MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 4

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

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