August is a fine month for literary quarrels.
Heat sharpens tempers; leisure whets the appetite for diversion; time hangs heavy on the Hamptons.
And what looks to be this season's main event is definitely a heavyweight match: Its English-born antagonists--Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens--are not only transatlantically acclaimed writers but also close friends since their university days.
"I met Martin in 1973 at Oxford and soon realized I had met the friend of my life," Hitchens, an author, essayist and political and literary columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation, said this week. "I fell in love, really. But even in love there's always a blemish. And, indeed, he had very ordinary political opinions, really wasn't interested in politics at all, actually. I just thought, here's something I know about, and he doesn't." Amis, of course, has gone on to become one of England's leading novelists, a formidable literary essayist and the author of a memoir, "Experience."
In fact, the occasion of their discord is Amis' discovery of politics as expressed in his recently released book, "Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million" (Talk Miramax Books). It is a memoir in which Amis deploys recollections of his family and friends--particularly Hitchens--to argue that denial and a willful attachment to Marxism have led the vast majority of Western intellectuals to ignore Joseph Stalin's crimes, the Great Terror and its 20 million victims. The book includes an "open letter" to Hitchens--who is made to stand as Exhibit A in the indictment--as well as Amis' reflections on his children, his dead sister and his father, the late Kingsley Amis, the novelist, poet and critic, who died in 1995. The son now seems to confess that he failed to appreciate sufficiently the rectitude of his famous father's own migration from orthodox Stalinism to right-wing anti-communism.
When, for example, Amis describes a public meeting in London at which Hitchens spoke, he is repulsed by the laughter with which the audience greets the speaker's allusion to "old comrades" and writes: "What kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old, idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.
"Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetski.
"Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerdshinsky.
"Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine."
Hitchens is having very little of it. He has written a lengthy essay--"Lightness at Midnight: Satlinism Without Irony"--for the forthcoming Atlantic Monthly in which he dissects Amis' book with a severity so thorough that it mocks the mere savagery of the usual unfavorable review.
After praising Amis as a writer who "has won and held the attention of an audience eager for [his] synthesis of astonishing wit and moral assiduity," Hitchens carefully enumerates the handful of passages in which he finds virtue. Then: "Having called attention to the splendors of this little book, I am compelled to say where I think it fails. And by 'compelled' I suppose I must mean 'obliged.' "
Among the observations that follow: "George Orwell once remarked that certain terrible things in Spain had really happened, and 'they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late.' Martin Amis can be excused for coming across some of the above names and numbers rather late in life, but he cannot hope to get away with accusing others of keeping these facts and names from him, or from themselves."
According to Hitchens, "With infinitely more distress, I have to add that Amis' newly acquired zeal forbids him to see a joke even when [as Bertie Wooster puts it] it is handed to him on a skewer with bearnaise sauce."
Amis, Hitchens writes, is guilty of "solipsism" and of "insulting" not only the memories of Stalinism's many heroic left-wing opponents, but also history itself. "Hard work is involved in the study of history. Hard moral work, too. We don't get much assistance in that task from mushy secondhand observations...."
The Atlantic's literary editor, Ben Schwarz, who commissioned Hitchens' essay, said that "when he sent me the draft of the piece, I was taken aback. I knew it would be a tough essay, but I was concerned immediately that Hitch had written some of it in the heat of the moment and would later think better of some of his remarks about Amis. Several times, I asked him to reconsider various words. He is a very careful writer. So, for example, while I think he is correct in choosing the word 'solipsistic,' I thought his closest friend might take offense at being described that way. I didn't want to be the instrument of a breach between them."