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Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller

(Gauntlet Press, 2006; $100.00; ISBN: 1-887368-86-8.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanVery few authors transcend their genre. Many prove themselves unable to fully explore their own world, yet alone the soil of other, secret lands. Ray Bradbury, perhaps the greatest living American writer, has made a career, an art, a life out of following his dreams and fancies, fears and hopes... wherever they have led. Sometimes they've taken him through the dark soils of midnight graveyards. Other times, they've led him through wind-swept stars and the red rivers of Mars. More often, despite where the physical paths of his characters have summoned him, his most important, visionary trips have been journeys inward -- Epic quests of average people looking into the mad house of their own souls. This is the carnival land where Bradbury flourishes, merging imagination with observation, both taking and leaving something behind as we, the readers, share in the sacred relationship between writer and reader.

This collection, a most special one, is not only fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose -- it is, like many of the author's fictions, something of, and more than, both. A celebration of, and examination of, the several stories and novellas that led up to the writing of Fahrenheit 451, this gorgeous and highly collectible book is both a history of an idea and literary museum of the author's thought processes. Within we follow the genesis and creative fermenting process of the characters, ideas, and themes -- the loves and hates and fears -- that led to The Fireman, which itself then eventually led to the aforementioned novel. A magician's box of tricks, this historically significant collection charts people and their collective obsessions, documenting how Bradbury wrangled them into shape. Editor Donn Albright sequences the rare, illuminative materials in such a way as to help us understand how key themes of censorship and love of art mixed and merged as sweet and sour as any 'Dandelion Wine,' resulting in one of the most important books on the brute, idiotic dangers of uninformed censorship and the human hunger for expression.

Doing precisely what it promises, this anthropological anthology examines the various fictional, creative, and philosophical paths that Bradbury embarked on during his battle with burn-happy Firemen, vicious futures, glorified pasts, and the pleasures of storytelling in a world increasingly disenchanted with enchantment. Similar to the composition process of Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury's trip to completing Fahrenheit 451 was blazed earlier along the routes of various short stories, each revising, changing, or emphasizing something of the novel's soul. The finished product of 1953 was begun, as the editor points out, in 1944, and it is through these years that we trace the evolving themes, style, and references that Bradbury wrestled with. Collecting each of the principle stories that helped develop or shape in either theme or scope the novel, Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit-451 is the answer to such questions as what, why, when, and how? A scrapbook of words and images, fancies and fears, this is a literary primer -- a study much needed. A medicine for melancholy, these stories and the novella they lead up to are precisely what we need in the trenches of culture today. Something to be angry about, to fight for, to believe in, and in believing, to act.

Including "The Fireman" a novella published in Galaxy '51 (1951), which was the core of the later novel, the collection also includes such hard-to-find stories as "Reincarnate," "Pillar of Fire," "The Library," and "Bright Phoenix," each adding to an overall myth of people's love and fear of books, freedom and its costs, and the challenge of the individual heart to face the ignorant masses). Facsimiles of "Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright," "The Mechanical Hound," "Bonfire," and "Crickets on the Earth" accompany their published forms, and are worth special attention. As with many Gauntlet books, these and several other sections of the volume include hand-written material, including personal thoughts, letters, and story material by the author. Further stories include the delightfully outlandish "The Mad Wizards of Mars,"
the subversive "Carnival of Madness," "The Garbage Collector," and "The Pedestrian," perhaps the shortest yet most effective comment on our species ever burned into paper. A handful of other variations on the censorship/fireman theme round out the fictional portion.

As indispensable as the fiction is -- and certainly the most important reason to purchase the book -- the supplements, the meat on the gravy, as it were, is tasty indeed, supplying an aesthetic and moral context with which to better appreciate the fiction. Besides the above mentioned facsimiles and Bradbury's first published article, "Blue and White Daily" (1938), these personal comments and essays lend further retrospective opportunities lacking in most editions of this author's work. Informative, engaging critical notes and an introduction by Bill Toupounce set the stage for the historical and aesthetic trip, and annotations by Jon Eller supply gaps in our general understanding of the text. A brief preface by Bradbury and appreciation by Matheson bring some welcome intimacy to the party, the former especially revealing. Here Bradbury admits that his original assessment that Fahrenheit 451 was a direct outgrowth not only of the "The Pedestrian" and The Fireman, but that, in fact, he had written a large handful of stories that dealt with the idea of burning libraries, censorship, and the cultural Outsider. From this recollection, spurred on, in part, by the editors of this volume, this book was born.

A note on the writing itself, as if it were needed: Some authors craft tales with such ecstasy, love, and exhilaration that we can't help but follow where they lead. Sometimes we regret the trip, discovering the author had little purpose in bringing us along. Sometimes we're lucky, finding ourselves on a safari of heart and soul with a guide also part devil, who rushes us into territories of joy and wonder, suspense and terror. Once again we're made children. Bradbury is such an author, and we become in the process of reading these works children of a wonderful if frightening country of mind and possibility. Bradbury lights the alternating dark and light byways of the human condition, finding poetry in the banal and the everyday in the steepest flights of fantasy. The poetry in these works, enjoyable as simply great fiction or as parables of warning and survival, is paradoxically beautiful and terrifying -- and as such true not only to life as we see it through the senses but as it could be, ode to a world which is only partially what we see with the eye. The rest of the universe must be seen by the soul. This is why we need writers like Bradbury. This is why we need fiction. And the stories in these retrospective collections provide us with just the right blend of fear and fancy. In these stories Bradbury is able to convey the world's night terrors and hopes with the wisdom of an old, old man and the delight of a child. More importantly, his words speak to us, inviting us to make our own, to see and taste and smell for ourselves, and to fight, if need be, to preserve this right. Congratulations are due to all concerned for this highly personable, literary treasure of life and death, hope and anguish, poetry and revelations.


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