So, I read Joseph Heller’s autobiography, Now and Then. I’m a big Catch-22 fan but never got into his other novels. When someone told Heller he’d never written anything as good as his first novel, he’s said to have replied, “Yes, but neither has anyone else.” But I do really like No Laughing Matter, Heller’s other memoir, co-written with Speed Vogel, which deals with his year struggling with Guillane-Barré syndrome, a nasty but thankfully temporary neurological complaint, with the two writers taking alternate chapters, which leads to a great bit where Vogel announces his friend’s tragic death and Heller bounces back in the next chapter with “I certainly did not die, and I don’t know why Speed insists on telling everyone I did.” (Later, Heller did die, which either spoils the joke or adds a fresh punchline depending on your level of morbid humour.)

Anyway, the autobio is good, but I was mainly interested in reading about the events which influenced Catch-22. An unexpected one occurs before Heller even gets overseas. He was working in flight training when his mother fell and injured herself. He got leave to go visit her ~

Entering the hospital in Brooklyn some five days later by myself some five days later I had no idea what I would find. For reasons I don’t understand and never expect to, I had constructed the bizarre scenario that I might not recognize my mother and feared that my failure to do so might sink her into deep despair. A couple of dozen beds in the women’s ward of Coney Island Hospital stood before me. Facing the entrance when I stepped in was a bed holding a white-haired woman of about my mother’s age whose attention I captured instantly. She rose on an elbow to observe me more intently. I stared right back with the tentative beginnings of a smile. Her gaze remained fixed on me and I started across to her. I hugged her gently while kissing her once or twice and sat down. I was appalled that she didn’t seem to recognize me or respond appropriately to my name. This was worse than I had imagined. It required a few more awkward minutes of uncomfortable talk for both of us to realize we had never set eyes on each other before. I glanced about wretchedly. At the far end of the ward I then clearly spied my mother, practically levitating out of her bed, plaster cast and all, and waving wildly in furious and frustrated exasperation to attract my attention. She looked exactly as I remembered, and she told me yet again that I had a twisted mind.

Lots of interest there. I’m struck by the fact that when I’m waiting for someone, and they’re late (I’m usually early, and I’ve always had the misfortune to socialise with people who are usually late), I cast around and seem to see them in every stranger. But then, when the real person turns up, I KNOW it’s them. Recognition is a frail, fallible thing, until suddenly it’s not. Heller had seen his mother every day of his life, then suddenly he’d been removed from her, and found he didn’t have a reliable image he could call to mind.

He goes on to say ~

After reading this, anyone who has recently read Catch-22 for the third or fourth time might be struck by the parallel between the account of my mother I’ve just given and an episode in the novel in which Yossarian is visited in a hospital bed by a family of tearful strangers, but I don’t remember that I consciously had the former in mind when I was devising the latter.

And the scene made it into Mike Nichols and Buck Henry’s movie adaptation, so there you go, a movie connection. I wish they’d found time for the soldier who sees everything twice, and Yossarian’s psychiatrist, but then the movie would be three hours long.

I think the scene in the novel isn’t about the vagaries of recognition in the same way. The family, who have lost a real son, embark on a sort of role-play where Yossarian stands in for their son/brother who died before they could see him. The mother seems to believe that Yossarian is her dying son, and dad keeps correcting her, until she says, “What does it matter, he’s dying, isn’t he?” (Yossarian is not, in fact, dying, or no more than the rest of us.) So it’s about knowing self-deception and rites of passage. Saying goodbye. Maybe it doesn’t matter who you say it to.

12 Responses to “Mom?”

  1. I often worry about not being able to recognise people I know quite well. Once, on a date in London, I was in a bar with a bloke I knew from work, and on my way back from the toilet began to worry that I’d forget what he looked like and would sit down at a table with the wrong man. I ended up hovering uncertainly until I saw someone looking at me and decided it must be the right guy. (Luckily it was.)

