When literature goes to war: How Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and “Catch-22″ changed the novel forever

How the great American novels of the 20th century captured the horror, humor and devastating cost of modern warfare

Topics: Books, The Novel: A Biography, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Dom DeLillo, War, literature, Editor's Picks, , ,

When literature goes to war: How Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and "Catch-22" changed the novel foreverKurt Vonnegut (Credit: AP/Salon)

The poet and editor Phyllis Hartnoll, a British publisher’s reader, reported on the submission of a young American’s first novel. She praised the energy and promise, but the overwriting repelled her. “Judging it as I would the book of a young English writer, and putting aside considerations of American crudity, vanity, under-development, and protracted adolescence—all of which play their part in the American judgment of books—I would say that his publishers have done him a disservice by publishing the book as it stands.” She advised against acquiring it.

The “Naked and the Dead” (1948) was published in Britain in 1949, the year “1984″ appeared. The narrative follows an infantry platoon fighting the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. The author was Norman [Kingsley] Mailer (1923– 2007). Hartnoll’s report underlines the gulf between British and American editing in the late 1940s, and the specific prejudices against a bold, abundant American imagination. Some Americans side with Phyllis Hartnoll. Few readers dispute the fact that “The Naked and the Dead” is long, wordy, a charge leveled at the later Mailer also.

Gore Vidal remembers his first reaction to “The Naked and the Dead”: “It’s a fake.” On subsequent visits it remained a fake, derivative of André Malraux, and of Dos Passos in its attempts at direct presentation, use of flashback, and other devices. The tyranny of linear time is a given. Tyranny is central to Mailer’s book, the boot in the face, the war against fascism generating unresisted fascism in the ranks. Sergeant Croft and Lieutenant Hearn are human, but they work under General Cummings, a lackluster Ahab. Mailer tries to be all-inclusive in terms of class, ethnicity: he wanted to write a comprehensive American novel. The absence of female characters and the relentlessly macho prose prove a Melvillean limitation.



Mailer wanted to write a great war novel. He lacked the experience and sincerity for the job. The son of a prosperous family, raised in Brooklyn, he attended Harvard and published his first story at the age of eighteen. In 1943 he was drafted into the American army and served in the Philippines, experiencing little combat (he ended the war as a cook) but gathering material for his book. It was published while he was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and it spent sixty-two weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. Gore Vidal, a highly sensitized critic repelled by Mailer’s egotism and homophobia, disliked the faux-religious tone and manner. Mailer in his abundance was kin to Thomas Woolf, but with a historical and human subject he could not get a purchase on. Vidal points to what he considers Mailer’s specific failure. “What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America.” Mailer had all the other arrogances, but in his first novel not this one. In 1971 Mailer head-butted Vidal just before a recording of the “Dick Cavett Show” because Vidal gave a bad review to “The Prisoner of Love” (1971), and the on-screen exchange is a classic of television invective. In the end, Vidal exercised the survivor’s prerogative and forgave his adversary: “Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

Martin Amis initially described Mailer as “this pampered super-brat.” But it is hard to resist his energy and directness. As he goes, he adjusts, not erasing but incorporating what comes before. Mailer stalks a subject and is not always quite sure when he has caught it, sometimes going beyond the point. His life is of a piece with his readjusting writing lens: he makes mistakes, acknowledges them, moves on. So he stabbed one of his six wives (so he ran through six wives); so he helped a lifer obtain parole and the lifer reoffended within six weeks, murdering a restaurant employee in the East Village; so he silenced debates when he was president of PEN yet maintained an often absurd libertarian position, not least in his campaign for mayor of New York City, with a program that included secession from the state and the devising of an idealistic, devolved civic anarchism. Some writers, Amis says, possess a “psychic thesaurus.” Mailer’s includes the words: ego, bitch, blood, obscenity, psyche, hip, soul, tears, risk, dare, danger, death. “When ‘The Naked and the Dead’ appeared,” Amis remembers, “I thought someone the size of Dickens was among us”—not a bad comparison in terms of scope, copiousness, and diverse focus.

