But it’s hard to make progress with grief. And I feel very stuck with him, in that every day I give a sort of groan or a shout of incredulity. I just can’t believe it. And I also think, it’s so radical of him to die, so contrarian, so left-wing, so extreme. And it was long in coming, too.
His long sickness, you mean?
His son asked me, has this put you off smoking? And I said, no, it’s put me off medical treatment. He was so determined and resolute about that—he tried all that there is to try. And in the last months, you’d be sitting with him in hospital, and every ten minutes someone came in and did something unspeakable do him—stuck something down his nose. What killed him, in fact, was not the cancer, but the hospital. He had three or four bouts of hospital-borne pneumonia. It doesn’t work anymore, hospital.
I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly scared of death—but scared of dying, the process. There’s an Iris Murdoch novel where a character who’s dying says, I do so want to die well, but how is it done? A good question. And Hitch certainly died well—without self-pity. And without loss of humor. Because it’s often been said that it’s very hard for a dying person not to be a villain. I very much fear that I’ll be not a good advertisement for the process.
Not as good as he was.
Not a chance. He was very brave. Not just at the end. He was fearless. When we were younger, we’d be in ferocious pubs, for instance, and some altercation would begin, and you’d be saying, Hitch, let’s sort of slip away, and he wouldn’t back down an inch, ever. I never had that kind of physical courage. And it’s nice being brave. It’s a great resource.
The other great thing is that he never felt the least shame about it. I think people are much afflicted by shame when they’re dying. Especially in a culture like America, where there’s such pressure to be up.
I was really struck watching the eulogy you gave, oriented around the question of what you called the “charisma of the Hitch,” down to his autocontrarianism. It made me think of your own charisma. As a writer, you seem to play a much more vivid role in the lives of your readers than most.
I sometimes feel I’m a sort of cult writer, rather than a mainstream writer, in that those who like my stuff like it a lot, but the appeal is not that broad. And I’d like to think it’s like I felt when I first read Bellow or Nabokov, felt after a couple of pages with the first one I’d tried, that this is one for me, I have to read everything they’ve written.
Someone said of my stuff that I deliver truisms with enormous force. And I don’t mind that—I think it’s not bad, actually. I think the effects are achieved with some subtlety, but I’m not really interested in subtlety. And I think a lot of people who read fiction are interested in subtlety, and respond to that. But they wouldn’t like my stuff. It’s a bit too violent for many tastes.
What about violence has been so transfixing to you?
Don DeLillo’s huge novel Underworld is about this—the psychological effects of living in the age of mutual assured destruction, which is what he did and I did from birth on. Deterrence was in place four days after I was born, with the first Russian test in 1949. And it made everything feel contingent. DeLillo reached a conclusion that I share—that love has two opposites, one is hatred and one is death. Death was sort of in the air until the fall of communism. And love took a beating in those years.
And there were times when death would come to the forefront, as in Cuba, when I was 13, during [the missile crisis]. And I remember feeling sick to my stomach for a week, absolutely sick to my stomach.
Were you in America at the time?
No, I was in Cambridge, I was in school. Terrified and nauseous. It’s different now. But I think those who lived through it have come away with a bit of damage to their capacity to love, and trust, and all those kinds of emotions. I like the paragraph in [my novel] The Pregnant Widow about this: The only time you came out with how worried you were in this war, the only time you fought it, this cold war, was when you were asleep, in your dreams. That’s where you did your army service, in your sleep. Eric Hobsbawm called it the contest of nightmares—a very good phrase, a deep phrase, because that’s what it was. Bad dreams from the Western bloc to the Eastern bloc.