When you meet your favourite book, or film, or (although I cannot speak from experience on this one) wine, it is said that you know immediately. So it was with me.
Both my favourite book, Catch-22, and my favourite film, The History Boys, were discovered within months of each other. Perhaps it is just coincidence, or perhaps it is because fourteen is such a formative age, that merely consuming something half-way intellectual imprinted on me indelibly. I would rather it was the former, in all honesty, but cannot say for sure.
Unfortunately, I discovered my favourite song by listening to the History Boys soundtrack, which rather suggests that the other theory Is true. I had hoped that my taste would amount to something more than circumstance, but perhaps it is one of those things about human nature that can neither be explained nor understood.
One afternoon, most likely a Friday, we were led away from our usual lesson to the library. We were apparently not reading enough as a form, and were required to take out a book. I had, for most of my childhood, been an avid reader, but had consumed so many stories that I became easily bored. We were given a time limit to find something to read, and as the minutes ticked away, I was the only student left staring blankly at the shelves.
English teachers liked me, because I liked their subject, and had a broad vocabulary and strong grasp on language that made their marking easier. I liked them simply because they liked me. My teacher took pity on me, and handed me a copy of Catch-22.
It did not appeal. My teacher was an ex-army man, and it was understandable that he should recommend a book set in World War II. However, I had no such interest. Admittedly, I was an Air Training Corps cadet, but it was the flying, and not the fighting, which enticed me.
Still, I was obedient, and read.
At the end of the lesson, we were called upon in turn to share what we had read.
I said (and forgive me for paraphrasing, but this was eight years ago):
“I was surprised. The opening sentences are ‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the Chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’ And it’s got nothing to do with the rest of it at all.”
The look on my teacher’s face suggested that he, too, was surprised. I later discovered that he had recommended the book solely on the merits of the film adaptation, shame of an English teacher that he was. In it, apparently, there is no mention of falling madly in love with chaplains, however briefly.
I quickly became lost in the novel, and forgot all about the incongruous opening. Indeed, it was a full twelve chapters before I even got my bearings, and try as I might I can never enjoy again that experience of everything settling finally into place. I tend to resist re-reading it in the hope I will forget, but it does not work.
The second time I read it, at sixteen, I was bothered not at all by the Chaplain, nor why Yossarian should be, for a few pages at least, in love with him. I suppose I had not waited long enough for a re-reading.
However, this third time, it has bothered me immensely.
In good storytelling no word is ever wasted, and if I believe, as I do, that Catch-22 is the greatest story ever told, then no word of it, least of all the two opening sentences, can be discounted.
So, why do we need to know that Yossarian is in love with the chaplain?
I’m afraid I don’t have a dinky little answer to trot out for you. I’ve certainly read a few, but they sounded hollow.
I don’t, for example, believe that Heller sought to delineate the difference between homosociality and homoromanticism. It’s a nice theory, certainly, but not really supported by the rest of the book. The opening sentences can’t just be taken out of context. Other essays suggest that it is merely a humorous device, but I think they forget what it says about Yossarian’s character.
My problem in all this is that I’m not sure what it says about Yossarian’s character, except that I know that something is said. That was the first sentence I read about Yossarian, and first impressions are hard to shake off. Unfortunately, this is all subconscious, and I would quite like to know consciously what I feel about Yossarian.
I have had other epiphanies on this reading. I realised that Yossarian appeals to me because he is a coward of sorts, and so am I. It’s kept me alive thus far and I have no intention of changing my ways. I noticed sentences I do not remember noticing, but maybe that is just my insistence on waiting. It also upsets me to know I will probably not read this book again until I am thirty, because I find that I am having the most fun I have had in reading for a very long time.
I think I know now why the opening two sentences stand as they are. And I am sorry I ever looked to someone else’s opinion for answers. Because all that matters to me is mine, and all that matters to you is yours.
I do not intend on sharing my theory. To do that satisfactorily, I would need to go back, pick out quotes, and in doing so inadvertently memorise a book I have spent six years trying to forget. In reality, my theory is so stunningly simple it would be upsetting if I just come out with it.
So I won’t. Go. Read. Come to your own conclusions.