The 100 best novels: No 80 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
This acerbic anti-war novel was slow to fire the public imagination, but is rightly regarded as a groundbreaking critique of military madness Robert McCrum Monday 30 March 2015 05.45 BST
n 1962, writing in the Observer, Kenneth Tynan saluted Catch-22 as “the most striking debut in American fiction since Catcher in the Rye.” Within a year, he had been joined, in a chorus of praise, by writers as various as Harper Lee, Norman Mailer and Graham Greene. More than 50 years later, this brilliant novel still holds an unforgettable comic grip on the reader.
“It was love at first sight,” Heller begins, setting the tone for everything that follows. “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
Bombardier Yossarian is in a military hospital with a pain in his liver that’s not quite jaundice. Hinting at the famous “catch” of the title, Yossarian can be treated if he’s got jaundice, but discharged if he hasn’t. If neither, then he’s in a Kafkaesque limbo, where he’s at the mercy of fate.
This anticipates the notorious conditions under which a combat airman can be grounded: you have to be insane before you’re excused flying combat missions, but if you don’t want to fly any more missions that proves you are not insane. The OED defines this “Catch-22” as “a difficult situation from which there is no escape, because it involves mutually conflicting or dependent conditions”, which is a very dull way to describe the absurd crux whose mad logic exhilarates every page of one of the greatest war novels of all time.
Bombardier Yossarian, who is at odds with his own side as much as with the enemy, is an unforgettable second world war Everyman, whose cat-and-mouse relationship with a cast of deranged oddballs – Milo Minderbinder, Major Major and Doc Daneeka – is played out, amid mounting absurdity, on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean. It’s 1944, and Yossarian has figured out that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on”.
Inevitably, the high comedy with which the novel opens eventually modulates into a darker, bleaker humour, and movingly, it’s the tragic death of rear-gunner Snowden which reminds us that Heller’s merriment is the kind of gallows laughter that’s inspired by the horror of war.
A note on the text
Heller first began to write the novel that became Catch-22 in 1953, while working as a copywriter in New York. Once he’d found the famous opening – “It was love at first sight” – he had the voice he needed for the narrative.
The rest followed slowly in manuscript, and by 1957 he had about 270pp in typescript. Eventually his literary agent Candida Donadio sold an incomplete version of Catch-22 to Simon & Schuster, where it was taken up with enthusiasm by a young editor, Robert “Bob” Gottlieb, who would eventually move to Alfred A. Knopf. Gottlieb, who is now retired, after a distinguished career that included editing the New Yorker, oversaw all aspects of the novel’s appearance, and was instrumental in its launch. Heller later dedicated the novel to him as a “colleague”.
Gottlieb’s enthusiasm inspired him to send out advance copies, a strategy that (as so often) did not always work. Evelyn Waugh wrote back: “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches – often repetitious – totally without structure.”
Structure aside, the main pre-publication debate was to do with Heller’s title, which had at first derived from the opening chapter of the novel, published in magazine form (next to an extract from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), as Catch-18in 1955. Subsequently, Candida Donadio requested a change in the title, to avoid confusion with another recently published second world war novel, Mila 18 by Leon Uris, who was a bestselling literary name at the time.
Initially, Catch-11 was proposed, but then the release of the Hollywood movieOcean’s 11 (1960) raised more anxieties, and this was also rejected. So was Catch-17 (deemed too similar to the film Stalag 17), and also Catch-14. Apparently, Simon & Schuster did not think that “14” was a “a funny number”. Eventually author, agent and publisher settled on Catch-22.
Joe Heller’s first novel was officially launched on 10 October 1961, priced $5.95 in hardcover. The book was not a bestseller in hardcover in the US. Despite selling 12,000 copies before Thanksgiving, it never entered the NYT bestseller list. However, Catch-22 got good notices (and bad: Heller later said that “the disparagements were frequently venomous”).
There were positive reviews from the Nation, which saluted “the best novel to come out in years”; the Herald Tribune (“A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book”), and the New York Times (“A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights”). Elsewhere, for example in the New Yorker, there was critical rage: attacks on a book which “doesn’t even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper... what remains is a debris of sour jokes”.
