I blithely said at some point that I would write regularly about the writers who have most inspired me. Well, not only have I not been ‘regular’ about it, but – with some ‘dare you to’ from Marilyn McCottrell over at the very funny and wry Memos from the Middle blog – I will also now break my promise about sticking to the less obvious suspects. Yes, I will brazenly talk about that much-praised, over-analysed book called ‘The Great Gatsby’, a.k.a. ‘The Great American Novel’ by some.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read this and it does seem to get better and better with age. I suspect that my infatuation with it in my youth probably had something to do with the image of Robert Redford at the swimming pool, waiting for Daisy’s phone call, pouting beautifully and moodily in the mid-distance. This was the movie adaptation of it, of course, sumptuously clothed and filmed (quite a bit of it in England, incidentally), but ultimately not considered a triumph by the critics. The upcoming adaptation of it, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role… well, I beg to reserve judgement, but suspect he cannot quite replace Redford in my mind.
Yet, no matter how much I love it, I’ve been surprised that it’s considered the ‘Great American novel’, because it seems so far removed from the confidence, language and bluster that much of the American literature has. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway – there are so many contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but this one seems atypical. It certainly talks about the dangers and the failure of the American dream, which is perhaps why it has grasped the public’s imagination for so long (and why it is being remade as a film and also currently onstage as a musical these days). The long sentences, the tentative statements, the moral ambiguity make the novel feel European in many ways.
There are some things that struck me instantly when first reading the novel and that have stayed with me since: the description of Daisy’s thrilling ‘money’ voice, the green light at the end of the pier, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes towering on a billboard above the grey badlands. Oh, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is clever with his symbolism, foreshadowing of tragedy, the recurrence of the eye image, all of that. I remembered that clearly from my previous readings.
But here are some things that I did not quite remember, or maybe only just now noticed:
1) Although it’s such a short novel, it does not feel rushed. The pace is leisurely, gentlemanly. For heaven’s sake, it does not even plunge straight into the story, but opens instead with a statement by the narrator, Nick Carraway, of just how uncritical and non-judgemental he has taught himself to be (thus breaking all the rules given to fledgling writers). And the novel does not end with Gatsby’s death or pathetic funeral, but with the author painstakingly tying up all the loose ends, while the narrator muses cynically and at length about all of the characters in the drama.
2)I had forgotten just how long and complicated his sentences are, abounding with semi-colons, commas, adjectives, piling of details – accumulation which works wonderfully in the chapter describing Gatsby’s extravagant parties.
‘By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums…. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there, among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’
Occasionally, this can lead to some meandering but intriguing side alleys, which just adds to the unhurried pace of the narration. And yet each details feels perfectly placed and not all superfluous.
3) I had also forgotten that Nick Carraway is such an unreliable narrator, despite his initial exhortation that ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’. I had initially taken his character assessments at face value: ridiculed silly Myrtle, condemned brutish Tom Buchanan, despised shady Wolfsheim, was wary of the golfing Jordan Baker. My perception was coloured first by Gatsby’s naive dream, then by Nick’s cynicism. Now I have begun to distrust Nick’s version of events, his critical and often far too self-righteous tone, his tone of omniscient interpreter of events. I feel more pity and empathy for all of the characters, even Daisy, who ultimately fails not because she is a horrible, weak, selfish and self-centred person (although she is all of that too), but because she is human, not the goddess that Gatsby had built her up to be in his memory.
4) There are layers beneath layers beneath layers in this rich book – which is why I never tire of it. There is no simple answer or explanation or solution. There have been so many interpretations of it: a condemnation of wealth and excesses, the hollowness of materialism and the American Dream built upon it, the impossibility of replicating the past… yes, it is about all of that and more. It triggers something within the readers, puts all sorts of ideas in their heads and feelings in their hearts, which cannot be easily summarised. There is one instance when Nick says ‘Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’. And supposedly we are looking at this story though a single window, Nick’s window of insight. Yet Fitzgerald has the skill to hint at multiple windows and to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of something far deeper. There is something here we can barely explain but can only feel, like an image half-glimpsed, half-imagined in the moonlight. There is always that hint of something ‘almost remembered’, an ‘elusive rhythm’, which we have to believe in to get through the everyday.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Great Gatsby’: did you love it or hate it, especially if you had to read it at school? And do classics get better when you reread them? What have you recently discovered upon rereading an old favourite?