Pretending to write ‘Vile Bodies’

Christopher Hitchens

  • Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy by Ben Sonnenberg
    Faber, 217 pp, £14.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 571 16545 1

On the lovely covers of the old Grand Street – a name derived from poor Jewish immigrant New York but still somehow redolent of capacity and generosity – there was the logo of a mettlesome goat. As I grew to know Ben Sonnenberg, so I grew to appreciate this animal. Impatient and randy as it is well-known to be, the goat is above all an omnivore. I have never inquired of Ben what his ambition might be, because I’m tolerably sure that he would reply, ‘To have tried everything once,’ and then make one of his Oscar Wilde gestures. But to be familiar with him, and with his library and his circle and his anecdotes, was to see how apt was Murray Kempton’s description of Grand Street as a magazine arranged like a dinner party – a dinner party, moreover, that has itself been arranged purely to gratify the host.

Awakening one morning on his guest pallet – it was during his phase as a crusading foreign editor, and he was sending me off to write about the war in Nicaragua – I found the day’s trawl of new books being unshipped. Idly turning over the stacks, I unguardedly exclaimed: ‘Golly. A whole big thing on Jewish self-hatred,’ ‘And that’s only volume one!’ he returned, fighting to control the look of wolfish conceit at such an easy score. I cursed inwardly. And now here is my revenge, ready to hand.

In Lost Property, Ben does his best to get his truest friends to recoil. He admits to rehearsing lines and preparing quotations, very often for use on impressionable feminines but, in hot and goat-like youth, on members of his own gender also. He speaks of callous seduction, of shameless use of inherited wealth, of non-effortless dandyism and of the scraping of acquaintance. By composing the occasional well-wrought trifle, here for the stage and there for some ephemeral sheet, he thought to present himself as a belle-lettriste but was ever in search either of patrons (he even thrilled himself briefly by working for the CIA) or of wretches to patronise. Rushing from the ghastly protection of the fleshiest, most corporeal papa since Ackerley’s, he reached for a succession of peacock’s feathers with which to aid the puking-up of a worthy, solid, self-made upbringing. His description of the paternal (it won’t do to say family) townhouse on Gramercy Park almost makes the reader gag in turn with its sheer bulk and richness. Sonnenberg père laid a curse on subsequent generations by fathering the modern science of PR and doing well without doing good: his preferred comment on hearing the distant plash of a dropped name was to say: ‘Yes, he’s been to the house.’

Discoursing on some topic or other, Ben gave a twist to my perspective a few years back by remarking that it was the younger sons, in the Old South, in whom the stirrings of abolitionism occurred. No such luck in his own case. He grew up staring directly at the prospect of succession, and bolted into scenes like this:

In our ten or so months together, Posie told me that she had not come. Not once? Not ever.

Not with the famous playwright dying of cancer in his room at the Mayflower Hotel? (My father had known him.) Not with the Italian whose pipe I’d found on the bathtub while bathing her children? Not with G. in his studio on Twenty-third Street, not with S. at the Hotel Albert. Not with A.- ... Not even with her dead husband? Not ever! And not even, with me, when –? ‘I lied?’ ...

Now holding my hat (a Cavanaugh) over the wound in my heart, I made to go, planning vaguely to return years later and take my revenge, as at the end of Le Rouge et le noir Julien Sorel comes back and murders Sophie de Rênal.

So did I give my love to a man who had no uncalculated thought, no unplanned affections, no unblazoned brand-name from the Burlington Arcade to the Rue de Rivoli? A man who expected English hostesses to know who and what he meant by Henry James? I think not. This whole memoir has the hot, concocted fragrance of the Casement diaries. (It will be recalled that Claud Cockburn, much-admired with the rest of his family by Ben Sonnenberg, proposed that those diaries were not a forgery, but were instead the record of what Casement wished he had done, but hadn’t. ‘Apart from anything else – wouldn’t have had time,’ said Claud, sapiently.)

Ben Sonnenberg is, in point of fact, a far from opulent radical Jew who does good by stealth and atones with restraint for the vulgarity of his father. Once, as I was on my way to Southern Africa, he put me up for the night and in the morning said: ‘Would a thousand dollars be of the slightest use to you?’ The elaborate indifference of the phrasing was the pointer to a deep well of thwart-ed philanthropy, which only lacked the means with which to endow itself properly. (It was also evidence of the better sort of Anglophilia, though the real Ben always preferred philhellenism to this most facile of American affectations.)

Far from being a lounge lizard, he is a renowned Stoic. Shall I forget the evening with Ted Hughes where Ben, confined to a wheelchair by a cruel sclerosis, listened to the poet describing a faith healer he knew? The rest of us sat congealed with awkwardness as Hughes told of crooked spines made straight, wholeness restored to dead limbs and other bucolic wonders. Breaking the impasse with wondrous gentleness, Ben inquired playfully: ‘How is he with MS?’ ‘Oh, quite good I believe,’ said the bard, before plunging on heedless to say how solid the village savant was with murrain-infested sheep.

In these pages, there is nothing but generosity about Hughes, who did in fact come to see his mistake and to fix an appointment – try anything once – with said healer. On the day after, I rang Ben with real trepidation. ‘No, nothing. But I’m glad in a way not to have profited from such a practice, or given it any credit for a success.’ I thought that this was one of the nobler remarks I’d heard.

Other hints at his real life are left for the adept to discover. We learn of Ben’s help to the struggling guerrillas of benighted Portuguese Africa, though this is typically disguised as a pose, or posed as a disguise. Struggling authors, old friends down on their luck, indigent poets, persecuted Palestinian refugees – all are requited at the common board. The apparent flippancy – think nothing of it, dear boy – will deceive no one.

There is a trick to getting people to do things for you, as Sonnenberg got people to do their best work for Grand Street, and that trick consists in pretending to be humble and impressed: ‘I asked Ted about some detail in his poem “The Casualty”, the handkerchief perhaps, sure he would be flattered and impressed by my interest. He answered as though why I had asked didn’t count and that flattered and impressed me.’

Only on the last page does Ben let people into the secret. Having pretended throughout to a likeable writer’s block and a hopeless want of promise, he gives us one of his finest love poems – one written, furthermore, to his wife. The old goat has the last laugh by pretending to write Vile Bodies and practising, on a public well-used to the supposed arts of ‘full disclosure’, one of the best teases on record.