mortality is Christopher’s powerfully conveyed horror at the inexorable erosion of his ability to do the two main things he lived for: speak and write. His illness, he writes, deprived him of “the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.” It took a while to set in, but the decline in both his ability and will to speak as he once did so masterfully was painfully obvious. His internal reflections on this terror are, inevitably, all the more deeply affecting.
In this context, he provides invaluable advice for writers: “Find your own voice.” For Christopher, writing was an extension of talking: “If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page.” It’s hard to overstate how much this resonates with me, since I use software to dictate, not type, almost everything I write. This advice helps most if you can think in complete sentences and paragraphs. Christopher thought in fully realized essays and even books.
As he chronicles his illness, Christopher continues to rail at his favorite targets: religious superstition (including intersessionary prayers on his own behalf), abuses by government (including the torture practiced by his adopted American homeland), irrationality, and any easy retreat into comforting illusions.
Had he been granted more of a reprieve, Christopher probably could have written a definitive memoir of the dying process. As it is, he’s left us a final fierce, unflinching and defiant parting shot that is plainly unfinished, but eminently worthy of his brilliant pen and, above all, that mighty, unforgettable voice.