Finding out that Joseph Heller was strongly influenced by Franz Kafka in writing Catch-22 caused me one of those ‘oh yeh.’ moments, similar to finding out that Woody Allen based his early screen persona on Bob Hope. But there is something so unique about the later versions that I hadn’t noticed. Obviously, the lesson is: if you’re going to steal, steal big. No one will suspect.
Lord knows how many times I’ve read Catch-22 (about three) but I can tell you the last time, because I had book-marked it with a rail ticket to Burnt Oak dated Dec 2000. All the set pieces are present and correct: the old Italian brothel keeper preaching cowardice, Orr continually building and taking apart his stove, Aarfy jabbing his pipe stem into Yossarian’s stomach as the flak explodes around them. When four obscure characters from the novel came up on a recent episode of Only Connect I was proudly able to identify each, and make scathing noises as the actual contestants failed to spot them. Snowden, a photographer? Pah!
Yossarian suffers a little from being the author’s voice, but manages to keep himself distinct by initiating many of the novel’s anti-establishment actions. But it’s Milo who shines. The capitalist making hay while all around him falls apart: promoted and promoted.
You never know what is going to date. Richard Attenborough’s films probably started to age a few years after they were out of the can: the pacing is wrong, the character treatment sentimental, the camera work weird. Ghandi was made in the 80s but looks older than If…. from 1968. But then Malcolm McDowall’s pugnacious face may never grow old.
Catch-22 is still vital. Every irony bang-up-to-date. If there’s a misstep it’s the 1950s US macho: If the assault on Nurse Duckett had been written today, it would have been with a different intention.
And I’m looking for answers to my current novel problems. If there is one lesson it’s the constant exasperating, frustrating, infuriating energy of the thing. If such things could be bottled and poured down the book spine it would certainly rescue me from my disjointed backstories and aimless wanderings.
Still, deep breath. Back into battle.