    There’s a Milla Jovovich movie called Faces in the Crowd in which she suffers from prosopagnosia, which makes everyone’s face look the same. She’s a witness to a killing but can’t recognise the killer! Her solution is to do fashion sketches of men’s ties, though of course as soon as two men wear similar ties she’s in trouble, and I can’t remember the film addressing the problem of men not wearing ties at all.

  2. Nichols’ “Catch-22” is a very good adaption of Heller’s novel. Unfortunately it opened at the same time as Altman’s “MASH” which captured the zeitgeist of the Vietnam war like nothing else (even though it was set during the Korean war) “Catch-22” is a very elaborate massively produced deliberately paced effort and has much to recommend it : Arkin, Marcel Dalio, Bob Balaban, Jon Voight (playing a version of his later actual self) . Orson Welles, Paula Prentiss. But it never quite snaps to life. Nichols eventually adopted a style that was far breezier — seen at its best in “Post Cards From the Edge.” (About his last film “Charlie Wilson’s War” the less said the better.)

  3. Nichol’s movie is incredibly frustrating. It flirts with greatness. But it feels like one of those movies where Eric von Stroheim was fired 90% of the way through, and then a third of the footage was reshot by some studio hack. But my God, the good parts are SO good.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    I agree regarding Nichols’s Catch-22–lots of good parts that don’t fully cohere. Trying to adapt that sort of sprawling novel into a two hour film was probably an act of madness. It would be an ideal fit for a mini-series but would likely require too big a budget for TV.

  5. I don’t see Nichols’ Catch-22 as uneven in that way: he and David Watkin devised a VERY elaborate style and every scene seems to have some kind of brilliant visual schema going on in it. I guess they might not all be equally effective, but I don’t feel that way.

    It’s a cast to die for: dad in the scene above is Liam Dunn, “Mr Hilltop” from Young Frankenstein and the judge from What’s Up Doc.

    But certainly MASH is brisker, and it has a lot of BEHAVIOUR, which Buck Henry diagnosed as the thing Catch-22 doesn’t allow, and the lack of which drove Nichols crazy.

    Faces in the Crowd unfair to non-tie-wearers!

  6. James W Cobb Says:

    The dvd of CATCH 22 has a full length commentary with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, maybe the most intriguing one I’ve ever heard. During this Nichols essentially said he didn’t know what he was doing and should not have made the film. He and Watkins also shot most of the film during a particular time of the day so it would all look the same. I highly recommend listening to this commentary. The movie does have one of the best opening credits/opening scenes of all time but Nichols explains why it was a bad idea.

  7. I agree it’s a great commentary: Soderbergh has done a brilliant job with several films he’s refereed on like this.

    Yes, they shot the whole film in 3/4 backlight, which meant when the Mediterranean sun was high, which it was most of the time, they couldn’t film. And on the rare occasions when we cut to a reverse angle (it’s mostly long takes), the reverse angle is backlit too, which of course is impossible. This was part of their subtle surrealism: it’s a war film painted by de Chirico.

    Watkin’s autobiography has lots of fun disparaging stuff about Nichols: two impossible men who perhaps deserved each other (but Watkin was only impossible with the wrong director).

  8. I have an article about Nichols and his affair (“on the down low”) with Richard Avedon coming up in “Gay City News” in a couple of weeks.

  9. Wow, I didn’t know that about him. Do I have to reassess The Bird Cage? (Probably not, I enjoyed it the first time.)

  10. Actually the one you have to reassess is “Funny Face,” cause according to Avedon they ran off to Paris together — with Mike in the Audrey Hepburn role.

  11. !

    I look forward to this article.

  12. I was watching Route 66 on television with my then girlfriend of several years, who had grown up in Asia without the usual exposure to American TV. Like many classic shows, she’d never seen it. After a scene or two she asked me who one of he characters was–it was one of the leads, who had been in each of the preceding scenes. It was only then that I learned she had prosopagnosia. She had developed ways of living with it, and was a successful therapist. But as a visual artist, and one who can often identify actors in bit parts and in mere seconds of screen time, I was haunted by the idea of not being able to distinguish faces.

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