Posts Tagged ‘Catch 22’

On the United States of America

November 9, 2016

I have never been to the United States, and I can’t see that I ever will: partly because I don’t fly, and partly because I don’t really wish to cope with seeing people carrying weapons in the street. I’ve read lots about the US in my exploration of all sorts of travel writing, from the very earliest days in the explorations of William Bartram, to the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark, and the twentieth century wanderings of others. There are certainly places I’d like to see: Isabella Bird’s descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park in particular have fascinated me, and John Muir’s descriptions of the National Parks are wonderful; of course I’d like to see the Grand Canyon and lots of other places I’ve read about, too.

I was fascinated at school when we got to study US history as half of the course for our O-Level, and I’ve read a lot of American literature, too: the American Literature unit in my second year at university was one of my favourite courses. I wrestled with, and enjoyed Walt Whitman’s poetry, and came to read widely in Mark Twain’s novels, essays and travelogues, all of which I really enjoyed and come back to from time to time. And then there were all the writers of the Beat Generation that I came to know during my master’s degree studies. And Catch-22

I grew up during the Cold War; I can vaguely remember hearing news bulletins at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I came early to realise that what the US was doing across the world was as evil as what the USSR was up to; what was different was that the US was much better at PR and propaganda and held all the pretty cards. They presented themselves very effectively as the good guys, offering the sweet taste of freedom. However, there is freedom to and freedom from, and when you start looking more closely, the cards are dealt rather differently. The US was very good at suggesting it had a dream, that it was a noble enterprise, a moral force for good in the world, and many people swallowed that.

I know relatively few Americans. Those that I have met, as colleagues or a students, I have really liked, have enjoyed talking with: they have seemed just like any other people I have met and got to know from many different lands. I’ve always enjoyed diversity and learning about other nations, people and places, and regular readers will probably have me down as a curious person.

And so I am dumbfounded today. I’ve often thought that many Americans – the ones I haven’t met, but read about – come from a different planet. Make all the allowances and excuses you like for the US political establishment or the Democratic party being out of touch with ordinary people – and I agree with those sentiments – I cannot see how anyone can think that it’s acceptable to vote for a serial liar who boasts about assaulting women; I’m utterly gob-smacked that any self-respecting woman could go into a booth thinking ‘I will vote for this man to run my country’. I’ve read a lot about the 1920s and 1930s (see my previous post) and I’m getting an awful dense of deja-vu, even though I wasn’t alive then…

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

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My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

On censorship and the freedom to write (concluded)

August 19, 2015

If we consider writers’ tactics faced with control and censorship – and Eastern Europe, the Soviet empire for half a century provides copious examples – then we can see them taking risks by writing, and having their books published in the West since they would not be published at home, or as samizdats (typed manuscripts circulated clandestinely), or writing allegorically and hoping perhaps to outwit the censors. Writers in totalitarian societies wrote, impelled by the same muses and motivations as writers in the ‘free’ world. Ismail Kadare produced a wonderful allegory about the Kafkaesque control within the social structures of Albania in a novel allegedly about ancient Egypt, The Pyramid.

What particularly interests me – and I’ll admit that this is personal opinion – is the way that writers without freedom seem to produce sharper and more interesting novels, more perceptive literature, which I find more powerful and more moving; somehow they are compelled, it appears, to address broader issues about their (imperfect) society and an imperfect world, to ask existential questions; for them the collective is still relevant, if not paramount. I come back to the example I cited earlier, Vassily Grossman‘s epic about the siege of Stalingrad and its consequences. I will admit that Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 is another astonishingly powerful novel about the Second World War, but Grossman’s works on an altogether different level, packing power that I cannot think of a parallel to in Western literature. Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat trilogy is my second example: he follows the fortunes of a group of classmates through the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s to the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It’s harrowing: the purges are insane and one finds it hard to believe that people could and did behave in such a warped way; Rybakov pulls no punches as far as this episode in Soviet history is concerned. And then, he sets the heroism and self-sacrifice of those young people who have endured the purges as they fight for the liberation of the Motherland: the tension between the cruel tyranny and the love of country is live, sharp, electric…

In freer, Western societies I feel writers have become more introspective, self-indulgent at times, self-interested and self-obsessed, part of an increasingly fragmented literary culture; there is too much navel-gazing. Yes, at one level that’s an almost farcical dismissal of half a century of writing during which voices have been given to, or been seized by many cultural and political subgroups. But this does also represent a fragmentation of any challenge to the dominant cultural and economic hegemony, which remains largely unseen but which dominates every aspect of the way we live.