James Baldwin prophesied that Mailer’s destiny would be “to help excavate the buried consciousness of this country,” recalling Stephen Dedalus: “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” But Mailer got distracted, the claims of history filtered by an overbearing ego. His humor is deadpan, the kind that divides understanders from misunderstanders. Of  ”Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1984) Martin Amis says, “Laughs in Mailer derive from close observation of things that are, so to speak, funny already”; here “the humor arises from the humorlessness.”

The novelist and essayist Jonathan Lethem as a teenager was enthralled by Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), its crudity, vanity, its fight-picking verve. Among writers Mailer was unusually plucky even for an American, and Lethem, who is intellectual and frilly by comparison, projects himself into the hairy-chested avatar. Mailer was for some of his immediate successors what Hemingway had been to him, a force and a model. To the pugilistic “Hemingway tradition” into which he writes, Amis says, Mailer brings “the element of paranoia.” He differs fundamentally from Hemingway, who recognizes what he’s up against. Mailer is unsure, thrashing about, a lot of language is involved. Economy and limitation of effect are not on his agenda. Philip Roth calls “Advertisements” “a chronicle for the most part of why I did it and what it was like—and who I have it in for: his life as a substitute for his fiction.”

Joyce Carol Oates in “The Faith of a Writer” notes that “The Naked and the Dead” was the fruit of all Mailer had learned up to the age of twenty-five. He invented the characters from life, he made notes and studied them, then put them away and started writing. The book took shape a certain distance from the preparation: “The novel itself seemed merely the end of a long active assembly line.” His second novel, by contrast, was the fruit of inspiration. “Barbary Shore” (1951) surprised him. “Why Are We in Vietnam?” (1967) he regarded as the fruit of “dictation” by the voice of Ranald (“D.J.”) Jethroe, the “highly improbable sixteen year old genius—I did not even know if he was black or white,” his Texan Holden Caulfield.

“Who but an American,” asks Nadine Gordimer with something of Hartnoll’s distaste, “could have written ‘Advertisements for Myself ‘? Or, having written it, would have given it that title? Even Norman Mailer begins to show that the fatal flaw in his strong but flawed talent may be this obsessive turning in on himself, a rending apart if not a contemplation of the navel.” Does he ever sit still enough to do that? Are his energies not invested in a whole body in movement? “If he is in fact attempting to be America’s first existentialist writer, this tendency points to the unlikelihood that he will succeed. Self-obsession rules out the explicit moral clarity demanded by an existential approach.” It is not conventional egotism, the romantic privileging of self, but rather an awareness of the uncontainable, wayward body, with its functions and thoughts, that he partly is. In the great anti-Vietnam protests in Washington he found himself in the company of the poet Robert Lowell, who becomes a character in “The Armies of the Night” (1968), as Mailer does in Lowell’s poems. Though the powerful, high-pitched poet and Mailer are so different, their temperaments are similar. Lowell’s “confessionalism” is in fact a clinical engagement with who and what one is but cannot control or fully know.

In “Armies” Mailer perfected his self-fictionalization. Bernard Malamud says, “After he had invented ‘Norman Mailer’ he produced “The Armies of the Night,” a beautiful feat of prestidigitation, if not fiction.” Already the gap between fact and fiction, narrator and writer, is blurring. Vidal refers to “Armies” and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979) as “non-fiction novels.” Classification of “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery” (1996), is difficult, too. Is it a biography or a “biography” of John Kennedy’s murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald? Don DeLillo’s 1988 “Libra” explores the same subject with more invention and supposition. For DeLillo the exhaustive Warren Report presented to President Johnson in September 1964 was a Joycean text, a “megaton novel” supporting the view of Oswald as sole agent. Mailer had the same original texts and additional fictional and speculative material that had accumulated in the eight years following the assassination. This made his task more complex.

