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Q&A: Hitchens on Literature: An interview with author Christopher Hitchens

An interview with author Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens in Washington, DC / Summer 2004

Photograph by Warren Darius Aftahi


Monday, May 02, 2005

By The Editors

The complete interview with writer and Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens can be found in Issue 20: The Boxing Issue, available for purchase on this site.

The interview took place in Washington D.C. in summer 2004.

Stop Smiling: You've written on a number of occasions, but never explained entirely, that you write in a somewhat posthumous manner.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Write as if it's your last words. Because then you can be sure that you don't wonder, ?Will the agent like this? Will my publisher say, 'Well, couldn't we punch it up a bit more or make it more fancy?' What will my family think?? All the things that constrain people.

SS: Does that work as a deterrent to your being edited?

CH: Yes. It does, I think. Because people would judge you a lot more if they think, ?Well, he won't do [this or that].? They'll say, ?Don't use the word 'Promethean.'? Actually, that happened recently. I used the word ?Promethean? and the [magazine editors] said, ?Take that out because people won't know what Promethean means.? I said, ?Maybe they won't. I'll cut it out if you give me another synonym for it. You give the words that would stand in for it and I'll change it.? ?There doesn't seem to be one,? they said. ?No, there isn't, is there?? You either know what ?Promethean? means or you don't. If you do, it saves you about 50 words. And if you don't, then you can look it up! So I said, ?No. I'm going to keep it, because it's an important word and it's actually not condescending to Americans in the least. You have to condescend far more by finding the 50-word substitute. No, I won't change it. Fuck you. And I don't mean to publish in your magazine, either, for that matter.?

I'm reading this review, and I happen to remember ? I forget what the review was of ? but they mentioned Tolstoy. This sentence said, ?This is reminiscent of the 19th Century Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy.? Now, clearly, the author [of the review] had not written this. But someone had thought, ?Not all our readers know who Tolstoy is. We better tell them.? This is ridiculous! If you don't know who he is, that doesn't tell you any more than what you don't know.

SS: Same as ?Homer of the Iliad.?

CH: Yes. ?Homer's Iliad, based on Homer's The Iliad.? ?The 19th century Russian novelist?? It's insulting, the people who do that. It completely broke the rhythm of the writer's sentence. Whatever he had, it's completely undone by shoving all this crap in. It's yet another case of one thinking, ?What are they taking me for? Do they think I'm a moron??

SS: It's insulting.

CH: There's those who don't know Tolstoy and those who do. It isn't helping those who don't. I understand helping those who don't: I try not to use a foreign phrase if it isn't dead obvious in the context.


SS: I had read recently that Kissinger persuaded Alexander Solzhenitsyn to not speak at the White House.

CH: No.

SS: Could you tell us what that story was about?

CH: When Solzhenitsyn was kicked out of the Soviet Union, it was an amazing thing, because they were admitting that there was nothing they could do about the guy. This single guy had written a history [of Russia post-Revolution], privately. They defamed him in every possible way. They denounced him on television. There was nothing he could do to get by. And [the Soviets] finally decided that, we have to throw him out. The USSR cannot live with him within its borders. When he was picked up, people thought he was going to jail. But he was taken to the airport and dropped in Switzerland.

Already it was a fantastic story: they can't have one such person in their borders. You knew. So he decided he wants to live in America. He comes to the United States in '75, '76. Nixon's gone; Ford is president. There is a huge amount of pressure from American authors and human rights groups to petition on Solzhenitsyn's behalf. ?This guy's a hero of the Cold War. He should be invited back to the White House. He should be given a medal. He should at least be given a decent dinner.? Kissinger told Ford, ?No, Mr. President, we shouldn't have this man. He's too dangerous. It will upset my negotiations with Brezhnev.?

The only thing Ford will be remembered for aside from the Nixon pardon is that he missed the chance to have Solzhenitsyn to dinner. On Kissinger's advice. The other thing he should be remembered for is giving the green light for the invasion of East Timor. Now, no one's remembered enough for that. But that's it. That's the whole Ford story. He told Solzhenitsyn to fuck off and invaded East Timor. A great president. A great American.

Now, Solzhenitsyn is dumped in Geneva. He's told that Vladimir Nabokov lives here. He called Nabokov and asked if he could come and see him. Nabokov said sure (he was living in Montreux at the time.) I collect meetings that never occurred, but should have. Orwell wanted to meet Camus in Paris. Orwell made the appointment ? the Commie never showed up ? and off he fucked. Solzhenitsyn went to [Nabokov's] hotel in Montreux. He was so intimidated ? it was quite a grand hotel, and he didn't have much to wear ? he couldn't face going in. Nabokov never forgave people who made fun of him if they didn't show up for appointments. When he summoned the nerve to call up again, Nabokov said, ?Actually, I don't think so. In any case, I'll ask you not to interrupt my translation of Eugene Onegin.? Such a pity.

SS: There's probably a book in there somewhere.

CH: ?Missed Meetings.? Anyway, I used to think I might like to write fiction or poetry. Which, the truth of the matter is, I can't really. I mean, I can. I could if my children's lives weren't at stake. ?Will you write a short story, or will you see them roasted?? ?Okay.? I like short fiction. Or a sonnet. I was very lucky in knowing someone like Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes. I realized from hanging out with them, ?You're bad.? I'll leave that bit to them. I might do something with the essay, but I'm not going near them. No one ever lived.

I think they're very good.

I'm reading Orhan Pamuk, if you know him. Turkish writer. He's a very brilliant Turkish novelist who, I think, is on to something. You'll be hearing about him. And I read George Eliot a lot, whenever I can. And Joyce and [Jorge Luis] Borges. None of them contemporaries. But they really are contemporary. It's the gold standard, the stuff people will always read.

SS: If you could meet one author that's not alive anymore, who would it be?

CH: George Eliot. Eliot or Nabokov. I'd rather have met Orwell, I think. He was the guy who seemed to come the nearest to making journalism into literature, which is what I'm trying to do.

The complete interview is available in Issue 20: The Boxing Issue.


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