Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant

On 17 October 2020, Eric Andrew Gebert wrote:

“Born on this day, 1915, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005). Now might be the right time to re-read ‘The Crucible’ (1953). I’ve always preferred ‘Death Of A Salesman’ (1949). Although, anything written by Miller is a gem.

‘“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.” — Arthur Miller’

Eric’s comments prompted the following exchange:

MG,Jr.:
If you read the first few chapters of “Closing Time” (1994), the not-great sequel to “Catch-22” (1961), by Joseph Heller (1932-1999), you are given a very clear and fulsome view of the neighborhood and cultural environment – Jewish Coney Island – from which Arthur Miller and Joseph Heller came. While “Closing Time” is not great, it is nevertheless a tale imbued with “New Yorkness” particularly of the City, and it beats most of the twaddle published as novels and even “literature” today. It came out in the ’90s; Heller died in 1999. And agreed, Miller was a superb author-playwright.

Eric Andrew Gebert:
I’ve never read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I’ve read so many articles about the book and author, yet never read the book. It’s on my list for sure.

My own thoughts prompted by the above:

I read “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” in 1968-1969, while I was listed as 1A for the draft (Vietnam War) during my first year in college. I consider both masterpieces of 20th century American literature, and both were written by anti-war WWII veterans who had seen plenty of action – and death – during the mid 1940s (in Italy and Germany, respectively).

It is my opinion that these two books are absolutely essential reading for any American alive then and now, if they really want to gain some insight into fundamental aspects of American culture, and the collective psyche of Americans. If one also wants to get “historical” and can accept immersing themselves in the “literary,” then it is essential they include “Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby-Dick” to that reading list.

There are many comedic elements in both “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969), but both books are very clearly deadly serious. With Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s (1922-2007) book (Slaughterhouse Five), the more you think about it, the deeper is your realization of the underlying tragedy; with Heller’s book, comedy carries you to a finale that requires a strong stomach and deep commitment to finish reading, and in this way leads you to the tragic realization equivalent to that which Vonnegut so subtly (well, playfully) presents.

Only AFTER you have read C-22 and SH-5 should you allow yourself to see the movies made of them. The only good movie of C-22 (a recent TV series has also been made, at best a C-) is the excellent 1970 Mike Nichols (1931-2014) film (Catch-22), with a screenplay written by Buck Henry (1930-2020). Parts of that screenplay were so good that Heller said he wished he’d thought of them to put in his novel.

This film is very faithful (but not exact) to Heller’s plot (simplification being necessary since Heller had many, many characters, and a great deal of non-chronological density), and is entirely faithful to Heller’s arc of comedy-to-anguishing reality (with a sparkle at the end of the film to give you hope). Milo Minderbinder, a character in C-22 (and Closing Time), is the absolute quintessential personification of American capitalism, an excruciatingly apt portrayal in both the book and movie.

The only film worth seeing (AFTER you read the novel!) of SH-5 is the 1972 George Roy Hill (1921-2002) movie (Slaughterhouse Five). In that movie the character of Valencia Merble is the quintessential portrayal of the White suburban American mom, not quite a Karen, but a simple self-absorbed but not selfish Americana (a chaste but not fundamentalist version of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”); this perfection of depiction being in both the book and movie.

Believe me, those two books of the 1960s, and the two films made of them in the early 1970s cannot be remade today to equal standards of art and psychological insight: “we” are too hung-up on our “modern” (self-delusional) ‘wokeness.’ Here is art that is a mirror of a ‘national soul’ that we generally don’t wish to see in complete clarity. These works are both of their time, and timeless.

Every work of art has its roots in earlier works by earlier artists, and in conceptions from earlier times. One can, with imagination, follow this trail of sequential inspiration all the way back to the 5th Century (BCE) Greeks; and with even more imagination back to the cave paintings at Lascaux (~17,000 years ago) and Altamira (~36,000 years ago). Even though I do not know the history of Heller’s and Vonnegut’s literary inspirations, to my mind these two authors were the 1960s flowering of roots that grew from Herman Melville (1819-1891), Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910), and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893).