“Armies” is in two parts, “History as a Novel” and “The Novel as History.” The symmetry is false: the omission of the indefinite article from “History” in the second half suggests History’s authoritative singularity, the Novel’s multiplicity and relativity. Mailer follows early Dos Passos, still popular when he wrote, in assembling and documenting his account, and Dreiser in detailing it. He is experimental and realist in equal degrees. Tolstoy he declares is his master: thanks to him, he escapes the solipsism of which he finds the Beats guilty, and dares to approach major themes. The present or near-present tense is where he is most at home. As a writer he fully inhabits the world in which he lives. “Barbary Shore” may be a parable with surreal elements, but it focuses on the Cold War by means of a Brooklyn boarding house and has something in common with Conrad’s “Under Western Eyes.” “The Deer Park” (1955) is based in his experience as a Hollywood screenwriter. Because of its sexual content it was slow to find a publisher but became a best seller.

From 1960, for two decades, every four years Mailer attended and described the Republican and Democratic Party conventions. John Kennedy, alive and dead, fascinated him. In “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” written for Esquire in 1960, we have one of the first exemplary texts of the New Journalism, followed up in later convention reports including the celebrated “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” The 1960 text steps, via sustained metaphor, beyond the realm of reportage and essay. The disclosure is invasive, it is about ourselves, as readers. “Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.” The underground river surfaced during the Second World War and “the life of the nation was intense, of the present, electric; as a lady said, ‘That was the time when we gave parties which changed people’s lives.’” Then it subsided again, but its memory and current were felt, and it broke through with the surprise of Truman’s victory, the Korean war, the Bomb. The nation summoned Ike, replacing Uncle with Father, and the treason trials began. We were back to two divided rivers. We were back to a world of “rhetoric without life.” Then along came Kennedy with new promise. Tom Wolfe recalled his eureka moment when journalism and fiction were emancipated: “It was the discovery that it was possible in nonfiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of-consciousness.”

“An American Dream” (1965) was serialized, and written, as Dickens wrote, while the serialization was in progress. When it was “brought to book,” Mailer’s editor was E. L. Doctorow. “Ragtime” was a decade away. Mailer enjoyed the pressure and immediacy of serial writing and journalism. “The Executioner’s Song” is a novelized account of the death and life of the murderer Gary Gilmore, based largely on interviews with the victim’s and the murderer’s friends and family. Gilmore demanded execution: the appeals process had gone on long enough. The book was awarded one of Mailer’s two Pulitzer Prizes. The enormous “Harlot’s Ghost” (1991) weighs in at 1,310 pages and is based on extensive research into two postwar decades of the CIA.

“Why Are We in Vietnam?” may prove his most enduring novel. It takes place in Alaska, where a rich Texan father and his adolescent son go hunting. The father is obsessed with killing a grizzly bear, a latter-day capitalist Ahab, only Ahab with a helicopter and a gun so powerful that when he hits his prey, he destroys it. The hunting techniques and the disparity of the quest are easily emblematic. Political allegory haunts the novel, from the title to the boy’s announcement that he will go as a soldier to Vietnam. The focus is on nature and man, what place an armed American man can occupy in the world. There is something like hope in the decisive rebellion of the son, his declaration of independence. When he encounters the bear, he expresses his integrity, approaching it in a spirit of humility and wonder. His father deprives him of the moment. He is initiated not into the sacredness of nature but into generational and familial alienation.

Mailer’s least accomplished novel was his hardest won. Begun in 1972, “Ancient Evenings” was not published until 1983. It proves Henry James right about historical fiction. Set 3,000 years ago in the court of Ramses IX, on the Night of the Pig, it is, Anthony Burgess insists, “taboo-breaking,” with fecal imagery, the sodomizing of the foe and other unsettling details, including direct contact between the living and the dead, reincarnation, and gods with hyperbolic libidos. It was not quite so radical-seeming in 1983 as it would have been in 1948. Controversy made it another best seller. William Burroughs acknowledged that “The Western Lands” (1987) was inspired by it.

