The novel, you know,” people whispered whenever Joseph Heller and his wife, Shirley, left a party early. From the first, Joe had made no secret of his ambitions beyond the world of advertising. In later years, he floated various stories about the origins of his first novel. “There was a terrible sameness about books being published and I almost stopped reading as well as writing,” he said on one occasion. But then something happened. He told one British journalist that “conversations with two friends … influenced me. Each of them had been wounded in the war, one of them very seriously The first one told some very funny stories about his war experiences, but the second one was unable to understand how any humour could be associated with the horror of war. They didn’t know each other and I tried to explain the first one’s point of view to the second. He recognized that traditionally there had been lots of graveyard humour, but he could not reconcile it with what he had seen of war. It was after that discussion that the opening of Catch-22 and many incidents in it came to me.”
The Czech writer Arnošt Lustig claimed that Heller had told him at a New York party for Milos Forman in the late 1960s that he couldn’t have written Catch-22 without first reading Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished World War I satire, The Good Soldier Schweik. In Hašek’s novel, a mad state bureaucracy traps a hapless man. Among other things, he stays in a hospital for malingerers and serves as an orderly for an army chaplain.
But the most common account Heller gave of the hatching of Catch-22 varied little from what he said to The Paris Review in 1974: “I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.’ I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars … the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor.”
In all likelihood, each of these scenarios is true; they don’t contradict one another, and they probably occurred at some stage in the process of imagining the novel. But we also know from a letter to Heller in California from the editor Whit Burnett that, as early as 1946, he’d been considering a novel about “a flier facing the end of his missions.”
[Photo Credit: Vanity Fair]