I wasn’t sure what, or perhaps whom, to expect as the door opened at Christopher Hitchens’s top-floor apartment in downtown Washington. The last time I had interviewed the renowned polemicist, author, literary critic and new resident in the medical state he’s called “Tumortown” was in 2005. On that occasion, after a 5am finish to our extravagantly lubricated conversation, it was I who had felt the pressing need of hospital attention.
Since then there have been two dramatic changes in his circumstances. The first was the international bestselling success of his 2007 anti-theist tome God is Not Great. After decades of acclaimed but essentially confined labour, Hitchens suddenly broke out to a mass audience, becoming arguably the global figurehead of the so-called New Atheists. Almost overnight he was upgraded from intellectual notoriety, as an outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq, to the business end of mainstream fame. In America, in particular, he has reached that rare position for a journalist of becoming a news story himself.
Unfortunately the news, which provided the second personal transformation, was that in June he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, a malignancy whose survival ratings do not make soothing bedtime reading. As restraint is a quality for which neither Hitchens nor his critics are known, the ironies proved irresistible to many commentators. For the religiously zealous, the arch atheist suffering a mortal illness spoke of divine retribution – the unacknowledged irony being that belief in such a vindictive god served only to endorse Hitchens’s thesis.
For more secular moralists, a different kind of cosmic accountancy was at work. The celebrated drinker and smoker who once claimed that “booze and fags are happiness” had succumbed to a cancer most often associated with drinking and smoking. Having previously gone so far as to promote the benefits of teenage smoking, he offered a public recantation of sorts. “I might as well say to anyone watching,” he announced in a TV interview, “if you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails you may be well advised to do so.”
Hitchens had already impregnated the story with preemptive meaning in his prologue to his recent memoir, Hitch-22, in which he meditated on the unpredictable incursion of death. One motivation to undertake the book, he confessed, was the need to do so before it was “too ‘late'”. As he wrote those words, he had no knowledge of the tumour growing in his oesophagus which has metastasised in his lymph nodes and lung. It was not until he was on a promotional tour for the book that he fell ill and was diagnosed.
There followed the minor spectacle of prayer groups invoking the unbeliever in their spiritual communications and even, in September, the informal designation of an “Everybody pray for Hitchens day”. While avoiding any direct involvement, the writer professed himself touched by the attention. But for such an astute connoisseur of the form, these ironies were no doubt just a little too resounding for Hitchens to appreciate.