Mailer’s place can be plotted on the jagged line that runs from Miller through Burroughs. But he is a documentary artist, too busy with the city and the age to permit himself a pastoral afternoon, even in Central Park. The nonfiction novel is his natural métier, he is most answerable when his writing imitates fact. He is not a fragmenting futurist but a romantic without an answering landscape. His aesthetics project a lurid sexual, philosophical, and spiritual politics. He is a deep journalist, the depth measured by his performative arrogance and his corrective sense of justice, to which he subjects his own aberrations. If we set his nonfiction novels alongside Capote’s, we contrast Capote’s artfulness, insisting on his sources, his gathering of evidence, and covering over lacunae and lies, with Mailer’s less devious approach. “The Castle in the Forest” (2007) was the first of a projected trilogy and deals with Hitler’s childhood. But Mailer died at eighty-four, shortly after it was published to relatively friendly reviews.

The same year, also at age eighty-four, another Second World War veteran died, a writer less controversial and more universally loved, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007). For a time Mailer and Vonnegut were friends because their wives were. When they went out, “Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue.” They never discussed one another’s books, or writing, except once, when Vonnegut, Mailer reports, “looked up and sighed: ‘Well, I finished my novel today and it like to killed me.’ When Kurt is feeling heartfelt, he tends to speak in an old Indiana accent.” Vonnegut’s wife resisted. She said, “ ‘Oh, Kurt, you always say that whenever you finish a book,’ and he replied, ‘Well, whenever I finish a book I do say it, and it is always true, and it gets more true, and this last one like to killed me more than any.’”

Mailer’s documentary and descriptive concentration on his subjects means he mines deep and wide. After the war experience, after his time at the Sorbonne, he had a perspective, and in this he resembled Gore Vidal. Peter Ackroyd writes in a review, “Vidal came to Europe and discovered America; Vonnegut stayed in America and seems to have found himself with increasingly little to write about.” Note the phrase “increasingly little,” the dream of any Flaubertian writer.

“So it goes.” Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a peculiar individual, not just a projection. With Vidal we hear tones, styles, litheness; we come away more with a sense of the narrator than of his characters. However deliciously, they drown in style, sometimes parodic, sometimes “period,” sometimes efficiently contemporary. Between us and the screen, there he is, now shadow, now a body interposed. His narratives seem to occur within the rectangle of a large or little screen, the bites he feeds us are of a preconsidered length. The magician remains in the act. Billy Pilgrim, on the other hand: he stands apart from his author, you can hold a conversation with him. Maybe that’s the problem. At a certain point Vonnegut realized the critics were out to get him, they wanted him “squashed like a bug,” not just because he was rich. “The hidden complaint was that I was barbarous, that I wrote without having made a systematic study of great literature, that I was no gentleman, since I had done hack writing so cheerfully for vulgar magazines—that I had not paid my academic dues.” Billy Pilgrim, “c’est moi,” just as Bunyan’s Christian carried the burden of the author’s own soul.

Billy was, like Vonnegut, born in 1922, on the fourth of July, a totemic American as well as an alter ego. He is a mess of contradictions, a scrawny giant, gaunt like a camp victim. He studies optometry and he communicates with the inhabitants of “the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.” They kidnap him, exhibit him as a zoo creature, and nobody on earth believes him when he returns. Billy, drafted in 1943 (the same year as Mailer, and Vonnegut), becomes a chaplain’s assistant and is packed off to the front line. He is taken prisoner (like the author) by earthmen at the Battle of the Bulge. He is shunted unpredictably in time as in space by captors who, after adventures, deposit him in Dresden, where as conscripted labor he is made to live in a cool meat-cellar (Slaughterhouse-Five), well under ground, with carcasses for company. He survives the firebombing of Dresden, gathering human and other remains with the cleanup teams. Arriving home, he is sent to a sanatorium to recover. Here he reads the books of one of Vonnegut’s recurrent, mysterious alter-egos, the sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout who plays a prominent role in Vonnegut’s best-selling “Breakfast of Champions” (1973). He lives and relives the separate moments of his life and is finally killed by the man who promised to track him down and murder him for a deed he did not commit.

