Category Archives: Heller

Joseph Heller

Excellent Writers are Nut Balls!

What a nut case!  Is that a requirement to write great literature?  A bit off-center?  Are they so smart that they do not or cannot understand societal norms?  I skipped an author so maybe Joseph Heller was normal but statistically it is improbable.  Mr. Koestler is quite the interesting fellow; I must admit I do not think I would have enjoyed his company.  First, he was two weeks from finishing his degree in engineering and quit.  He burned his matriculation book – a book recording all his courses and exams over the years to prove he was completed with college.  So he did not just quit he torched his college career and headed to Palestine.

He had various jobs all involving writing of some sort.  In Spanish Civil War, he was captured and sentenced to death. Koestler is the one and only novelist to sit on death row.  He was released and quickly moved to France.  In France, he resigned from the communist party and began the writing of Darkness at Noon.  It is his experiences in prison and disillusionment with the communist party that bore the fruit of this famous novel.  Another interesting tidbit, while in France Koestler co-authored a sex encyclopedia!

Koestler was interested in all sorts of ‘scientific’ endeavors.  He experimented with drugs for scientific reasons yet did not like it.  Later in his life he was into research of the paranormal and psychic abilities.  He lobbied England to repeal the law to allow public hanging.  (He was happy when the public hanging law was repealed in the 1970’s).

A passion Koestler had until his death was the right to assisted suicide or euthanasia serving as the Vice President of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.  When he learned he had terminal cancer, he planned to end his own life vice suffering.  On March 1, 1983, Koestler and his wife, Cynthia, committed joint suicide.  Cynthia was in excellent health and left a letter that she could not continue life without Koestler.

As I said, a nut case.  I am beginning to think that all these powerful writers are a bit off-center.  They all had strange quirks.  Or maybe it is they view the world through a different lens.  Either way – the product is fantastic literature.

Come everyone, Grab a book, Any book and READ!

H – That’s a Real Catch-22

Catch-22 begins with a small preface:

“The island of Pinosa lives in the Mediterranean Sea eight miles south of Elba. It is very small and obviously could not accommodate all of the actions             described. Like the setting of this novel, the characters, too, are fictitious.”

From those first lines I thought, “Excellent! Here’s an author with a sense of humor – good start!”

Mr. Joseph Heller did not disappoint. We meet our protagonist Yossarian in the opening lines of Chapter 1 and quickly discover that he is part of an American aerial bomb squad stationed near Italy during World War II.  He is rightly concerned and somewhat personally offended that people are trying to kill him:

“Strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up             into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.”

He would like to complete the assigned number of missions and go home, but the number of missions needed is constantly raised. He then decides to get out of more missions by going crazy. The doctor quickly dispels that thought, however, by explaining the catch. If someone is crazy, they just have to ask to be grounded. However, anyone who asks to be grounded to get out of combat duty can’t be crazy.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a             concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and             immediate was the process of a rational mind.”

“’That’s some catch, that Catch-22, “ he (Yossarian) observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed. “

The book is full of contradictions such as the Catch-22 and it is hilarious, especially during the first part of the book. The book is divided into chapters that are titled with each individual that we meet in this cast of characters, followed by insanely witty commentary on each.

On The Texan: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.

On Clevinger – “In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out.”

On Major Major – “Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all thre

The constant wit was amazing, especially in the first part of the book. I will say that it got somewhat tedious near the last fourth of the book, when I thought, “OK, enough with the sarcastically clever descriptions – let’s keep moving forward with the plot!” But the plot did amble on.

I was glad to see that although the book, published in 1961,  “won no prizes and was not on any bestseller list”, Mr. Heller lived until 1999 and was able to see and enjoy the lasting impact of this novel. Plus, he did see “Catch-22” enter into the lexicon as a term for trying to make a decision with no positive outcome.

Although I usually leave background information on the author up to Andi, I will mention that I was reading about Mr. Heller to find the date of his death and his final novel was entitled, “Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man”. I love that little nod to Joyce and like to think that some of these old cronies are up in heaven drinking scotch and shooting the breeze together.

Side note – The movie is quite entertaining, as well, which is currently on Netflix.  I started watching with my kids and we had a lively discussion going on the characters as I would say, “There’s Angelina Jolie’s dad (Jon Voight), there’s Charlie Sheen’s dad (Martin Sheen), there’s the guy that played Papa Elf (Bob Newhart)”, etc. etc. The movie is full of recognizable actors. Then we got to the full frontal nudity scene that I was not expecting, and I shuffled everyone off to bed!

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