The stories behind some of literature's best-known novels

Would 'Catch-22' still be a masterpiece if it was called 'Catch-18'? Why did T S Eliot change the name of 'He Do the Police in Different Voices' to 'The Waste Land'? Gary Dexter tells the stories behind some of literature's best-known novels


Catch-22 (1961)

"Catch-22" has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind. Joseph Heller complained that the phrase "a Catch-22 situation" was often used by people who did not seem to understand what it meant. Given the mental contortions of the catch, this is not surprising.

There are no catches 1 to 21, or 23 onwards, in the book. "There was only one catch and that was Catch-22." Like the final commandment left at the end of Animal Farm, "Catch-22" is an entire rule book distilled into one lunatic decree. Its very uniqueness meant that Heller had to think carefully before naming, or numbering it. And his choice was – Catch-18.

In the Second World War, Heller was a bombardier with the 12th Air Force, based on Corsica, and flew 60 missions over Italy and France. Yossarian in Catch-22 is a bombardier flying the same missions. In 1953, Heller began writing a book called Catch-18, the first chapter of which was published in the magazine New World Writing in 1955. When, three years later, he submitted the first large chunk of it to Simon & Schuster, it was quickly accepted for publication, and Heller worked on it steadily – all the time thinking of it as Catch-18 – until its completion in 1961. Shortly before publication, however, the blockbuster novelist Leon Uris produced a novel entitled Mila 18 (also about the Second World War). It was thought advisable that Heller, the first-time novelist, should be the one to blink.

Heller said in an interview with Playboy in 1975: "I was heartbroken. I thought 18 was the only number." A long process of numerical agonising began in which the author and his editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, worked their way through the integers looking for the right, the unique formula. Catch-11 was one of the first suggestions, but was rejected because of the film Ocean's Eleven. Heller at one point settled firmly on Catch-14, but Gottlieb threw it out for being too nondescript. When 22 came up, Gottlieb felt it had the right ring: "I thought 22 was a funnier number than 14," he told the New York Times Review of Books in 1967. Heller took two weeks to persuade.

But the journey from 18 to 22, although tortuous, was worth making. The reason is this: 22 has a thematic significance that 18 and most of the other choices do not. In Catch-22, everything is doubled. Yossarian flies over the bridge at Ferrara twice, his food is poisoned twice, there is a chapter devoted to "The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice", the chaplain has the sensation of having experienced everything twice, Yossarian can name two things to be miserable about for every one to be thankful for, all Yossarian can say to the dying Snowden is, "There, there", all Snowden can say is: "I'm cold, I'm cold", Yossarian overhears a woman repeatedly begging "please don't, please don't", and Major Major is actually Major Major Major Major.

Doubling is thus a stylistic device suggestive of the qualified nature of reality. Nothing is singular, unblurred or unambiguous. The title, with its doubled digits (2 representing duality, itself doubled to make 22) conveys this in a way that Catch-18 could never have done.

It seems clear therefore that what happened when Simon & Schuster found out about Leon Uris's book was a piece of great good luck.

My Man Jeeves (1919)

My Man Jeeves (1919) was the first PG Wodehouse book with Jeeves in the title. There were 10 more, and several novels or story collections about Jeeves and Bertie but without Jeeves in the title (such as The Mating Season, 1949). Although My Man Jeeves was the first Jeeves title, Jeeves the gentleman's gentleman himself first made an appearance in the story "Extricating Young Gussie" in the Saturday Evening Post of 18 September 1915. He had two lines: "Mrs Gregson to see you, sir," and, "Very good, sir. Which suit will you wear?"

Wodehouse said in the introduction to the anthology The World of Jeeves (1967): "It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair of 'The Artistic Career of Corky', that the man's qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter." "The Artistic Career of Corky" was in fact a later title for the story "Leave It to Jeeves", which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post of 5 February 1916.

One more tale deserves mention, one which has misled some into thinking it features Jeeves's debut. This is "Jeeves Takes Charge", a short story published, again in the Saturday Evening Post, on 18 November 1916, more than a year after "Extricating Young Gussie".

Jeeves, then, was born in 1915 or thereabouts – during the first battles of the First World War. Wodehouse was working in the New York theatre at the time, having been living in the USA on and off since about 1909. Before he left permanently for America, however, he went to a cricket match in Cheltenham. And this was where war, cricket and Jeeves met and coalesced.

