My friend Max Neely-Cohen recently told me about an interview with Christopher Hitchens in which he talks about the connection between writing and music.
Christopher Hitchens and I share at least three things: a publisher, a love of Saul Bellow and a strong dislike of religion. Every once in a while I would get into arguments with my ex-girlfriend about Christopher Hitchens. She thinks he’s an imperialist, misogynist pig, and I think he’s funny. And extremely fucking smart. He sways way out of line on some things, such as his continued support for the Iraq war and his needlessly polemical assertion that women aren’t funny. But even though I strongly disagree with him on certain subjects (and strongly agree on others), no public intellectual is more energetic or more fun. His boozy, boisterous, roaring nastiness somehow feels warmly old-fashioned to me, as in, this is how we used to do it back in the good old days, before we had to play nice and try not to hurt anyone’s feelings. He’s undergoing chemotherapy, and I wish there were an equivalent of “my prayers are with him” for atheists that sounds as heartfelt and genuine, but there just isn’t. Anyway, the fact that he wrote the forward to my edition of The Adventures of Augie March solidified my respect for the man.
But he says something really interesting about prose fiction and music in this interview that Max pointed out to me. Here’s the relevant part, shaved down a bit:
HH: Your memoir is soaked with names and stories of these memorable and significant contributors to fiction. But you wrote at Page 275, “I soon realized that I did not have the true stuff for fiction and poetry, and I was very fortunate indeed to have contemporaries, several practitioners of those arts who made it obvious to me, without unduly rubbing in the point, that I would be wasting my time if I tried.” How did they do that, Hitchens?
CH: Well, by their mere existence. I mean, they didn’t warn me off or anything. But when I was young, I knew I wanted to write. I knew it was all I wanted to do, and all that more or less I was able to do as it comes to that. But anyway, it was more it chose me than I chose it. And at university and later, I knew a lot of people who would, I mean, at that stage, I could have written a poem or a short story. And I guess, even in a current reduced state, I probably still could try something of the sort. But I was very lucky in meeting people who did it passionately and devotedly, and who just by osmosis, in other words, merely by reading their stuff and talking it over with them, and sometimes being shown it in early forms, I thought now wait a minute, they have a, there’s an X factor in what they can write that I don’t possess. And I have in my book a theory as to what that is, by the way. I don’t know if you remember it, but the distinction between people who can write prose and fiction and poetry, and those who can, should stay with the essay form, I think is this. All my friends who can do it have musical capacity.
HH: Oh, I remember now, yes.
CH: In one form or another, they can either play, or they can appreciate, or they can describe a musical event in a fairly educated way. Since I was very young, in fact, the first thing I found that I really, really, really couldn’t do was play a musical instrument at any level, or understand musical theory or notation. It wasn’t that I was bad. No one ever says they’re good. It was I couldn’t do it. It was like being dyslexic.
HH: Well, you also say you have an incapacity for chess and mathematics.
CH: Yes, I’m deformed. I’m very short in all those departments. And those, I find, generally cluster, the ability at chess and math and music. So I thought okay, I’ve only got one side of the brain, I keep forgetting which one it is, that works. The other is sort of walnut-sized. I think I’d do better to stay with the essayistic form.
HH: Are you aware of anyone who lacks that musical ability who is also a great novelist?
CH: Well, I get any leisure, I’ve been encouraged to develop this theory, because it seems that there must be something to it. I mean, you know, Shakespeare is full of music, for example, so is Proust. Nabokov is a very strong test. He didn’t like music. He didn’t like having it played to him. But he knew quite a lot about it and appreciated it. The more one goes into it, the more it seems like quite a useful, possible theory. But I’ve only got to its very crude adumbration so far.
I think this connection is fascinating, though I’m not sure if I agree with it. I once heard Charles Baxter say something along similar lines about Thomas Mann. There’s also James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, to name a couple examples of musically inclined writers off the top of my head. I personally have never been musically inclined either, though I wonder if some of that has to do with simply not trying to play it at an early enough age. That stuff runs in the blood. I do love music, though. I’m pretty baffled by the idea that Nabokov “didn’t like music.” To me, that’s like saying Nabokov didn’t like flowers. What’s not to like? I love a lot of music, and I don’t like a lot of music. But, as Danny Kaiser once said, “I must agree with Nietzsche that life without music would be a mistake. It’s a mistake anyway—but it’d be a worse mistake.” Also, I’ve recently been reading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a masterpiece of written music. Check this out:
The travellers then scattered apart for a bit about the wilderness of the undergrowth till they had filled their pockets with fruits and sorrels and studded acorns, the produce of the yamboo and the blooms of the yulan, blood-gutted berries and wrinkled cresses, branches of juice-slimed sloes, whortles and plums and varied mast, the speckled eggs from the nests of daws.
There’s more liquid music in that paragraph than in most songs.
And here’s a great Onion article on Hitchens.
By the way, I ganked that photo of Hitchens from a Christian blogger who began his post on Hitchens thusly:
This man is a devious liar out to claim souls for Satan. … He will convert you into an Atheist and within a week you’ll be running around your town punching old women in the face.
I would be honored if someone were to one day say the same of me.