Prose by Another Name Wouldn’t Read the Same

Book: Arguably

Author: Christopher Hitchens

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Pages: 788

Price: Rs 999

Christopher Hitchens died a few months ago. Lovers of English prose were dealt a serious blow. Luckily, he leaves behind "the tender graces of a day that is dead". Arguably can be read as a long, classy epitaph written by one who knew that he was being inexorably beaten by malignant cells within his frame. It is a collection of essays published in various magazines between 2005 and 2011. Most of them are book reviews. There are some polemical pieces dealing with contemporary issues and some unforgettable ribald pieces, including a not-to-be-missed essay on the solemn subject of fellatio and another one on the lasting gifts of the late unlamented British empire.

Hitchens writes mainly on recent biographies of writers and uses the opportunity to give his own take on the authors and their output. He deftly weaves together lives and works of the writers. Contrary to his waspish image, he is almost always quite charitable and in the last analysis, he urges us to judge individuals by the range, depth and weight of their outputs and forgive as far as possible the foibles, frailties and weaknesses (and they seem to have many) of the writers themselves.

The sheer range of Hitchens' interests, his depth of understanding and his ability to make uncanny connections simply because he has read so much else and has pondered deeply and with sensitivity over what he has read, is awesome. Hitchens' book can be a prescribed text for any course on Twentieth Century Western Civilisation, especially its Anglo-American sub-set. The writers he brings to life for us include Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, Jessica Mitford, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Philip Larkin, Stephen Spender, C.L.R. James, Martin Amis and J.K. Rowling. There are numerous references to W.H. Auden, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie although there are no separate essays dedicated to them. Hitchens brings to our notice other writers, who normally do not get that much critical attention, whose importance in my estimation went up not only for what they said but for their importance in the troubled history of the century gone by. I am now convinced that it is important to go back and read or re-read John Buchan, Edward Upward, J.G. Ballard, George MacDonald Fraser and Saki.

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