Percy Jeeves was, by all accounts, a very useful player. Born in 1888, in Earls-heaton, Yorkshire, he played for Goole and then Hawes cricket clubs before signing up for the Warwickshire County side. An attacking right-hand bat, and right-arm medium-fast bowler, he played first-class cricket from 1912 to 1914. The season when he really began to distinguish himself was 1913, taking 106 wickets and scoring 785 runs. It was also the year in which Wodehouse, a keen cricket fan, saw him play at Cheltenham.

Several decades later, RV Ryder, the son of the Warwickshire club secretary who had originally signed Percy Jeeves, wrote to Wodehouse to ask for confirmation that the Jeeves of literature really was named after the Jeeves of cricket. Wodehouse replied: "You are quite right. It must have been in 1913 that I paid a visit to my parents in Cheltenham and went to see Warwickshire play Glos on the Cheltenham College ground. I suppose Jeeves' bowling must have impressed me, for I remembered him in 1916, when I was in New York and just starting the Jeeves and Bertie saga, and it was just the name I wanted. I have always thought till lately that he was playing for Gloucestershire that day (I remember admiring his action very much)."

Percy Jeeves went on to even greater distinction in the 1914 season, and was tipped by England captain Plum Warner as a future England player. On 4 August 1914, however, Britain declared war on Germany, and Jeeves signed up with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. In July the following year he was in the thick of the fighting in the battle of the Somme. On the night of 22/23 July the order was given for a major assault, in which the 15th Battalion was a small component. The assault made no headway whatever.

Jeeves's body was never found. It was only in September 1915 that High Wood was captured, after the loss of around 6,000 men. September 1915 was also, coincidentally, the month of the appearance of the first Jeeves story. Jeeves never got to play for his country, but did die for it.

The Great Gatsby (1925)

F Scott Fitzgerald agonised over the title of his third novel. Among the candidates he rejected, and then lighted on again, and then re-rejected, in a series of letters and telegrams to his editor Max Perkins, were Trimalchio, Trimalchio's Banquet, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, The High-Bouncing Lover, The Great Gatsby, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, Incident at West Egg, Trimalchio in West Egg and several others. Perkins steered him gently towards The Great Gatsby, despite Fitzgerald's doubts.

By the time The Great Gatsby was at the printers, Fitzgerald had changed his mind once again, asking Perkins for the book to be retitled Under the Red, White and Blue – a reference to the American Dream so horribly mutilated in the book – and continued to swing back and forth, later writing to Perkins: "I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all," but by then it was in the bookshops. The Great Gatsby it had to stay.

Why Gatsby? Gatsby, as a name, echoes the violence. One must recall that in the book Jay Gatsby is the hero's assumed name, not his real name. His real name is James Gatz. (His father, Henry Gatz, makes an appearance in the book's last few pages.) The significance of Gatsby and Gatz is in "gat" – the gun that ends Gatsby's life. Violent death lingers around Gatsby. As the book opens he is just back from the war in Europe, which he is reputed to have quite enjoyed. Gatsby, it has also been pointed out, sounds, if you say it out loud, rather like the French verb gaspiller, to waste.

If "Gatsby" is significant, so is "Great". In early drafts Fitzgerald had Gatsby refer to himself as "great": "Jay Gatsby!" he cried in a ringing voice, "There goes the great Jay Gatsby! That's what people are going to say – wait and see. I'm only thirty-two now."

But despite his legendary parties Gatsby is not "great". He is rootless, friendless, loveless, ultimately lifeless. Only three people come to his funeral. "Great" is irony. Gatsby is a rich nobody.

Perhaps there is another echo in the "great" of The Great Gatsby: that of "the Great American Novel". This was an artefact Fitzgerald was consciously trying to construct, after the pattern of Melville or James, and to which he paid homage in one of his final choices of title, Under the Red, White and Blue. Fitzgerald thought of The Great Gatsby as his greatest work; many of his readers have agreed.

The Great Gatsby, then, can be seen as Fitzgerald's attempt to represent his country in the medium of the novel. If this is so, then the title he finally chose is perfect, whatever his doubts. In the book, the dreams of greatness, wealth and success that form the nation's myth are brutally dispelled. In an atmosphere of high-class squalor Gatsby is meaninglessly shot down. In calling his book The Great Gatsby it seems that Fitzgerald was gunning for America.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

The early 1980s were not the most cheerful of times. Two heavily armed power blocs were keeping the world in a state of perpetual phoney war. There were authoritarian governments and repressive police forces. The Western world was looking forward to a date signalling the obliteration of all hope and human values. The countdown to 1984 was more "millennial" than the real millennium 16 years later.