Vonnegut remarked to his friend Saul Steinberg, “I’m a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists and good ones, but when we talk I keep feeling we are in two very different businesses. What makes me feel that way?” The silence between them is timed at six seconds. Steinberg replies, “It’s very simple. There are two sorts of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.” So it goes. There is distance between “autobiographical collage,” Vonnegut’s description of the method of “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969), in which form comes with content, and the conventionally shaped Vidal construction, even when Vidal’s subject matter is unexpected and challenging, whether in “The City and the Pillar” or in his fanciful futurology. The past of “Slaughterhouse-Five” was written and published within the present that was the Vietnam War: part of its impact was its untimely timeliness. Much of its force is in its immediacy: simple sentences, illustrations, urgency, and clarity. “The point is to write as much as you know as quickly as possible.” The speed of the journalist, a style unaffected, plain as Defoe’s.

Doris Lessing calls him “moral in an old-fashioned way . . . he has made nonsense of the little categories, the unnatural divisions into ‘real’ literature and the rest, because he is comic and sad at once, because his painful seriousness is never solemn.” His acknowledgment and expression of the nuanced nature of experience makes him “unique among us; and these same qualities account for the way a few academics still try to patronize him.” As though what he does is easier than the resolved plotting of more derivatively artful novelists. “Slaughterhouse-Five” declares itself a failure in its closing lines, David Lodge remarks; in fact, it is Vonnegut’s best book, “and one of the most memorable novels of the postwar period in English.” Vonnegut told John Barth’s writing students that, “like all writers,” he wrote fiction “in the secret utopian hope of changing the world.” That’s how real his art is, inhabiting its reality.

After Vonnegut was liberated by the Soviet Army, the war was over and he returned to the United States. He went to the University of Chicago to study anthropology and returned to journalism as a reporter, chasing ambulances. His research plans were rejected, but in 1971 his fourth—and his first successful— novel, “Cat’s Cradle” (1963), was accepted for the master’s program: it had sufficient “anthropological content.” When he was teaching at Iowa, “Cat’s Cradle” became a best seller. He began on “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Because it stays close to his own memories, yet retains precision and humour, “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death” (the full title, like an eighteenth-century blurb-title, goes on for forty-five words) surpasses Cat’s Cradle as a novel. It en-gages memory at its most extreme; it risks direct address (“All this happened, more or less”) before establishing the indirection of the narrative.

But “Cat’s Cradle” is essential Vonnegut. Felix Hoenikker, a fictional inventor of the A-bomb, plays cat’s cradle at the moment the bomb is dropping through the air on Hiroshima. One of Vonnegut’s jobs entailed interviewing scientists about their research. He came to believe that the scientists lacked a moral understanding of the consequences of their wilder findings: their intellectual freedom imperiled the human species. Hoenikker discovered the formula for “ice-nine,” a fatal transformer of water into a solid substance. The story takes us to an impoverished fictional island in the Caribbean where a hybrid dialect of English is spoken and Papa Monzano (not unlike Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti) tyrannizes. Vonnegut the anthropologist created a weird, consistent, and coherent society, its suppressed religion of Bokononism, its extreme Christianity. The science is as plausible as in a novel by Wells, and the climax almost credible. Apocalypse comes when by accident the waters of the world solidify, and John (or Jonah; the book opens on a parodic note, “Call me Jonah”) the narrator-protagonist—living in a cave with a handful of survivors—commits his account to paper, a testament to human stupidity. The invention of a religion, a language, and a political system, as well as the invention of the water-science necessary for the plot, combine elements that on the face of it are incompatible: a primitive social order and specialized scientific work. Incompatibility is the theme: the world is not ready for the extreme discoveries of science and is at risk when entertaining them. The story is satirical, comic, exciting; the fates of the too-numerous and stylized characters rather matter.