Melville had a keen and pessimistic insight into the American soul, and a wicked wit, which can be hard for today’s casual readers to untangle from his convoluted and fascinating antique New England prose. I can see Heller’s Milo Minderbinder as a youthfully handsome comic inversion of Captain Ahab (the terrible protagonist of Moby-Dick): both are monomaniacal obsessive-compulsives. Both were avidly mercantile individuals, to devote themselves so fully to their risky commercial ventures. For Milo it was all about money to gain power to make more money (in a vicious circle), while for Ahab it was all about money (his gold Doubloon, and command of his ship’s resources like the breaking out of rum) to gain the mesmerizing power over his men’s hearts and souls to bind them tightly to his obsession for vengeance against the very forces of Nature incarnated as the white whale, Moby-Dick.

Mark Twain, that other supreme giant of American literature (I vacillate between seeing Melville then Twain as the greatest of all American authors, but that is a worthless exercise really: together, they are the sourcepoint of all essentially American literature), was both a comedic genius and a deeply serious writer with a very great compassion for the human condition; and his enlightened outlook on people was far in advance of American norms — to this day!

Kurt Vonnegut was deeply influenced by Twain, he said as much in his introduction to a television movie (shown on PBS) of Twain’s “Life On The Mississippi,” and it is so easy to see many parallels between Twain’s seemingly naïve witticisms and Vonnegut’s seemingly childlike playfulness in prose. And both had very serious matters about America’s dark soul to present back to its people, under the cover of sweet sunny confections of comic storytelling — up to a point.

Guy de Maupassant was a supreme master of naturalness in the telling of short stories, with an economy of style that made his penetrating insight into the psychology of his characters — the people of his day, and ours — transparent. His words speedily take you to the heart of the matter without obscuring it by any pretentiousness, insights and matters that were: comic, tragic, banal, horrible, lovely, socially withering, and of human avarice, corruption, credulity, deceitfulness, and simple nobility.

Like Heller and Vonnegut, de Maupassant mined his wartime experiences as a French solider during the disastrous for France Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Guy de Maupassant’s story “Two Friends,” about the hazards two Frenchmen buddies find themselves facing when they are captured by the Prussians during a surreptitious fishing excursion along a river behind enemy lines, has all the absurdist qualities Vonnegut put into the narrative thread on his avuncular character Edgar Derby, the mentor of Billy Pilgrim (the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five) while both were prisoners of the Germans in WWII Dresden.

Even more grim a tale about the utterly absurd waste of human life, human innocence, and the permanent loss of happiness because of war, was de Maupassant’s “Mother Savage,” a story about one old French peasant woman’s iron will to wage her personal war against the Prussians, and by extension against all the social forces and higher classes and their attitudes, which had combined to bring that disastrous 1870 war right into her little cottage far out in the country. Where Edgar Derby was an endearingly blithe overgrown lamb oblivious to the hellscape of firebombed Dresden, Victoire Simon (Mother Savage) was an implacable wolverine propelled by grief capping a long hard meager life of scratching the land.

Two de Maupassant stories of desperate personal actions taken by ordinary French civilians against the Prussians, because they just exploded with rage against being bullied, are “Mademoiselle Fifi,” about the stabbing killing of a Prussian officer by Rachel, a Jewess prostitute who successfully evaded capture by being hidden by the parish priest; and “A Duel,” a similar story about a nebbish little man whose sudden rage fills him with power sufficient to kill a Prussian officer in a duel, his first ever, and for the Prussian his last of many. But I did not see any parallel incidents to these de Maupassant stories in either “Catch-22” or “Slaughterhouse Five,” despite their extensive periods in wartime settings.

Heller’s portrayal of the whorehouse in Rome frequented by Yossarian (the protagonist of Catch-22) and his buddies has many echoes of de Maupassant’s story “Madam Tellier’s Establishment,” of simple souls with simple dreams mixed with desperate longings and simple pleasures. Guy de Maupassant wrote many stories involving carnal affairs, licit and illicit, with a keen eye to human foibles and hypocrisy, and a sophisticated savoir faire combined with a very deep compassion to the human condition, so like Mark Twain’s.