Nevertheless, it was nominated for the National Book Award, and went through four printings in hardcover, selling especially well on the east coast. The book never established itself nationally until it was published in paperback, and benefited from a national debate about the pointlessness of the Vietnam war. Abroad, Heller had better luck, and in the UK his novel did become a bestseller. During the 1960s, the book acquired a cult following, especially among teenagers and college students. Although Catch-22 won no awards, it has remained consistently in print and, since publication, has sold more than 10m copies.
Three more from Joseph Heller
Something Happened (1974); Good As Gold (1979); God Knows (1984).
From Hogarth to Van Gogh, art has challenged our understanding of mental illness. Jonathan Jones’ shares his top ten for our mental health appeal Jonathan Jones Tuesday 13 January 2015 10.52 GMT
Art has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or contemptible but part of the human condition – even as a positive and useful experience. Modern art has even celebrated mental suffering as a creative adventure. This psychiatric modernism started with the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh and led to work by patients being discovered as a new kind of art. Yet it has much deeper historical roots. Albrecht Durer portrayed genius as melancholic as early as the Renaissance and Romantic painters identified with the “mad”.
Perhaps it is not hard to see why artists often show empathy for what society calls illness: all creativity is an irrational voyage. The idea of going outside yourself to see things afresh is probably as old as the torchlit visions of cave artists and was expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato when he wrote that poetic ecstasy is the only source of divine truth. “Madness is a gift from the gods”, as Plato put it.
1. Vittore Carpaccio – The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto (c. 1496)
This painting of everyday life in 15th century Venice reveals how mental illness was understood and treated in the middle ages. It is sometimes called “The Healing of the Madman”, but “possessed” is closer to contemporary ideas about the mind. For the man being miraculously healed by a priest amidst the human drama of the Rialto bridge has been taken over by a demon. His suffering is neither a medical nor social problem, but a religious experience.
2. Matthias Grunewald – The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1512 - 16)
Late medieval artists were fascinated by the story of the early Christian hermit Saint Anthony the Great who was tempted by devils. For Grunewald, this becomes a truly personal and psychological terror, an image of a man whose sanity is under threat. The infinite horrible shapes of the demons are like malformed thoughts. It is a compassionate work, for this is part of the Isenheim altarpiece, painted for a hospital that treated people with disfiguring illnesses. One of the devils has the sores and grey skin that appear in other parts of the altarpiece and evoke the illnesses treated there. Does this swarming scene therefore portray the threat to mental health posed by extreme physical suffering? It influenced German expressionism and is to this day a masterpiece of the threatened mind.
3. Albrecht Durer – Melancholia (1514)
This visionary work of art is both a diagnosis and heroic celebration of what might now be seen as illness. Melancholia was known and experienced in the middle ages, a darkness of the mind resulting from an inbalance of the humours. That darkness is marked on the brooding face of Durer’s spirit of melancholy. In her despond, she appears unable to continue with her great works. She is to judge by her tools a mathematician, geometer, and architect: a Renaissance genius. Durer portrays through this emblem his own inner life and intuits the mind’s complexity. For Melancholy in his eyes is the badge of genius - to aspire to know and create is to slump into despair. Unhappiness is noble, for Durer. This print is arguably the beginning of modern psychology.
Venus of Urbino by Titian. Photograph: Nicola Lorusso
No one has ever painted naked women as gorgeously as Titian did. His ravishing Venus is a lover laying her beauty bare, and the recipient of her optical largesse is anyone who happens to stand in front of this painting in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy. Titian creates with mind-boggling skill the lavish presence of this nude: the rapture of her carnal glory. There's something divine about such beauty. Some people find profundity in religious art, in abstract art, in conceptual art. For me, there's nothing more moving in art than the breasts of the Venus of Urbino.
Juergen Teller – Vivienne Westwood (2013)
Nudity never loses its power. The conventions of the nude can be enjoyed, and challenged, in limitless ways. Vivienne Westwood glories in poses culled from painting as she exults in all the possibilities of nakedness in art, while in her 70s.