In his “autobiographical collage” “Palm Sunday,” Vonnegut graded his works to date, giving his first novel, “Player Piano” (1952) a B, his second and third books both A’s, and so on. His two A+ novels are “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-Five.” His later work he grades more harshly, with a couple of D’s and C’s. The highest marks are reserved for books in which the science elements, such as time travel, are developed as crucial parts of the plot, leaving the narrator free to get out of painful spaces long enough to establish an ironic purchase on them. “Breakfast of Champions” merits only a C despite its popularity; he used felt-tip sketches, long paradoxes, leaps in time, to foreground the process of composition, metafiction taking control, though the author’s identity is not in doubt. The I who debates with I shares Vonnegut’s life experience. Some characters and themes weave through the novels—familiarly, if not reassuringly, suggesting that the number and variety of books belong to a single project. With “Timequake” (1997) he called it a day: the millennium was before him, he had issued warnings and told the story of his time obliquely, luminously, setting formal challenges that distracted him and us from the explosive material that was his subject, and then delivered it in full.

Vonnegut the voice of conscience, the Trotskyite, the devotee of homegrown socialist leaders, was also Vonnegut the rich investor. His portfolio of shares included Dow Chemical, manufacturers of napalm, despite the reek of charred flesh in Dresden and his stated opposition to the Vietnam War. He spoke up for green causes yet invested in strip-mining companies. Having signed the anti-Vietnam pledge by writers and editors to withhold taxes in protest against the war, he would not bestir himself to campaign for the antiwar presidential candidate. In his eighties he spoke out unguardedly of suicide bombers who go to death for their “self-respect.” In the second Bush administration, he reports a sardonic nostalgia for the Nixon years.

There are no realized women characters in Vonnegut, though he claims his ideal reader, the one he wrote for, was his beloved sister, three of whose children he adopted at her death. Her warmth, her tones, her close silence, elicited from him jokes and hard truths. He does not regret the absence of love themes and women. “I have other things I want to talk about.” He compares his experience with Ralph Ellison’s. If the hero of “Invisible Man” “had found somebody worth loving, somebody who was crazy about him, that would have been the end of the story.”

Don DeLillo dedicated his thirteenth novel, “Cosmopolis” (2003), to Vonnegut and to Paul Auster. It is his traffic jam novel: the young billionaire protagonist despite all his money cannot get the jam to break. The president is in town, the town is New York. With Eric Packer go fiction and metafiction. Updike describes the book as one of “extravagant wealth and electronic mysticism.” What DeLillo seems to have learned from Vonnegut is a lesson about the open plot: “The trouble with a tale where anything can happen is that somehow nothing happens.” Vonnegut escapes this peril because however metafictional and science-fictional he becomes, there is historical incident, and slowly it yields its truths to imagination and memory. The reality of Dresden he lived, but it took time for him to register the magnitude of the event: “It was a secret, burning down cities—boiling pisspots and flaming prams.” To tell the truth, he had to avoid heroisms. A friend’s wife remarked to him that, as soldiers, he and his comrades “were just children then. It’s not fair to pretend that you were men like Wayne and Sinatra, and it’s not fair to future generations, because you’re going to make war look good.” He needed this “very important clue”: “She freed me to write about what infants we really were: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. We were baby-faced, and as a prisoner of war I don’t think I had to shave very often. I don’t recall that that was a problem.”

Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (1923–1999) are cut from similar motley. Dark humorists, veterans of the Second World War at its most extreme (Heller had sixty bombing missions in six months of 1944), they had their big success relatively early, and then a long, troubled aftermath. Neither was ever quite made welcome at the top table of American literature. The unconventionality of their success was held against them. “Oh God,” said Vonnegut when he learned of Heller’s death, “this is a calamity for American literature.” John Updike took it in his stride. The “sweet man” had produced his “important” novel first. “Too many homines unius libri like Heller,” said Anthony Burgess, with Vonnegut in mind, too—one-book men. One book can be enough. And one-book writers generally have a substantial bibliography underfloating the tip of the iceberg.