Attempts were made from the moment of its publication to find significance in the date of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The best known explanation was the "year-reversal" theory; Orwell finished the book in December 1948, and "48" reversed is "84". But when Orwell began writing the book, in 1943, the action was set in 1980. As time wore on he advanced the date to 1982, and then to 1984. He may well have been aware of the year-reversal as he completed the manuscript, but fundamentally the date of 1984 was a product of the fact that he had taken such a long time to write the book.

The next best-known theory is the "Jack London" argument. In London's dystopia The Iron Heel (1908), a book Orwell admired greatly, the USA is run along fascist lines by a group of Oligarchs who control the population via the Mercenaries. In the story, the date of the completion of the "wonder-city" Asgard is – 1984. But 1984 is not a particularly prominent date in London's book. In fact it appears in a footnote.

An intriguing third argument concentrates on a poem by Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, which was published in a school magazine in 1934. It is called "End of the Century: 1984" and deals with a future society in which "scholars" are controlled by telepathy. Orwell could have been thinking of this in 1948 when he came to name the book, but it does not seem very likely: again, it would probably have appeared much earlier in the manuscripts.

Rarely can a date chosen with such little particularity have exercised such a frightful grip on the imagination. A collective sigh of relief was exhaled as 31 December 1984 slipped away and 1985 began (despite the fact that Anthony Burgess had written a rather indifferent book about it). The date that was, more than any other, symbolic of "the future" was now past.

Orwell had cast a shadow over us for four decades, staring out from old photographs and book jackets with his pencil moustache and his silly haircut. We had put up with his prediction of a new Dark Age, and now Nineteen Eighty-Four could be consigned to the memory hole.

Lolita (1955)

Lolita is one of those novels in which the protagonist-narrator is so coruscatingly brilliant that we are ready to forgive him almost anything. Twelve-year-olds? Well, she did seduce him. And she'd already had that boy at summer camp. For prose this dazzling, this ardent, this clever... tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner... But plagiarism?

In 1916 a German journalist, Heinz von Eschwege, writing under the name of Heinz von Lichberg, published a collection of stories, The Accursed Gioconda. One – only 12 pages long – was called "Lolita".

The story is short, silly and uninvolving. But the similarities with Nabokov's Lolita seem too many to discount. The main ones are these: both have a first person narrator who turns up at a boarding house; Lolita in both cases is the daughter of the house; she "seduces" him; sex and death (and death after birth) are presented as different aspects of the same violence, or as cause and effect; and finally, the title.

Of course, Nabokov would probably not have read those 12 pages in an obscure, untranslated book by a minor German writer, published when he (Nabokov) was 17 and still in Russia. Or would he? Nabokov left Russia with his family in 1919, and after three years studying at Cambridge, settled in Berlin in 1922. He remained there for 15 years, married there, had a son, wrote several novels, and made his reputation. These were 15 years in which Von Lichberg was a fellow Berliner, living in the same part of Berlin. The book was still in the shops, and Nabokov read German quite adequately. Von Lichberg became a quite prominent public figure.

It is common for authors to forget they have not invented phrases or situations which they then regurgitate in their own work. But to reproduce, unconsciously, something with this number of matches surely strains credulity.

Moby-Dick (1851)

Moby-Dick was a real whale. In the days when whales were not sages of the deep but floating oil repositories, sailors would give names to individual whales who were particularly dangerous or unkillable. One of the most famous was "Mocha Dick", named after the island of Mocha off the Chilean coast. An albino sperm whale (like Moby-Dick), Mocha Dick was said to have drowned over 30 men, sunk five ships and been harpooned 19 times, which probably accounted for his mood.

Herman Melville's chief source was an article by Jeremiah N Reynolds in the Knickerbocker Magazine of 1839 entitled "Mocha Dick Or, the White Whale of the Pacific". He also took from the article the ship's name the Penguin, changing it to the Pequod.

The change from Mocha to Moby is more difficult to explain. It may have had its origin in another project that was on Melville's desk at the time he was writing his whale story: this was "The Story of Toby" about a seafaring friend, Tobias Greene. It may be that "Toby" influenced the change from Mocha Dick to Moby-Dick.

So much for the title of Moby-Dick, one might think. But there is an odd twist in the tale. Moby-Dick was not the title of the book at all. The title was The Whale when it was first published in London by Richard Bentley on 18 October 1851. Now rare, the English edition was substantially different textually from the American Harper edition, which followed later on 14 November 1851, and bore the familiar title Moby-Dick.

