Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Good and Bad Reviews

Since we've been discussing Decca Aitkenhead's interview with Christopher Hitchens, I thought of posting some links to reviews of Hitch-22. (I only read the print Weekend FT review today, and realised that reviews would be being published.) However, although they're all different - they focus on different aspects of a quite long (352 pages according to Amazon; 448 according to the FT ?!) book - they seem to share a certain diffidence or ambivalence. I've not seen a red-blooded endorsement by a professional reviewer yet.[1]

So, to provide some contrast, here's very positive review of Ayann Hirsi Ali's Nomad by Tunku Varadarajan.

I had cause to recall this ugly episode [The writer had asked a New York cabbie what he thought of Ms Hirsi Ali, to be told, "We think she is a bitch. We hate her."] when I read this week—in just one sitting, it is so brilliant—Hirsi Ali’s new book, Nomad: From Islam to America. (It is subtitled, with a very un-PC tip of the hat to Samuel Huntington, “A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.”) If I had my way, and the resources to pull off the idea, I would commission translations of the book into Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Farsi, Turkish, Pashto, Kurdish, Bengali, and Bahasa, and air-drop thousands of copies into the Muslim lands (and arrondissements) where these languages are spoken. And with any luck, these books would find their way into the hands of some of the immiserated women who live there.

I think he liked it. Against that, the reception of Hitch-22 is -- well, diplomatic might be a good word. My feeling is that even if reviewers found Hitchens charming at essay length or an amusing speaker or otherwise lauded his virtues, 400 pages (plus or minus 48) of Hitchens writing about himself had an effect closer to tea laced with bromide than Jack Daniels over ice.

To begin, one of the strangest reviews I have ever read: Trading Places: ‘Famous Amis’ Runs Into ‘Hitch-22’ By Brendan Bernhard, Special to the [New York] Sun.

Mr. Amis plays a prominent role in it, just as Mr. Hitchens himself is granted a hefty cameo in “The Pregnant Widow.”

Mr Bernhard doesn't commit himself to a personal opinion, yet he implies that Amis's fiction is far more revealing that Hitchens' memoir.

Edward Luce in the FT (link above) strains to find at least a redeeming compliment:

Such is Hitchens’ intellectual journey. From one certainty to the next, he has leapt across the stepping stones of life, only rarely dipping a toe into the murky waters of doubt. Hitch-22 has its redeeming qualities – perhaps most vividly in Hitchens’ telling of his mother’s quiet determination to turn him into an English gentleman. Yet the book mostly fails to accentuate whatever redeeming qualities its author has. Indeed, the further it progresses, the harder it is to escape the feeling that its subject deserves a much more nuanced biographer than this.

I'm not even sure that John Crace of the Guardian has even read the book. Funny if you think Hitchens is a blowhard with an ego the size of Mount Rushmore. Probably not, if you don't.

In the Times (I'm not sure how much longer this will be available) Joan Bakewell calls it a rollercoaster ride across the political spectrum. Ms Bakewell ends on a high (and with a very different opinion to Edward Luce):

His final insight is that because he loves an argument he will often protract one simply for its own sake rather than concede even a small point. Within this book we learn why: it displays the best of his persuasive skills, the sharpness of his dismissive put-downs and something else too: self-knowledge.

His mother, however, "is the only woman he refers to with tenderness in the book." My personal favourite bit is this:

They would visit a brothel together as research for Amis’s novel Money. We learn, almost by accident, that Hitchens is married and has three children.

[1] Amazon's sole review, presumably there were two, contains this gem:

Christopher Hitchens' memoir, Hitch-22, will not be released for another week. As a simple consumer with no ties whatsoever to the publishing industry, I have not read it yet. Therefore, it may seem stupid that I am writing a review of the book, and giving it a five-star rating no less, but this brief diatribe is essentially a rebuttal to the blitherings of Neil McGowan, who wrote amazonUK's first review of Hitch-22 and gave it one star, lowest rating, despite having not read it himself, as far as I can gather from his pathetic review.

There's more in that vein, if you like that sort of thing, and I do.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'If I had my way, and the resources to pull off the idea, I would commission translations of the book into Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Farsi, Turkish, Pashto, Kurdish, Bengali, and Bahasa, and air-drop thousands of copies into the Muslim lands (and arrondissements) where these languages are spoken.'

Hmmm, rather redolent methinks of Orwell's call for Sten guns to be parachuted in vast quantities into Occupied Europe during the last war.

5/25/2010 04:40:00 PM  
Anonymous FGFM said...

We've been watching the reviews roll in over at Hitchens Watch and while we all had a good laugh over Aitkenhead's piece (in spite of the objections of a few HP refugees who stopped by to defend Our Boy), I found it curious that no one in the press actually seems to like the book. I'm glad that someone else noticed and, as always, we at "The Watch" salute your collective indefatigability, etc. Feel free to post or email Sonic (he's back!) with links to any other reviews, positive or negative, and we'll be sure to discuss them.

5/25/2010 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a big Hitchens fan but having read some of the extracts of his latest in the Sunday Times, I won't bother reading the rest of it. I'd rather re-read Unacknowledged Legislators or For the sake of Argument, which are brilliant. Auto-biography evidently isn't his forte.

5/25/2010 05:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, Peter Hitchens' last two books have rather a lot of autobiography in them, and The Rage Against God naturally has quite a bit about Christopher. The brother, it seems, barely has a walk-on appearance in Hitch-22 amongst all the paeans to Amis, McEwan and Rushdie, and how their brilliance is second only to that of the Dude.

As you'll know, I quite like Hitchens minor despite very wide-ranging disagreements with him. One of the things I like about Peter is that his autobiographical episodes have a nice line in self-deprecation, something nobody could ever accuse Christopher of indulging in.

