« B.W.O. - love this | Main | the addict? go figure »

The stories behind some of literature's best-known novels

Would ‘Catch-22’ still be a masterpiece if it was called ‘Catch-18’? Why did T S Eliot change the name of ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ to ‘The Waste Land’? Gary Dexter tells the stories behind some of literature’s best-known novels

Catch-22 (1961)
“Catch-22” has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind. Joseph Heller complained that the phrase “a Catch-22 situation” was often used by people who did not seem to understand what it meant. Given the mental contortions of the catch, this is not surprising.

There are no catches 1 to 21, or 23 onwards, in the book. “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22.” Like the final commandment left at the end of Animal Farm, “Catch-22” is an entire rule book distilled into one lunatic decree. Its very uniqueness meant that Heller had to think carefully before naming, or numbering it. And his choice was – Catch-18.

In the Second World War, Heller was a bombardier with the 12th Air Force, based on Corsica, and flew 60 missions over Italy and France. Yossarian in Catch-22 is a bombardier flying the same missions. In 1953, Heller began writing a book called Catch-18, the first chapter of which was published in the magazine New World Writing in 1955. When, three years later, he submitted the first large chunk of it to Simon & Schuster, it was quickly accepted for publication, and Heller worked on it steadily – all the time thinking of it as Catch-18 – until its completion in 1961. Shortly before publication, however, the blockbuster novelist Leon Uris produced a novel entitled Mila 18 (also about the Second World War). It was thought advisable that Heller, the first-time novelist, should be the one to blink.

Heller said in an interview with Playboy in 1975: “I was heartbroken. I thought 18 was the only number.” A long process of numerical agonising began in which the author and his editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, worked their way through the integers looking for the right, the unique formula. Catch-11 was one of the first suggestions, but was rejected because of the film Ocean’s Eleven. Heller at one point settled firmly on Catch-14, but Gottlieb threw it out for being too nondescript. When 22 came up, Gottlieb felt it had the right ring: “I thought 22 was a funnier number than 14,” he told the New York Times Review of Books in 1967. Heller took two weeks to persuade.

But the journey from 18 to 22, although tortuous, was worth making. The reason is this: 22 has a thematic significance that 18 and most of the other choices do not. In Catch-22, everything is doubled. Yossarian flies over the bridge at Ferrara twice, his food is poisoned twice, there is a chapter devoted to “The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice”, the chaplain has the sensation of having experienced everything twice, Yossarian can name two things to be miserable about for every one to be thankful for, all Yossarian can say to the dying Snowden is, “There, there”, all Snowden can say is: “I’m cold, I’m cold”, Yossarian overhears a woman repeatedly begging “please don’t, please don’t”, and Major Major is actually Major Major Major Major.

Doubling is thus a stylistic device suggestive of the qualified nature of reality. Nothing is singular, unblurred or unambiguous. The title, with its doubled digits (2 representing duality, itself doubled to make 22) conveys this in a way that Catch-18 could never have done.

It seems clear therefore that what happened when Simon & Schuster found out about Leon Uris’s book was a piece of great good luck.

For the complete article.

del.ici.ous digg reddit StumbleUpon facebook Technorati Twitter


XINE, you find the neatest stuff! Off to read -- sounds fascinating!