And, as if to give its imprimatur to the true, the pure American edition, an odd circumstance heralded its publication. On 5 November 1851, just nine days before its appearance, news reached New York that the whaler Ann Alexander, out of New Bedford, had been rammed and sunk by a whale. Despite stories of vicious and malignant whales, this was still a rare event, and the news spread rapidly throughout the globe.

Melville could barely hide his glee. On 7 November he wrote animatedly to his friend Evert Duyckinck: "Crash! comes Moby Dick himself, & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two. It is really & truly a surprising coincidence – to say the least. I make no doubt it IS Moby Dick himself, I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster."

Hamlet (c.1600)

The legend of Hamlet dates to at least 400 years before Shakespeare. The story made its first appearance in English in 1608. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in around 1600, which means that the tale would have been available to him only in French.

There was, however, another source, this time in English: a play, now lost, referred to in Shakespearean circles as the ur-Hamlet, often ascribed to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. Two diaries also yield mention of the ur-Hamlet: the first is that of the theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe, in 1594; the second is that of the playwright Thomas Lodge. These, then, were Shakespeare's two known sources.

But an odd fact exists. Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet. "Hamnet" and "Hamlet" are so close that he must either have named his son after his play, or his play after his son. Hamnet was born in 1585, and Hamlet was written 15 years later in 1600, and so the obvious conclusion is that it must have been the latter. Hamnet died, aged 11, in 1596, four years before Shakespeare came to write Hamlet.

There are several theories about the influence of Hamnet on Hamlet. The first is that father and son were not close (Shakespeare spent all of Hamnet's life in London) and that the story of the Danish prince was just a random subject for a revenge tragedy. A second has Shakespeare turning to the Hamlet legend as a way to explore his grief over the death of his son.

A third theory, however, gives Shakespeare as the author – or co-author – of the ur-Hamlet. In this scheme, the choice of the Hamlet-legend as a subject for a play would have been made at the same time as Shakespeare named his son Hamnet. It would have been a christening present.

It is an intriguing possibility. If he did write his first Hamlet in 1585, in a spirit of celebration at the birth of Hamnet, and perhaps with a happy ending – both earlier versions have happy endings – it would probably not have occurred to him that in 15 years' time he would feel compelled to revisit the play with a new, darker understanding of the bond between a father and a son.

Around the World in Eighty Days (1872)

Around the World in Eighty Days, as a title, is simple, descriptive and enticing. It has generated a huge number of parodies, puns and spin-offs. Of course, it all began with Jules Verne, and his Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours. Or did it?

Verne himself claimed that the idea was sparked in 1871 when he read an article about a Thomas Cook round-the-world tour package. But there is one man whose career so closely parallels the fictional Phileas Fogg that it would be rash to ignore him: an eccentric American rail magnate called George Francis Train.

Born in 1829, Train began his career as a shipping merchant and opium trader. Moving to Britain, he introduced the country's first trams, which were taken up in every major city and spread throughout Europe. With the fortune he gained, he returned to America and ploughed all his money into financing and publicising the Union Pacific railroad.

By now his ambitions were turning to politics. He began campaigning in 1869 with the ultimate ambition of the US presidency. In the middle of his campaign, "Citizen Train" announced that he would make a trip around the world in 80 days or less. He started from New York in late July 1870, taking the Union Pacific Railroad to California, and on 1 August boarded the Great Republic for Yokohama. From there he sailed to Hong Kong, then Singapore, the Suez Canal and Marseilles.

In Marseilles, his trip struck the rocks. Delegates from the Commune burst into his hotel room and demanded that he speak in favour of the revolution. Train became embroiled in revolutionary politics. He delivered public harangues and led a march on the military fortifications in Marseilles, which surrendered. In Lyons, he was thrown into prison. After appealing to the international media for help, Train was released, but not before 13 days had been wasted. He arrived back in late December, missing his deadline by at least two months. The 1872 election was won by Ulysses S Grant.

And there the matter might have rested, except for Jules Verne. Verne needed a new idea. In late 1870 and early 1871 news of Train's exploits was arriving in France. Verne very probably saw – the coincidences are surely suggestive – the news about Train. He quickly finished the tale of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and sold the idea as a serial to Le Temps, who published it in daily instalments from late 1872.

