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Bellow, Hitchens, and COMMENTARY

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis's] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?”

In his letter to Ozick, Bellow wrote that Hitchens had identified himself as a regular contributor to the Nation — a magazine Bellow had stopped reading after Gore Vidal “wrote his piece about the disloyalty of Jews to the USA” – and as a great friend of Said:

At the mention of Said’s name, Janis [Bellow] grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary – the Jewish Right. … [He said] he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. … Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Then Bellow broadened the point of his letter:

Well, these Hitchenses are just Fourth-Estate playboys thriving on agitation, and Jews are so easy to agitate. Sometimes (if only I knew enough to do it right!) I think I’d like to write about the fate of the Jews in the decline of the West — or the long crisis of the West, if decline doesn’t suit you. The movement to assimilate coincided with the arrival of nihilism. This nihilism reached its climax with Hitler. The Jewish answer to the Holocaust was the creation of a state. After the camps came politics and these politics are nihilistic. Your Hitchenses, the political press in its silliest disheveled left-wing form, are (if nihilism has a hierarchy) the gnomes. … And it’s so easy to make trouble for the Jews. Nothing easier. The networks love it, the big papers let it be made, there’s a receptive university population.

So many ironies in this episode: only a few months before, Hitchens had learned that his mother and maternal grandparents were Jews, and that he was thus a Jew himself. Today he technically qualifies as part of the Jewish right (and believes that the U.S. military attracts the nation’s most idealistic people). He would write an introduction to a new edition of The Adventures of Augie March and receive a warm letter from Bellow; he left the Nation, in part because of the magazine’s tolerance of Gore Vidal, and he fell out with Edward Said, in part because of Said’s rigid anti-Americanism. Hitch-22 is marred by the occasional eruption of Hitchens’s anti-Zionism (reflecting his longstanding Palestinian blind spot), but it is a fascinating account of an extraordinary life by someone who traveled a long road after that dinner 20 years ago.



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