Thursday, 24 February 2011

Yossarian Strikes Again

Obviously, the main selling point for Catch as Catch Can is the fact that it contains some material that was cut from Catch-22, including what the blurb-writers call a ‘lost chapter.’ However, in their own right, Joseph Heller’s collected short stories are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories were written when the author was in his early twenties, and seem to have been included to justify the label ‘collected stories’ rather than because of their sparkling brilliance.

It’s not that the early stories are bad, it’s just that they are unremarkable. What they do provide is an interesting sense of progression, and the stories do get better and more sophisticated as the collection moves into Heller’s mature period. They change from straightforward dissections of troubled relationships into much deeper and more harrowing territory: extreme urban poverty, wasted youth, drug addiction.

You get to see the roots of Catch-22 developing, as many of these stories feature young men in bleak situations which they are powerless to change. This is done without the black humour that characterises the later novel, with the result that some of the stories are very powerful but also pretty grim. There is a chilling inevitability about these tales, particularly the ones that deal with addiction.

Fortunately, the cuttings from Catch-22 are there to lighten the mood. The scene where Yossarian (for whose name my spellchecker helpfully suggests the declension ‘Rosaria, Ocarina, Ocarinas’) lies in hospital, convinced of his impending illness, is particularly good. He is a medical marvel, tested and retested by countless specialists because of a remarkable condition which they have never before encountered in their work: there is absolutely nothing wrong with him.

Here is Heller’s characteristic wit, ever-ready to point out life’s absurdities. It’s been a while since I read Catch-22, and I’d forgotten just how much Heller’s sense of humour appeals to me. This is of course entirely personal, and I’m sure it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but when he is funny, he is very funny.

Nonetheless, Catch as Catch Can does run the risk of being a one-trick pony; a few fragments of Catch-22 tossed to the enthusiasts. There is no doubt that these fragments will please the die-hard fans, but my problem with the collection is that the early stories aren’t outstanding and neither are the autobiographical pieces which end the book.

Heller’s genius shines through in the Catch-22 material, and is dimly visible beneath the surface in his early work. If you want powerful writing without the glossy wit, then there is some middle ground in two or three of the stories which probably merit more attention than they have received here. Why haven’t I given them more attention? Well, it’s because they are overshadowed by the other items in the collection, both the good and the not-so-good, and the way it all fits together. You’d think that assembling a volume of collected stories would be easy, but it seems like it doesn’t always work out.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

How to write when you just don't want to

I notice with pride and alarm that the last post I published was the 30th post I have written for this blog. I started blogging in September, after I finished writing my thesis. My blog posts seem to generally run to a page of A4, roughly 500 words, so even a historian can work out that I’ve now written nearly 15,000 words for this blog. That’s 5,000 more than my undergrad dissertation, 5,000 fewer than my MA thesis. That’s a lot of words, and I’ve reached one or two conclusions.

The ThinkerI don’t care what anyone says, non-fiction is easy. Without an idea, you cannot write fiction. Without a clue, you can still write non-fiction.

I’m not saying that it’s necessary or advisable to hammer out whatever comes into your head, but I find that in non-fiction, whether writing an academic essay or a slightly whimsical blog post, the act of writing itself is a great way to overcome writer’s block. I was never any good at planning essays, and I certainly don’t plan what I’m going to write on here - and you can’t tell, can you?

Sometimes I have a couple of ideas about what I want to say about a particular subject, and that helps things along. Sometimes I just sit down in front of my old adversary, Document1 – Microsoft Word, and start writing.

The point is that writing your thoughts down, just like saying them out loud, helps to develop them. And writing them down has the added bonus that you don’t seem quite as odd as you might if you said whatever you were thinking out loud.

I’ve also found that the process of writing this blog helps to crystallise in my memory the books I’ve written about. It’s an alarming feeling to read a book, then think back to it a few months later and realise that you can remember virtually nothing about it. The process of writing about a book, of setting down a few thoughts about it, is an excellent way of remembering it. This seems to work even if you take my magpie-like approach and just write about what you found interesting, rather than trying to produce some kind of coherent review of the book.

I know that writing about books is a niche market. I know that not everyone likes books, and I know that not everyone who likes books likes or has read the same ones as me. But at this momentous stage, I’d like to say thank you to my loyal following of five – count ‘em – subscribers to my blog.

Now, any thoughts on how to get over fiction-writer’s block, anyone?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Gone Fishin'

Hemingway. Again. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his short novel, The Old Man and the Sea, and it is easy to see why. Put simply, there isn’t a word out of place in the whole thing. It is a beautifully harmonious piece of writing, charting a battle of courage and determination between an old fisherman and a very large fish.

Following a lengthy dry spell, so to speak, without landing a fish, the old man rows out further than usual and baits his hook with fresh sardines given to him by a friend. He gets a bite. The leviathan tows his little skiff along for days on end, with the old man grimly hanging on to the line. He can’t just tie it to the ship, because it will break with one sudden jerk from the fish. He must take the strain and absorb any impact himself.

The real beauty of the story lies in the relationship that builds between the fisherman and the fish. They are both determined creatures and in his conversations with the soaring gulls, the sea and the fish itself, the old man reveals his admiration for his foe. Despite their prolonged struggle, the fisherman does not come to hate the fish that wears out his body and endangers his life. He addresses it as an old friend and is truly sorry for eventually catching and killing it, and sorrier still for the assaults of the many sharks that tear into the former fish as it is tied alongside his boat for the long journey home: ‘Half-fish... Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.’

When the fisherman and the mangled carcass return to port his great achievement is recognised only by his colleagues, and his dreams of vast income from the fish’s flesh are broken. His worthy opponent rots on the beach.

This is a completely different Hemingway to the man behind For Whom the Bell Tolls. Whereas that was littered with digressions and stream-of-consciousness rambles on behalf of the main character – elegantly written, but sometimes tedious – this is a tightly packed hundred pages with very little superfluous padding. Although I must admit I wasn’t quite sure how and why Joe DiMaggio fitted into it all. What The Old Man and the Sea did remind me of is the miniature story within For Whom the Bell Tolls, a flashback to a bloody revolution in the square of some dusty Spanish village. For me, both of these show Hemingway at his best, starkly beautiful and incredibly emotionally involving.

The Old Man and the Sea is a remarkable achievement primarily because it makes you feel so much in such a short space of time. Most authors struggle to get that sort of pathos into something three or four times the length, and if you read For Whom the Bell Tolls first, like me, this short story comes as a bit of a revelation.