Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens
Allen & Unwin, $26.99

The most telling passage in this collection of pieces, which Christopher Hitchens produced in the year before he died from cancer last December, is one he didn't write.

In a foreword, Hitchens' editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, recalls a New York lunch in 1991. Hitchens is up against an early afternoon deadline, but he's handling the pressure well. ''Pre-lunch tumblers of scotch were followed by a couple of glasses of wine during the meal and then a couple of post-meal cognacs. That was his intake.'' Thereafter, Hitchens staggers back to the office, props himself upright in front of an old Olivetti and bashes out a ''1000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour''.

Let's grant Carter a bit of valedictory licence and call it a full half-hour. Or an hour, even. It's still astonishing. The great Australian author Alan Moorehead once compared writing to straining shit through a sock. Not for Hitchens. His stupendous gift for phrase-making and polemic was matched only by his confidence. And maybe by his appetite - for drink, talk and work.

Many people came to loathe Hitchens, largely thanks to his support for the Iraq war and his belligerent atheism; though for others, the swagger and promiscuous opinionating was sufficient provocation. When Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2010, some of his detractors couldn't contain their satisfaction. Others simply insisted on praying for the arch atheist's soul, a double-edged kindness Hitchens acknowledges here with bemusement.

Not surprisingly, this book about a ''year lived dyingly'' is not Hitchens at his muscular best. It has other virtues, though, including a generosity of spirit, undimmed curiosity and an (almost) complete absence of self-pity and rancour. There are some low-key swipes at intercessionary prayer and droll musings on Pascal's Wager (''a hucksterish choice''), but religion doesn't seem to have preoccupied Hitchens much in the months after he woke one morning feeling ''as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse''. He is more interested in life in his new environment - ''Tumourville''.

The sickbed is a ruthlessly circumscribed world, and though it has political dimensions, they're only passingly noted. Inevitably, Hitchens' attention moves inward, via the exhausting struggle with optimism and incessant advice and the etiquette of consoling the terminally unwell (''When you fall ill, people send you CDs. Very often, in my experience, these are by Leonard Cohen.'') to an account of post-radiotherapy pain so honest, it's hard to read. None of this ever threatens to change Hitchens' mind about God or politics. But he does reconsider his lifelong conviction that anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger. In fact, Hitchens finds, ''every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less''.

The best thing here is a moving celebration of the joys of speech, joys Hitchens had already farewelled as he wrote it. For him, talk is the essence of both friendship and writing. Learning to write with the candour and personable arrogance of his debating style was the making of his own prose, he suggests. ''In time, I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.''

This short, sad book has only one fault, and it's not the author's: simply that there's so little of it, just seven shortish pieces, mostly republished from Vanity Fair. Hitchens' admirers might prefer to remember him perched in front of that Olivetti in 1991 - cocky, brilliant and a bit pissed - but Mortality shows that dying is part of life, too, in this case a life unflinchingly examined, right to the end.

This story Mortality by Christopher Hitchens first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.