Much of the anguish and histrionics of English and American marital-sexual-relationship dramas is refreshingly absent in de Maupassant’s stories because of his honest clear-sighted presentation of the situational and psychological facts. The hypocritical Victorian prudery of the English and the Americans is absent from de Maupassant and many of his characters, who are after all drawn from real life as de Maupassant saw it. That naturalness, pioneered by Gustave Flaubert (among others), de Maupassant’s mentor and teacher of literary art, is at the heart of Heller’s verve in “Catch-22.”

The direct root from Guy de Maupassant that grew out into English literature was W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), another great short story writer, as well as playwright, novelist and essayist. The keenest insights about women that I have seen in literature are by Guy de Maupassant and W. Somerset Maugham. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) has some as well (particularly in “Tender Is The Night,” 1934), but he was often much more lyrical and because of that honeyed radiance thus more vague.

Guy de Maupassant by contrast offered gems of clarity (not necessarily desired by society at large) cut with such precision as to bring out the sparkle of insights that pierced through the fog of all illusions. This deemed de Maupassant smutty and immoral to many socially correct readers (especially English and American ones) up to the present day.

My favorite novel of Maugham’s is “The Moon and Sixpence” (1919), a novelization of the life of the French Impressionist painter (and pal of Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890) Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), told as the story of Charles Strickland, a fictional English equivalent to Gauguin. Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence” is an epigrammatic novel worthy of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Maugham’s acknowledged inspiration: Guy de Maupassant.

Guy de Maupassant has written the best and most detailed descriptions of eating, food, cuisine and dining that I have ever read; he has done what Flaubert had taught him: to let you smell the aromas and taste the flavors just from reading the worlds. His touching yet earthy matter-of-fact slice-of-life story, “Idyll,” is echoed by John Steinbeck (1902-1968) as the grand and incandescent metaphor at the end of his “Grapes of Wrath” (1939), for the desperate and self-sacrificing human compassion and solidarity during a time of economic catastrophe that some of its victims could find to bring out of their own destitution and grief, to generously give others the milk of human kindness.

How fortunate I am to be able to read so many wonderful books. The overall lesson they have given me is simply to see with greater appreciation the intrinsic beauty of life despite the many hardships and random tragedies it also entails.

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5 thoughts on “Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant

  1. Pingback: Heller, Vonnegut, Melville, Twain, Maugham, and Guy de Maupassant | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

  2. “But I did not see any parallel incidents to these de Maupassant stories in either “Catch-22” or “Slaughterhouse Five,” despite their extensive periods in wartime settings.”

    Wasn’t that because WWII taught us that civilians had become the main target of war and their nationalist enmities were minor issues now like a spat over a parking space during an earthquake? Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage”, 1941, showed us the ignorance of a victim about her own interests. “Canteen Anna” lives off a war that’s killing her children.

  3. What I meant was that Maupassant was picking up astutely on reaction to defeat by the Prussians that penetrated French culture like dirty rain after 1870. It was national self-pity in the “poor little Belgium” mode of WWI, the Boche, Huns, and all that, even that Prussia wasn’t really Europe at all. In WWII Europe was united in making acceptable the targeting of non-combatants. Obliteration airstrikes—euphemistically, “saturation” bombing or more homespun, “blanket” or “carpet” bombing—spared no-one. The U.S.A., Europe’s lively firstborn went one better, of course, dropping atom bombs. Asians had a higher pain threshold, somebody wrote.

    In this apocalypse, writers must have felt it was parochial to pause over one person’s spilled blood. “So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim had to say, often, in “Slaughterhouse 5.” Vonnegut wrote, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the little playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

    “ ‘It Had to be done,’ Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.
    ‘I know,’ said Billy.
    ‘That’s war.’
    ‘I know. I’m not complaining.’
    ‘It must have been hell on the ground.’
    ‘It was,’ said Billy Pilgrim.
    ‘Pity the men who had to DO it.’
    ‘I do’ ‘’

    So it goes.

  4. Read Arthur Miller’s Timebends, a great American autobiography capturing the politics he lived through and participated in as well as the literary life of his day. It’s a terrific read. You’ll learn more about Marilyn Monroe as well.

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