Like Vonnegut’s, Heller’s writing was affected by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894–1961), an “important” novelist with a decisive first book, whose anti-Semitism (an insistent aspect of a wider misanthropy) has affected his legacy. Some of his books cannot be legally reprinted in France. Céline developed a gappy, episodic, colloquial style. His best work absorbs the picaresque spirit into the style itself. The discontinuities, the diverse vernacularity, the Rabelaisian hyperboles and abrupt transitions disclose a protagonist in transit through a world of disparities. There was nothing new in the constituent parts, but the ensemble was appropriate to the extreme experience of modern men. In English his best-known book is his first, “Journey to the End of Night” (“Voyage au bout de la nuit,” 1932) with its antiheroic protagonist, Ferdinand Bardamu, his experiences drawing on Celine’s own picaresque life. It involves the First World War, French colonial Africa, and the United States in the postwar period, and then Bardamu (like Céline) becomes a physician among the Paris poor. Modern medicine and science are satirized, along with modern industrial practice (he spent time at the Ford Motor Company) and other aspects of a world distorted by the will of money, machines, and untried ideas.

His misanthropy is expressed in hollow, nihilistic laughter as the tumbril bears us to a place of execution. Bardamu in the end works at an asylum not far from the “normal” world he has created. Henry Miller channeled Céline’s writing to American readers. Charles Bukowski called him “the greatest writer of 2000 years,” a verdict worthy of Céline himself. He became a defining port of call for many would-be moderns. Kerouac and Burroughs are in his debt as well.

Joseph Heller, son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was born in Brooklyn. He started writing early, in an earnest spirit. When he left school, he wandered among jobs for a year, as an apprentice blacksmith, delivery boy, clerk, and then enlisted in 1942 in the Army Air Corps. On the Italian Front in 1944 he flew the combat missions that the jinxed protagonist Captain John Yossarian in “Catch-22″ flies, though Heller’s missions were less perilous than Yossarian’s, mainly milk runs with limited flak. After the war, he studied English at the University of Southern California and New York University under the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. The arts benefited from the Bill, which assisted writers, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, and James Wright. Heller told Vonnegut that but for the war, he would have been in dry-cleaning. He took his MA in English from Columbia University and went to Oxford on a Fulbright for a year. At Pennsylvania State University he taught “composition” for two years, and then creative writing— fiction and script—at Yale. Then he went into advertising and began publishing his not very distinguished stories.

What turned Heller into the author of “Catch-22″? He is not a “literary” writer but in his culture an everyman, which is one reason he speaks directly to an enormous range of readers. Howard Jacobson contrasts novelists “who mind their words” in the manner of Flaubert, “and novelists who don’t—those who inherit the line of interminable telling, of inexhaustibility and seeming garrulousness, that begins with Rabelais and gets a second wind with Dickens.” Though Heller is of the latter kind, Kafka’s The Trial stayed with him as a grim comic nightmare, and the popular Jewish iconoclastic tradition of downbeat humor affected both of them. It is a kind of humor that has come to draw on and feed back into cinema and television. Kafka was a keen filmgoer, influenced by early European cinema; Heller for his part relished the 1940s and 1950s comedy of Abbott and Costello and the “Phil Silvers Show” featuring Sergeant Bilko (1955–1959). He in turn had an impact on the film “MASH” (1970) and “M*A*S*H” the television series (1972–1983). Vietnam becomes a frame through which we read the novel’s action, the blunders and attrition of that slow, unambiguous defeat. Over 10 million copies of “Catch-22″ have sold since it was first published to mixed reviews.

“Catch-22″ (1961) was originally to be entitled “Catch-18″ but Leon Uris (1924– 2003) published “Mila 18″—about the Jewish experience under the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto—earlier that year and Uris was famous already with “Battle Cry” (1953) and “Exodus” (1958), both with successful film versions. “Catch-22″ as a phrase has become part of the language. It describes those lose-lose situations in which the outcome will be negative whatever choice is made. “Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.” The catch here is that either way the illness turns he will be returned to active service. During these respites, these “betweens,” the terror of the situation is exacerbated. Everything entails and then includes its opposite. Heller’s humor (“he catches us out with comedy,” Jacobson says) and his anger are contiguous. He does not preach and yet radically instructs.