Verne never acknowledged Train as the inspiration. Train lived until 1904 and made three more round-the-world trips, beating his record each time, finally achieving 60 days. He once told an English journalist: "Remember Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days? He stole my thunder. I'm Phileas Fogg. But I have beaten Fogg out of sight."

The Waste Land (1922)

"The Waste Land" begins (of course):

April is the cruellest month,

breeding Lilacs out of the dead land,

mixing Memory and desire,

stirring Dull roots with spring rain.

Not so the first version:

First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom's place,

There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind

(Don't you remember that time after a dance,

Top hats and all, we and Silk Hat Harry,

And old Tom took us behind, brought out a bottle of fizz...

The transformation occurred in January 1921. TS Eliot met Ezra Pound in Paris and showed him a draft of a long poem he had written. It was called "He Do the Police in Different Voices" and was the proto-"Waste Land". It took its title from a passage in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, in which "Sloppy" (a young man so named because he had been found in the street on a "sloppy" night) is praised by Betty for his reading.

Pound, given the job of editor, slashed through page after page, reducing the poem almost by half. He cut the embarrassing scenes above of a drunken spree in Boston with old Tom and Silk Hat Harry; he cut 27 lines on the further adventures of the typist and the young man carbuncular; a further 160 lines dealing with the doings of Fresca and Phlebas; and junked 84 lines of part IV, making it the shortest of the five parts. He made around 200 suggestions and emendations. By the time he had finished, the poem was radically different.

In Pound's version, the poem began with the prophetic voice of Tiresias ("April is the cruellest month...") and this voice went on to dominate the poem. Gone was the archness, the vaudevillian scenes of lowlife, the period-piece flavour. "He Do the Police in Different Voices", which had originally been chosen – apologetically? – to suggest a miscellany of voices, was now not quite so accurate. The poem had gained structure.

Casting around for a title, Eliot settled on "The Waste Land", and the poem was published as such in The Criterion in October 1922 (and later as a small book).

A Clockwork Orange (1962)

Anthony Burgess gave at least three possible origins for the title A Clockwork Orange, none convincing. The first was that he had overheard the phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" in a London pub. He wrote in the introduction to the 1987 US edition: "The image was a bizarre one, always used for a bizarre thing."

Then, in an essay, "Clockwork Marmalade", published in 1972, he claimed he had heard the phrase several times, usually in the mouths of aged cockneys. But no other record of the expression in use before 1962 has surfaced. Several commentators have doubted it ever existed. Why an orange, in particular? Why not a clockwork apple? The phrase does not seem to have much wit or accuracy when describing something queer, odd or strange.

The second explanation was that the title was a pun on the Malay word orang, meaning man. Burgess taught in Malaya from 1954 to 1959. He wrote in Joysprick, his study of Joyce: "I myself was, for nearly six years, in such close touch with the Malay language that it affected my English and still affects my thinking. When I wrote A Clockwork Orange, no European reader saw that the Malay word for 'man' – orang – was contained in the title..." This conjuring of a clockwork man, central to the book's ideas, is clever, but sounds like an afterthought. Burgess wrote elsewhere that the orang echo was a "secondary" meaning – probably shorthand for a happy accident.

This leads to the third possibility, which is, as he wrote in a prefatory note, that the title is a metaphor for an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness, being turned into an automaton. This idea is built into the book. The story of Alex is one in which two unpleasant alternatives for future societies are contrasted. The first is one in which malefactors are allowed to exercise free will to torture and murder, and are, if caught, punished; the second is one in which they have their freedom of choice cauterised, resulting in a safe society populated by automata.

Burgess intended to contrast two ways of looking at the world, the Augustinian and the Pelagian. The Augustinian is that man's freedom is guaranteed, but original sin makes suffering inevitable. The Pelagian (heretical) view is that mankind is perfectible and original sin can be overridden. Burgess leant heavily towards the Augustinian side. The phrase "a clockwork orange", as representative of the Pelagian nightmare, appears in the book itself, in fact as the title of a book.

There is one other possibility. Did Burgess mishear that phrase in the pub? Terry's began making Chocolate Oranges in 1931. "Chocolate" and "clockwork" aren't homophones, but they might sound alike in a noisy pub. Perhaps Burgess misheard. Perhaps he knew it but liked what he had misheard. Perhaps – I speculate – he did not want to admit to the drab origins of his title.

© 2007 Gary Dexter

Why Not Catch-21? by Gary Dexter (£9.99) is published by Frances Lincoln ( www.franceslincoln.com). To order a copy (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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