I’m not advocating that novels and literature should always be political, but I do feel that good literature makes us think about the human condition, about our world and ourselves. I’ve read many good and challenging novels by Western writers who have the freedom to write and say what they like. And I have found that writers who have had to struggle to be heard have written more profound and moving stories. I don’t know where this leaves us, because I’m neither advocating repression of writers in order to stimulate better literature nor didactic literature. But it has made me think a lot…

Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint

December 10, 2014

411hzc7VY7L._AA160_I’ve had a tatty, ancient secondhand copy of this for years; finally I decided I ought to read it before I got rid. And what a disappointment.

A young male American Jew on a psychiatrist’s couch talks about his childhood, his sex life and his hangups. His Jewish parents are overbearing and overprotective, his mother especially. He experiences discrimination. Puberty is described in great detail, as are his sexual obsessions. The whole is interlarded with large amounts of American Yiddisher slang, which I couldn’t be bothered to look up.

It went on rather, and I suspect was rather too American for this English reader; it was also, I think, intended to be rather more humorous than I found it..

When I thought more seriously about it, I came back to an idea that I’ve explored before on this blog, that certain books should be read at certain ages or stages in one’s development, and this is probably an adolescent’s novel, though not in the same way that I felt that, for instance, the novels of Hermann Hesse were best first encountered in one’s teenage years. It’s just that a novel can explore a theme or an idea that speaks more to one’s condition at one stage of life rather than another. At my age I found Portnoy’s Complaint tiresome and repetitive.

A further point occurred to me as I thought about when it was written and first published – 1969. It is also a novel of its time. Then I compared it with another novel – also of its time, and of the same time – Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22. Why is that novel so much better, still constantly in print, studied in school? Catch-22 is about unchanging, permanent themes: war, life and death. Portnoy’s Complaint is about unchanging, permanent themes: sexuality, growth and development (though I wouldn’t honour it with the appellation ‘bildungsroman’). Heller’s canvas is broader; Heller moves out from the Second World War to wider ideas and issues; Heller creates a range of character-types that are ‘representative’ in some way; Heller’s humour questions, and makes his readers uncomfortable. Heller isn’t self-indulgent. Enough said.

Laughter and Literature

October 9, 2014

What makes us laugh, and why? I started thinking about this when I realised how long it was since a book I’d read had had me laughing out loud…

I decided that I laughed much more readily as a child. The Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle had me in stitches when I was at school, with their crazy spelling, eccentric teachers and mad antics. I have recollections of sleepovers (not that we used the term back in those days) at a friend’s where we reduced each other to tears reading aloud to each other from Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories – I don’t think anyone would get away with giving a character such a name nowadays. Again, it was the eccentricity of the character, and his actions that set us off. I still smile at the thought of anyone filling an envelope with mashed potato and sending it off to the gas or electricity board. Perhaps a tactic to be recommended in these times? Sellars and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That is still in print and still funny; here, I think it was the idea of twisting and warping the real events, and making up mock tests (do not write on both sides of the paper at once) that made me laugh.

I remember vaguely from my university days something of the theory of humour, the idea of human beings acting in non-human ways. As I reflected, I realised that there is falling about laughing – which I was very prone to as a child – and there is the more adult version where we snigger, chuckle, smile to ourselves in a more restrained way: we control and restrict ourselves, because falling about is non-human? We must not appear absurd. Very early in my teaching career, as we read aloud The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I realised that I could not restrain myself during the chapter where Huck, in a totally deadpan style, describes the house of the feuding Grangerford family: I had to get someone else to read…

Books like the Grossmiths’ Diary of  a Nobody, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat ranged from the mildly amusing to the occasionally hilarious, but were pretty restrained, really. A challenge came at university, where we had to read Tristram Shandy. Now this is a book which I found difficult, and yet I loved, and have come back to several times in my life. In some ways it’s stunningly modern in its premise; it’s certainly absurd in its structure and the games the author plays with his readers; the characters are eccentric, and the situations are often insane. It has been described as the longest shaggy dog story ever written, and I tend to agree.

