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15 Things You Might Not Know About Catch-22

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Joseph Heller’s 1961 war comedy Catch-22 is one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century, not to mention one of the funniest. Here are a few interesting bits of information about both how Heller’s story came to be and the legacy that it left behind. 

1. HELLER SKETCHED OUT THE BOOK’S CONCEPT AND CHARACTERS IN ABOUT 90 MINUTES ... 

Heller recalled the birth of his most famous novel as if it were a classic movie scene. While lying in bed in his apartment on the West Side of Manhattan in 1953, Heller was struck with what would become the iconic opening line of the story: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, ‘Someone’ fell madly in love with him,” with ‘Someone’ holding the place for Heller’s protagonist’s eventual name, Yossarian. Over the course of an hour and a half, he developed the basic plot and collection of characters that he’d ultimately pour into his novel. 

2. ... AND WROTE THE FIRST CHAPTER THE FOLLOWING DAY AT WORK.

Heller was an advertising copywriter when he had the idea for the novel. He spent the workday following his creative epiphany, writing out the entire first chapter of what would become Catch-22 by hand. He submitted the chapter to New World Writing magazine by way of a literary agent, and a full year passed before he completed a second chapter.

3. HELLER WENT THROUGH FOUR NUMBERS BEFORE LANDING ON 22.

The original title of the story, as published in New World Writing, was Catch-18. Acquiescing to his publisher’s qualms about confusion with the similarly themed novel Mila 18, Heller dragged his title through a sequence of changes: Catch-11 (which was deemed too similar to the contemporary film Ocean’s 11), followed by Catch-17 (which posed the same problem with Billy Wilder’s war movie Stalag 17), and then Catch-14 (which Heller’s publisher thought just didn’t sound funny enough). Finally, the writer landed on Catch-22

4. MANY CHARACTERS WERE BASED ON HELLER’S FRIENDS. 

Heller was a veteran of World War II, and he based a number of Catch-22’s characters on his army buddies. Yossarian’s name is believed to have come from fellow Air Force soldier Francis Yohannan (who, like the character, was Assyrian). Additionally, the sociopathic Milo Minderbinder was designed with Heller’s childhood friend, Marvin “Beansy” Winkler of Coney Island, in mind. 

5. THE AUTHOR WAS ASKED FREQUENTLY ABOUT YOSSARIAN’S ETHNICITY AND RELIGION. 

The protagonist’s ethnic background has been cause for debate since the book’s publication. In Catch-22, Heller introduces Yossarian as Assyrian, despite the fact that his surname suggests otherwise. In response to readers’ curiosity, Heller amended Yossarian’s heritage in Catch-22’s 1994 sequel Closing Time. In the second book, Yossarian was declared Armenian.

However, the most common question Heller received regarding Yossarian’s background concerned his religion, as many readers sought confirmation that the character shared Heller’s Jewish faith. In 1972, Heller responded to these quandaries in a letter to Northeastern University professor James Nagel, stating, “Yossarian isn’t Jewish and was not intended to be. On the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else.” 

6. THAT SAID, EARLIER DRAFTS INCLUDED A GREATER JEWISH INFLUENCE. 

As Nagel writes in a section of Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings devoted to Catch-22, “The early drafts of the novel, particularly the sketches and notecards, have a somewhat more ‘Jewish’ emphasis than does the published novel. In Judaism, ‘eighteen’ [the original titular numeric] is a significant number in that the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ‘chai,’ means ‘living’ or ‘life.’ … Thematically, the title ‘Catch-18’ would thus contain a subtle reference to the injunction in the Torah to choose life, a principle endorsed by Yossarian at the end of the novel when he deserts.” 

7. THE BOOK WAS INITIALLY ONLY POPULAR ON THE EAST COAST.

While Catch-22 stands today as a universally appreciated political satire, it proved unsurprisingly polarizing in the heated climate of the 1960s. High school and college students, particularly those who lived on the East Coast, were early fans of the novel. As Heller told George Plimpton of The Paris Review in 1974, by 1962 sales were dwindling: “Catch-22 was not making much money. It was selling steadily (eight hundred to two thousand copies a week)—mostly by word of mouth—but it had never come close to the New York Times best-seller list.”  

