Once again, the LRB comes up trumps with its understated sarcasm: this time, the target is Christopher Hitchens and his new lite-lit book on Thomas Paine, and the marksman is John Barrell. Strictly speaking it seems to be a biography of Paine’s Rights of Man. It’s a trendy thing to do: document the work rather than the man, as if it were a man. It’s like calling pubs “The X at Y” rather than just “The X”, where you don’t notice the taste that saying it leaves in your mouth until they did it to the pub in a recent Dickens adaptation. In short, it dresses your mutton as lamb.
Verbose as usual, it still manages to hit home:
… Hitchens remarks that â€˜it is a deformity in some â€œradicalsâ€â€™ â€“ he has Marx particularly in mind â€“ â€˜to imagine that, once they have found the lowest or meanest motive for an action or for a person, they have correctly identified the authentic or â€œrealâ€ one.â€™ Quite right too; and if any radical, misled by George Gallowayâ€™s description of Hitchens as â€˜a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjayâ€™, should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken. A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert….
And this is quite early on in the review. This is before we discuss his tissue of inaccuracies, all coincidentally working to augment rather than diminish the political thrust that Hitchens would like to see in Paine. It’s before Barrell shows passages of John Keane’s 1995 biography (of Paine rather than a book) side by side with the virtual rewordings that Hitchens drops into his own work. And it’s long before Hitchens is ultimately skewered on his own pompous overestimation of himself. Worth the wait, though.