Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fanny Hill by John Cleland

American readers may wonder what the fuss is about, but in Britain ‘fanny’ is a slang term not for one’s ‘ass’, but for one’s more intimate parts (if female). Cleland’s erotic classic - of 1748 - poses some problems both for arbiters of taste and for lexicographers. Did Cleland invent the word 'fanny' (the lexicographer Eric Partridge certainly thought so), or was he drawing on a usage that already existed? The first printed citation explicitly giving ‘fanny’ as a slang term is more than a hundred years later, so this gives no clue.

It may help to know that Fanny Hill was not originally Fanny Hill at all. The book was originally entitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and it was only in the later eighteenth century that the title was usurped by Fanny herself. ‘Hill’ is a pun - on the mons veneris or ‘mount’ of Venus. This rather supports the idea that the whole name – ‘Fanny Hill’ – was a sort of double pun. The fact that it originally did not appear in the title is also suggestive: Cleland was at pains to mollify the censor (he wrote most of the book while in the Fleet Gaol for debt, and after the book was published went back to prison, this time for obscenity) and deployed a whole vocabulary of euphemism and euphuism for the female genitals, including ‘the rose-lipped ouverture’, ‘the treasure of love’, ‘the pleasure-thirsty channel’ and ‘the etcetera’ – and for the male, ‘the pleasure pivot’, ‘the flesh brush’, ‘love’s true arrow’ and ‘the plenipotentiary instrument’.

The book exists today in a rather schizophrenic form. For the no-frills paperback reprint market it is Fanny Hill. For the ‘classics’ market, with scholarly introductions and notes, it is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Fanny is both saucy harlot and demimondaine. We are left to ourselves to decide whether Cleland’s novel is an unpretentious slice of porn or a canonical eighteenth-century novel alongside Tom Jones and Humphrey Clinker.

Cleland, John: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (introduction and notes by Peter Sabor, 1985)
Epstein, William Henry: John Cleland: Images of a Life (1975)
Green, Jonathon: ‘Dating Slang on “Historical Principles”’, Revue d’Études Françaises, No. 11 (2006)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

'Catch-22’ has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. ‘Is Orr crazy?’
‘He sure is,’ Doc Daneeka said.
‘Can you ground him?’
‘I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.’ [...]
‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.
‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’
‘You mean there’s a catch?’
‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doe Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’

Orr is crazy, and can be grounded, but if he asks to be grounded he is sane - and he can only be grounded if he asks. 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.

But it could have been Catch-18. This was Heller’s original title - and his title throughout all the long years of composition, from 1953 to 1961. However, just before the book was published Leon Uris produced his novel Mila 18. Heller’s publishers, Simon and Schuster, thought two books with ‘18’ in the title in one year was one book too many, and suggested a change. Heller was distraught (‘I thought 18 was the only number’ he said in an interview) and there began a long period of numerical agonizing in which numbers such as 11 and 14 were considered and rejected. Finally Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster suggested 22, which Heller approved as a more significant number, reflecting the theme of doubling: Yossarian bombs Ferrara twice, Giuseppe sees everything twice, all Yossarian can say to the dying Snowden is ‘There, there’, and to comfort his mistress, ‘Please, please’ – and Major Major is actually Major Major Major Major. As Yossarian comments of the Catch, ‘There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art…’

Greenfeld, Josh: ’22 was Funnier than 14’, New York Times Review of Books, March 3 1968
Nagel, James, ed.: Critical Essays on Catch-22 (Dickenson, 1972)
Sorkin, Adam J, ed.: Conversations with Joseph Heller (University Press of Mississippi, 1993)
JP Stern, ‘War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22’, Comparative Literature, 20 (1968)

Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days, as a title, is simple, descriptive and enticing. As with any title that works superbly well, it has generated a huge number of parodies, puns and spin-offs. A short sample includes: Around the World in Eighty Ways (film), Around the World in Eighty Dreams (TV series), Around the World in Eighteen Days (film), Around the World in Eighty Dates (book), Around the World in Ninety Minutes (documentary), Around the World in 18 Minutes (film), The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (film), Around the World in Eighty Treasures (TV series) and The Simpsons: Around the World in Eighty D’Ohs. And this is only scratching the surface. Of course, it all began with Jules Verne, and his Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours. Or did it?

Several theories have been propounded for the origin of Le Tour du monde. Verne himself claimed that the idea was sparked in 1871 when he read a newspaper 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 railroad magnate called George Francis Train.

Born in 1829, Train made his fortune in opium trading and transportation (a nice mixture) and in 1869 began campaigning for the US presidency with the rather unmelodious slogan of ‘Get aboard the express train of George Francis Train!’ In the middle of his campaign, ‘Citizen Train’ announced that he would make a trip around the world in eighty days or less. This might have been a publicity stunt - perhaps he wanted to advertise his new railway and the wonders of super-rapid opium-fuelled transportation - but whatever his motives, he started from New York in late July 1870, taking the Union Pacific Railroad to California, and on August 1 shipped on board the Great Republic bound for Yokohama. From there he sailed to Hong Kong, then Singapore, the Suez Canal, and Marseilles. In Lyons his luck ran out and he was thrown into prison. After appealing to the international media for help, Train was released, but not before 13 days of his precious 80 had been wasted. He hot-footed it to Liverpool, where he boarded the steamer Abyssinia for New York, and arrived finally in late December, having missed his deadline by at least two months. He claimed he had only taken the stipulated 80 days; no-one seemed to be bothered enough to count them. His presidential hopes were soon dashed. The 1872 election was won in a landslide by Ulysses S Grant.

And there the matter might have rested, except for Jules Verne. Verne was already a highly successful writer, having produced several of the Voyages Extraordinaires series that included A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But he needed a new idea. In late 1870 and early 1871 news of Train’s exploits was arriving in France. Verne, who may have seen the Thomas Cook advertisement but had not yet made the additional conceptual leap from the idea of a leisurely sightseeing trip to a race against time, very probably saw - the coincidences are surely suggestive - the news about Train, and the 80-day limit. He quickly dashed off 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 for his book. Train lived on until 1904, and made three more round-the-world trips, beating his record each time, finally achieving 60 days flat. He did not take kindly to Verne’s fiction, and 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. What put the notion into my head? Well, I’m possessed of great psychic force.’

Costello, Peter: Jules Verne, Inventor of Science Fiction (Hodder and Stoughton, 1978)
Wallace, Irving: The Square Pegs (Hutchinson, 1958)