8. BUT EARNED THE WRATH OF THE EAST COAST’S PREMIERE CRITICS. 

Catch-22 wasn’t universally panned, but it certainly didn’t win any popularity contests among the upper echelon of the literary criticism circuit. The original 1961 New York Times review opens: “Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is not an entirely successful novel. It is not even a good novel. It is not even a good novel by conventional standards.”  (The reviewer did like its comedy and originality, though.)

A second review from the New York Times called the book “repetitive and monotonous,” as well as, curiously, “too short” to properly flesh out its character ensemble. Similarly, the New Yorker accused Heller’s prose of “giv[ing] the impression of having been shouted onto paper,” adding, “what remains is a debris of sour jokes.” 

9. THE AUTHOR WAS PRINCIPALLY INSPIRED BY ONE NOVEL. 

While Heller recognized a number of influences on his writing, including novelists Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Evelyn Waugh, and Vladimir Nabakov, the author once identified a single work that convinced him to write Catch-22: the dark World War I comedy The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek.

10. BUT HE WAS ACCUSED OF PLAGIARIZING ANOTHER. 

Thirty-seven years after the publication of Catch-22, the book came under fire for similarities to the 1950 war novel Face of a Hero. Londoner Lewis Pollock made the connection in 1998 and contacted The Sunday Times to condemn Catch-22 as a rip-off of the obscure Louis Falstein story.

From there, the accusation gained international traction and eventually reached Heller himself. The author rejected Pollock’s claims, insisting that he had never read Face of a Hero prior to the controversy. Furthermore, his editor combated the theory by asking his interrogators why Falstein, who had only passed away in 1995, would never have broadcast any such concerns if they had borne any weight. 

Also defending Heller this time around? The New York Times. Mel Gussow wrote in the paper, “An examination of the two books leads this reader to conclude that the similarities between the two can easily be attributed to the shared wartime experiences of the authors.” 

11. A DELETED CHAPTER GAVE MAJ. MAJOR A DIFFERENT BACK STORY.

One of Heller’s more absurd characters is Major Major Major Major, cursed with his unfortunate handle and unfavorable likeness to Henry Fonda. Originally, Heller planned to delve into Major’s past in the States. He had written Major Major as a former English teacher from Vermont with a distaste for Henry James. 

12. ONE CHARACTER PROVIDES THE NAMESAKE OF A MARVEL COMICS INSTITUTION. 

The Marvel Comics superhero Isaiah Bradley undergoes a series of experiments during World War II to turn him into a “Black Captain America” at the military base Camp Cathcart, named for Catch-22’s rank-climbing soldier, Col. Chuck Cathcart.

13. CATCH-22’S ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT LIVES AT BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY. 

After the novel was published in 1961, Heller donated his original manuscript to Brandeis University. The Massachusetts school preserves the document today, and honored the collected works of its author in 2009 on the 10-year anniversary of his death.

14.  CBS TRIED TO ADAPT THE NOVEL INTO A SITCOM 

While director Mike Nichols’ 1970 feature film adaptation of Catch-22 didn’t find huge critical or commercial success, it was hardly as big a failure as the small screen endeavor inspired by Heller’s book. In 1973, CBS produced and broadcast a Catch-22 sitcom pilot starring Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. The series never got a second episode. 

15. AN NBC HOST COMMITTED CATCH-22-INSPIRED VANDALISM. 

Journalist John Chancellor, known best as a host and correspondent on NBC Nightly News for 23 years, played host of NBC’s Today show between 1961 and ’62. During his tenure on the daytime program, Chancellor—a fan of Heller’s newly published novel—had personalized stickers reading “Yossarian Lives” printed, and pioneered a practical joke of placing them (discreetly) all over the hallways, offices, and bathrooms of NBC’s headquarters. He revealed his secret to Heller over a round of drinks following the author’s guest appearance on Today.

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6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
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During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.

1. THE "PRIVATE CASE" // THE BRITISH LIBRARY

At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.

2. L’ENFER // BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE

General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France
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L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.

3. TRIPLE-STAR COLLECTION // NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
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At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.

4. PHI COLLECTION // OXFORD'S BODLEIAN LIBRARY

Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.

5. "XR" COLLECTION // HARVARD’S WIDENER LIBRARY

 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”

6. THE ARC // CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
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As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.

BONUS: "INFERNO" // THE VATICAN LIBRARY

The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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