Two books discovered and loved in my adult days have had the power to reduce me to helpless laughter, and I love them for it: Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The former, the only comic novel I know about the First World War, puts a congenital idiot into the Austro-Hungarian army and catalogues a series of utterly barking adventures; his innocence drives everyone to total distraction. And I don’t know what to say about Toole’s novel – time for a re-read, certainly – except that the blundering Aloysius’ adventures match Svejk’s in many ways.

Which brings me briefly on to black humour, the sort where you smile, or laugh, but guiltily, as if ashamed of laughing, feeling that the subject is too serious: an adult kind of humour, perhaps? For me, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the supreme example: the utter absurdity of so many of the situations and characters he imagines, which then are perhaps not quite as absurd as we first thought, inter-cut with scenes of graphic horror just to remind us that we shouldn’t be laughing…maybe.

I love laughing, falling about, and always have; I know it does me good: I’m also wondering why I seem to laugh less as I grow older…

Writing from other worlds…

July 7, 2014

As English is the dominant world language, and it’s ours, I have always felt that literature from other countries barely gets a look-in in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why I read French Literature at university along with English, and have worked to sustain my working knowledge of one other language. And then, there’s the fact that, proud as I am to have the language of Shakespeare as my mother tongue, I’m in fact only half English. The other half of me is Polish, and this has always reminded me that there is another world, there are other worlds out there…

It’s not possible for anyone to keep up with all the literature in the world; I don’t know how long ago that might once have been possible. So I’m aware that, even though I read quite widely, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. When I read other people’s blogs about literature, I see how much else there is that I have no awareness of. So I choose, I follow certain tracks for certain reasons. This means that others are inevitably ignored. I have always been interested in Eastern European literature, particularly that written during the time of the various so-called communist regimes of the Cold War; it was fascinating to observe truths being told even under the eyes of the censors. Now, of course, that writers there have the same ‘freedoms’ as we have in the West, they are writing more of the same stuff that we produce. Having my origins in the outcome of the Second World War, I have also been fascinated with how Germans have come to terms (or not) with what was done by them and in their names during the Hitler years; I suppose Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll spring to mind at once.

Something fascinated me with Latin America and magic realism – I can’t remember what or when – and I like the perspective it offers on life and story-telling. And a chance discovery of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and its amazing bookshop opened my eyes to some of the literature of the Arab world: so very different, but, as importantly, just as valid a perspective on the world as our own. Amin Maalouf and Naguib Mahfouz spring immediately to mind.

I would find it almost impossible to justify what I’m about to say, which is that, in comparison with the literature I’ve just described above, I have found a great deal of the English and American literature I have encountered from the same time-period, ie since the Second World War, rather dull, introspective, navel-gazing even. I’ll counter this immediately by mentioning Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as instances of new and exciting anglophone writing, but also categorise them as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Reading through what I’ve just written, I’m realising that I can’t just leave things there; I’m going to have to explore some of the bold and sweeping statements I’ve made in more depth and detail, and attempt to be clearer and fairer…

to be continued…

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March

July 22, 2013

41n4v7CMz9L._AA160_I failed to tackle Bellow at university, while reading for my master’s degree. Finally, I caught up with him, and I don’t really think it was worth it…

In the introduction to my edition, Martin Amis decides that this is ‘the great American novel’. Sorry, but in my mind that title goes to Heller‘s Catch 22. So, what, didn’t I like about this novel? I persevered because I wanted to see how it ended up, but it just petered out, maybe resolved because the eponymous character had finally got married. But I wasn’t convinced by that. It’s a bildungsroman, but I couldn’t really work up any interest in any of the characters for large parts of the story. There were a lot of dreadful, rich people in Gatsby mode who went for each other like rats in a sack, leading existences totally divorced from reality on Planet Earth, and which rather furthered my picture of the United States being a strange place inhabited by stranger people. I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one to explore, rather hackneyed now, though perhaps less so in the 1950s, so I can’t blame Bellow for that. But the idea that anyone can, through their own efforts, rise to the top of the pile, is responsible for some of the worst excesses in our world; it hardly furthers human happiness, except fleetingly for a few, perhaps.

Bellow’s use of English (American?) was interesting at times; some of his description, especially when accretive, verged on the poetic, and I liked it a lot. But I was overpowered by the pancake erudition, dozens of references to all sorts of classical and historical and political figures and ideas spread out before the reader in a very show-off fashion, and, to my mind, totally unconvincing in the mouth of the first-person narrator.

I’m glad I read the novel, but I won’t be spending any more eyeball-time on him.

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