Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What am I reading? Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I just finished reading Catch-22 for what must be the fifth or sixth time. I actually downloaded the e-book, a special 50th anniversary edition (with, funnily enough, a foreword by Howard Jacobson, author of the recently-reviewed Finkler Question), some time last year, and read about half of it before getting distracted by other books and setting it aside until this weekend, when I finished the book I was reading but didn't want to leave the park yet.

I don't think I have anything particularly intelligent to say about Catch-22, except that it is brilliant. A true masterpiece. I worry sometimes that I've lost the ability to appreciate great literature, along with the rest of my youthful promise, but re-reading Catch-22 has somewhat restored my faith in myself, and in literature. I want to go back at once and refresh my memory of the first half of the book.

I first read Catch-22 at some point during my teenage years, probably about 15 or 16, around Christmas or the summer holidays (same time in New Zealand, of course), I believe after my mum gave up on it. I do remember that it took me a while to get in to the book as well, but once you get past those first few confusing chapters, with their slippery treatment of time, the book is a treasure. I'm usually a bit skeptical at blurbs which tell you you'll "laugh out loud", because how often is that true? - but in the case of Catch-22, it really is; it is a comedy of the absurd of the highest order. Much - perhaps most - of the pleasure comes from the language. There is the occasional dated slang or joke that falls a bit flat, but on the whole it is a joy to read. Unfortunately e-books are less flickable than real books, so I went to the internet to nick some quotes (and then got depressed at the websites offering quotes by theme for those determined to crib their way through a school essay or test instead of actually coming to grips with the work themselves). Luckily I found an apropos Catch-22 quote for this sensation:

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it”


and then subsequently abandoned the idea of selecting some of my favourite quotes because they just look sad and denuded, shrunk to the status of mere bons mots when no longer cocooned within the sheer magnificence which is Catch-22. You should just go read it at once.

As well as absurdist comedy and the sheer exuberance that comes from playing with language, Catch-22 does have a serious side. In particular, the dark shift in mood around Chapter 39, when Yossarian wanders through the streets of a chaotic and licentious Rome, is all the more powerful by contrast with the prevailing vein of humour, and is still as exquisitely written.

If I had one criticism, it would probably be the casual sexism that crops up repeatedly. I wouldn't go so far as to call it misogyny, but it's the sort of off-hand stuff you might expect from a WWII novel written in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, it's very much a "man's" novel. Almost all the female characters are sex objects, and most of them are prostitutes. However, I don't think that seriously detracts from the whole, and while I imagine it would speak especially to those with first-hand experience of the army or war, with much of the humour coming from the observation of army life, it's really about the human condition (albeit very grounded in the context) rather than a work that goes into the minutiae of guns and tanks and planes.

It's a book I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone. My day is certainly the richer for having spent time reading it, and I think it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that my life is as well. Thanks, Joseph Heller!

11 comments:

  1. Yes, I have actually tried and given up reading this about three times! It's one of those books you think you must read because of the raves it gets, so I give it another go - then think, "Ah, life's too short to spend time struggling to 'get' this!" I obviously should keep on with it. Maybe I'll try (yet) again - when I've retired, ha ha! In the meantime, I am glad my failure spurred you to read it, because that has obviously been a priceless gift to you! :) (Yes, I'm definitely taking the credit!) Mum xxx

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    1. Well, life is too short to read things you're not in to, but from experience this is something you can "get" if you persevere a bit, rather than just rubbish! I'll remind you to read it in about a month then ha ha! Yep, take the credit for teaching me to read while you're at it as well :)

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    2. Oh OK then, if you insist! :)
      Mum x

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  2. Catch-22 is one of my favorite books too! I loved it at 16 and I still love it. I should probably read it again soon.

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    1. It's the gift that keeps on giving!

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  3. "I'm going to live for ever or die trying" is the one I remember most.

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    1. I don't remember that, but I'm pretty sure it's been used on the Simpsons!

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  4. 39 chapters and counting - how long is this book?! I find that sometimes I have a hard time getting into books with male authors, because of their descriptions and view of woman as sex objects. It's one thing to see it on TV or hear it on the radio, but to read page after page of that type of mentality creeps me out.

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    1. Not as long as War and Peace, you'd be fine! Yes, in the scheme of things it's quite a small aspect of the book, but I did notice it more this time, perhaps from being a bit older.

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    2. Uh-oh another stumbling-block for me ... Mx

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