Heller had written some lackluster stories. One day in 1953, two lines came to him.

It was love at first sight.
The first time he saw the chaplain, [name] fell madly in love with him.

The narrative began to take shape, he wrote twenty pages out by hand, he was on his way. When the book was published in 1961, after years of index cards (shades of Nabokov) and breathless narrative runs, the first two lines had become,

It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Robert Gottlieb, his Simon and Schuster editor, worked closely with the author and tried to deflect some of the critics. Waugh repaid Heller’s admiration by a tart letter to Gottlieb: “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitious—totally without structure.” Waugh was familiar with Céline’s “Voyage,” which he had read in John Marks’s English translation (1934), and Céline may have read Waugh’s “Black Mischief” and “A Handful of Dust” when they appeared in French. Heller was American, and a Jew, writing in vernaculars that offended Waugh.

Heller’s novel begins in high comedy, but in the second half the humor continues in a minor key, bleak and relentless. The Army Air Corps captain, inventing dozens of excuses to get out of combat missions, is thwarted and launched into a hostile sky. It’s everyone’s fault, it’s no one’s fault, blame can never be assigned or responsibility affixed. The world is mad, and Yossarian must navigate that madness on its terms or become its victim.

Nadine Gordimer speaks of “Catch-22″ in the same breath with the German novelist Günter Grass’s ‘The Tin Drum.’ “Like Grass’s Oscar, Heller’s Captain Yossarian is a kind of Last Man—a sum total of humanness . . . in a world where men have imprisoned themselves. The law of supply and demand grills and drills them. God is a searchlight turned on now and then by the jailers in the observation tower.” Yossarian decides to “live forever, or die in the attempt.” In the preface Heller wrote for a new edition of “Catch-22″ in 1994, he declares his hero still alive. One day he will pass away: “But it won’t be by my hand.” And “Closing Time” (1994) revisits some Catch-22 survivors in their later years.

Many characters do survive, they even prosper within paradox: Milo Minderbinder the entrepreneur, for example, turns everything to credit and sells out to the Germans on reasonable terms; the women we meet prey on the men, the world remains impervious to the feminizing effect that the end of hostilities (will it ever be called peace?) might be expected to bring. The main ideological conflict underlying the war is ignored: what matters is the conflict within a single culture, a single organization, not the enemy without but the one within. The abstractions of ideology are as nothing to human nature, playing with the overextended structures of hierarchy and restraint.

Of his remaining six novels, only the second, “Something Happened” (1974), rivals “Catch-22.” Its arresting first sentence, Joyce Carol Oates suggests, more or less dictates what is to follow. Heller’s false starts on novels begin with just such sentences; they begin to germinate but then stop growing. If growth continues for a hundred or more pages, there will be a book. “I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why. Something must have happened to me sometime.” The writing continues in the present tense, with its limitations and shortenings, and its immediacy. Here, Vonnegut says, in a description that fits “Catch-22″ as well, though it is a more hectic production, “Mr. Heller is a first-rate humorist who cripples his own jokes intentionally—with the unhappiness of the characters who perceive them.” His estranged daughter, Erica Heller, in an evenhanded memoir calls it her father’s best, “569 pages of hilarious but mordant, caustically wrapped, smoldering rage.” The book takes revenges on the protagonist’s family, and Bob Slocum shares as much with the older Heller as Yossarian does with the younger. His wife drinks too much and has been bleached by time (and neglect). The daughter is drab and hostile. Some of the dialogue, she remembers, actually occurred, including the line, “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” in the chapter entitled “My Daughter is Unhappy.”

Excerpted from “The Novel: A Biography” by Michael Schmidt, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright ©2014 by Michael Schmidt. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    "Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...