So on we go, ploughing through the novels first read about a million years ago. Like with Death Of The Heart, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 has been an Audiobook experience, listened to up and down the motorway between London and Cornwall the last few months.
As usual, credit to the inexhaustible narrator, this time @mrtrevorwhite. Boy, did he have his work cut out. But his subtle depictions of Colonel Cathcart, Aarfy, Milo, Yossarian and all the rest are truly memorable, and worth way more than the ticket price.
Anyway, on to the book. It’s a reminder of so many things. Firstly, the sheer incomprehension of the nature of war, as memorable now as ever it must have been since first publication in 1961. The skilful elision of brute and inhumane bureaucratic process with the daily imposition of death. The fantastical but probably not as unlikely as one might think speculations on the potential for the Great American Dream (in economic terms) to invade the military machine: remember, this was published in 1961 and joked about Milo Minderbinder bombing his own troops because the diktats of the market required him to do so – hmm, what might Richard Branson’s Virgin empire be prepared to do in the name of privatising previously publicly-owned assets?
So if anything, the novel pleased me more than I might have hoped, the endless repetition of key dialogue tropes – “You bastard!” “What? I can’t hear you?” “I said, You Bastard!” “I still can’t hear you.” ad delightfully infinitum – creating a compulsively dream-like world where horror and humour live together. Snowdon, the dying rear gunner who features so strongly in the film version with Alan Arkin memorably as Yossarian, here features more profoundly as a brief and horribly tragic ghost.
It is, without question, one of the great novels. Inevitably it must have been a collaborative process with Robert Gottlieb’s editorial team at Simon and Schuster working long hours with Heller to shape the final version. And in many ways, the final published novel could still have been edited further, with its payoff at the end of the revelation of Orr’s escape to Sweden and Yossarian’s frankly weak final commitment to escape himself delivering a watered-down ending to such a magnificent work.
But it’s there. And in the week when Phillip Roth died – could he have even considered Portnoy’s Complaint had it not been for Heller? – it’s worth both remembering the greatness of Catch 22, its author Joseph Heller and the importance of paying appropriate respects to a 20th century masterpiece.