I'm also hoping Alex Callinicos reviews it for the SWP press, the two of them being old muckers from Oxford. IIRC Christopher recruited Alex into the party, which I've sometimes felt should require a severe penance on Christopher's part; although in retrospect I'd rather have Alex on our side of the argument than Christopher.

5/25/2010 08:55:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Off immediate topic, but does Aaro deserve credit for his prediction or was it well flagged in advance:

"That this is nonsense is evident in Labour’s bequest to the nation of the horrid Tent City in Parliament Square, something that would be tolerated in few other capitals. Let’s see whether it is still there when May is out".

5/25/2010 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

There's an extract in Vanity Fair. I assume it's a chapter, or part of one, but there's no flow. There are just disconnected anecdotes which are themselves a strange cocktail of the candid and the coy. I'd like to know more about how Clive James appeared to others.

What surprised me is how emotionally vulnerable Hitchens seems. He's really smitten with Amis. I half expect him to relate how he has MA's picture on his wall to cover a stain.

Amis is surprisingly repellent. I knew he was conceited, but I think Hitchens accidentally confirms Anna Ford's story about Amis smoking and talking too long to the dying Marc Boxer.

Martin never let friendship take precedence over his first love, which was and is the English language. If one employed a lazy or stale phrase, it would be rubbed in—no, it would be incisively emphasized—with a curl of that mighty lip and an ironic gesture. If one committed the offense in print—I remember once writing “no mean achievement” in an article—the rebuke might come in note form, or by one's being handed a copy of the article with a penciled underlining. He could take this vigilance to almost parodic lengths. The words “ruggedly handsome features” appear on the first page of 1984, and for a while Martin declined to go any further into the book. (“The man can't write worth a damn.”) He was later to admit that the novel did improve a trifle after that. Years later—in 2001, when I gave him the manuscript of my book on Orwell, he brought it to our next rendezvous, at a Manhattan bistro, Café Un Deux Trois, on West 44th Street, and wordlessly handed it back. He had gone through it page by page, painstakingly correcting my pepper-shaker punctuation.

David Aaronovitch called Decca Aitkenhead a 'prig' in a tweet today. I think I'm one too.

I would turn up at parties with Martin, to be sure, but with a somewhat resigned attitude. At one soirée in Holland Park, he was introduced to a young woman with a result that was as close as made no difference to witnessing a lightning strike or a thunderbolt. His then girlfriend was present at the party, as I think was the other young lady's husband, but what then happened in the adjoining room was unstoppable and seemed somehow fore-ordained.

Amis when young was genuinely strikingly photogenic. See the pic at the top of the article. Hitchens reminded me of someone - and it's taken me a few hours to work out who. It's Dylan Moran in his 'Black Books' phase. Dishevelled, literary, fuck-the-world: it is a Hitchens look.

Poor Clive James is never going to be allowed to forget comparing Arnold Schwarzenegger to “a brown condom full of walnuts.”

Clive had given up alcohol after a long period of enjoying a master-servant relationship with it, in which unfortunately the role of the booze had been played by Dirk Bogarde.

That sounds like a phrase which has hung around waiting for a subject to describe.

Finally, there's the Thatcher bit. I cringed.

5/25/2010 09:27:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

In terms of style, the rambling does, to an extent, remind me of 'Experience', which is good fun to read but you're fucked if you want any of yer actual facts etc.

Having read an extract (I think it was the same one) in the Sunday Times, it's pretty clear that Hitch is no autobiographer.

What's odd, though, is that he must know how it all looks - tedious, self-indulgent, self-congratultory at all the wrong moments, pretty badly-written. So why do it? I find all the hagiographic musing on those 'New Statesman days' embarrassing at the best of times, but it's so much worse when it comes direct from one of those involved - Amis sensibly didn't say much about it in Experience.

Amis is surprisingly repellent.

Are you genuinely surprised? It's his default mode when doing any kind of public apperarance; sneering arrogance is the main characteristic of everything he says, and everything he writes.

BTW on Ayaan Hirsi Ali - aside from her bizarre idea that if only Muslims could be a bit more like Christians, everything would be ok - her core idea about Islam is that people should read the koran critically. Which is fair enough were it not for the fact that in Islam the Koran is the literal word of God (probably because this is simply not the case in Christianity). That argument is not going to convince any believers.

As I've said before, I find her a very limited thinker, if a very admirable person, which is why her easy answers get an uncritically easy ride - she says what her admirers want to hear.

Just to add - again - whither her long-prmoised magnum opus about Mohammad going to the NYPL? Why does our 'enlightenment fundamentalist' keep on writing vaguely Rousseauvian autobiography?

5/26/2010 08:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, seeing as Brian Haw's been there for nine years or thereabouts, that must count as one of Aaro's more cuntish predictions.

5/26/2010 08:51:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think that the people who've reviewed it have not knocked it as hard as they should have because:

a) they're scared of Hitchens; and / or
b) they're members of the same journalist caste, journalism racket I mean, and follow the trade's prime rule of reviewing - if you can't think of something nice to write about a fellow-hack's book then just write about something else.

When, once in a blue moon, Hitchens' work is reviewed by someone who knows what they're talking about it is savaged - see this dissection by a proper scholar:


Note that the word 'plagiarism' does not appear ...

5/26/2010 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Actually, on reading John Barrell's review I see that the p-word does appear:

there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’


5/26/2010 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous magistra said...

Even better, Barrell's LRB review then received a letter in reply from someone (reproduced on the same webpage) complaining about Barrell's 'laughably exact reading of Hitchens's text'. How dare someone actually read Hitchens closely and think he's responsible for what he writes, rather than just admire the surafce effect!

5/27/2010 05:14:00 AM  

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