Monday, 22 November 2010

Gatsby on the outside


Fortunate is the writer who creates a novel in perfect tune with the times; fortunate was F. Scott-Fitzgerald, who, in The Great Gatsby created the novel and the times! It’s not just the novel of the Jazz Age, a term coined by Fitzgerald; it’s the novel for the Doldrums Age, judging by the popularity of a new Broadway reading of the book. I saw from a report in the Sunday press that a new film version is also planned, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Jay Gatsby, the part played by Robert Redford in the 1974 adaptation.

It’s easy to understand its popularity because the message goes beyond all ages, all times. It’s a novel that is read with hindsight, if that makes sense – from the lows of the 1930s looking back to the highs, the thoughtless, effervescent, champagne bubbles of the 1920s; from the lows of present-day America back to a vanished prosperity of Gekko-land and greed is good. The American dream and the American nightmare go hand in hand; they always have.

I suppose there is a combination of emotions here. There is nostalgia for the good times, and the Jazz Age was in so many ways the best time of all, the best time to be young, rich and alive, whirling around in a endless round of parties and social engagements. Nostalgia, yes, but accompanied by a realistic appreciation of the sub-text; that all was not quite right, that were there is brilliance there is also decay; where there is Eden there is also a serpent. The thing about impossible dreams is that they are, well, impossible. Gatsby, it’s as well to remember, was published in the 1925, right at the height of the Roaring Twenties. It celebrates the period, it defines the period…and it presages its end.

I love the figure of Jay Gatsby, a brilliant social climber who successfully manages to disguise his roots, who creates an elaborate illusion in pursuit of love. He is a fraud, yes, but he’s more endearing, nobler and more refined than the ‘old money’, represented by Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The tragedy is that he is himself deceived by a greater illusion; that Daisy Buchanan is a figure worthy of pursuit when the reality is that she is shallow, insincere and essentially worthless for all her wealth. Daisy is love alright, with money, which is to say with herself.

There is so much symbolism in this simple novel, so many possible readings. Baz Luhrmann, the director of the new movie, said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that he sees parallels between the rise and fall of Gatsby and our modern economic hard times;

If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says ‘You’ve been drunk on money’ they’re not going to want to see it. But if you reflected that mirror on another time, they’d be willing to. People will need an explanation of where they are and where they’ve been – and The Great Gatsby can provide that explanation.

Daisy and Tom still have their money; they always will. Gatsby and his kind are still on the outside looking in. Perhaps they, too, always will.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out Daisy's light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

26 comments:

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  3. I love the Gatsby! I can't wait for the movie either :)

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  4. Are they making a new film of the novel, or just remaking the movie?

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  5. I thought the comment by Baz Luhrmann a bit much; I think Scott Fitzgerald would be amused that twenty-first century people (or anyone in fact) might be seeking in his novel an explanation "of where they are and where they've been."

    You know, I found the novel a touch tedious - all that pointless drinking and socializing (yes, I know, the pointlessness was the point). But let me also say that there was something there that attracted me, a kind of modern romanticism, a kind of yearning that the author felt and only imperfectly realized. But even that is enough to fascinate anyone (like you, Ana, like me, but apparently unlike your grumpy friend Adam!) for whom some kind of magical, romantic restlessness is at the heart of what it means to be alive.

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  6. Tootsie, first a warm welcome to the Impdom! Yes, I am too. I have a bit of a 'thing', you see, for Leonardo. I think he will make a really delicious Jay Gatsby. :-)

    I discovered this morning that Stephen Spielberg is going to start shooting a movie about Abraham Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, something else to look forward to.

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  7. Calvin, I would like to think it will be a fresh look at the novel but the 1974 movie is a bit of an iceberg, difficult to get around.

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  8. Mark, I do an awful lot of pointless drinking and socialising! Your final point expresses my crystal mood so well. Do you know me, by chance? :-))

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  9. Great Post Anastasia

    I shall never forget this line; it is marked in my 1972 Penguin Edition but I found it because I knew where I had marked it on page 186 [the left page in my copy]:

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made …”

    It could have written about today, today’s people and today’s money. Things never change when greed and money embrace.

    The previous paragraph is my own.

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  10. Gatsby is really a modern fairy tale, a Quixote story. A search for America's lost innocence, corrupted by greed and superficiality.

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  11. Gatsby isn't really about "being drunk with money," it's more about something that actually happens.

    @MGON: There is no such thing as obscenity in literature. Literature is the right and proper place for all things that do not see the light of day.

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  12. I don't see why someone would like to remake a film which is already perfect. It will be a huge deception to all of us who have watched the first.

    Remakes are normally inferior to the first, authentic film. Cape fear is the only exception I can think of at the moment.

    On a side note I have to say that socializing is never pointless.

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  13. Ike, that is so true. That's a good passage. I love Fitzgerald's use of language.

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  14. Oh, as an aside, Andersonville progresses so well. Adam, I see you were there in the summer of 1864, not a good place to be, believe me!

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  15. NP, a beautiful way of puting the novel in perspective.

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  16. Jeremy, yes, money happens! Do you remember the observation about Daisy's voice?

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  17. Jean Paul, I agree, on the socialising, that is. :-)

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  19. There is a character in the novel I alluded to by the name of Adam Garrie, a Union prisoner in Andersonville, a Confederate prisoner of war camp, a hellish place.

    Yes, Adam, you have no need to repeat your opinion here; I understood you the first time.

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  21. I realise you understood me, but I was confused what you were referencing so I thought for what ever reason I'd clarify my remarks.

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  23. @Ana: I actually don't, but I've always thought Gatsby is really about the value of people and strength of character, and all the different forms it can take or not take.

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  24. @NP: If anyone in the story actually was corrupted, it was Daisy, and it was by fear, especially fear of other people, not greed or superficiality. This is made clear at a speech in the beginning of the book, where she shows that she's a great deal more thoughtful, and cynical, then she gives away on the outside.

    To some degree actually, now that I think about, Nick was corrupted by fear as well, and as such never bothered to help any of the people he is narrating the doom of, out of his own fears and insecurities. Ironically enough though, there is one character in the book who has no fear at all, Jordan, and she actually doesn't really care about any of the people in the story, using Nick for his body, Gatsby for his money, and Daisy for company. But was she corrupted? Or has she always been this way? It's not made clear in the story - the only thing that is made clear is that, ironically, she is not afraid. And neither is Gatsby, who cares deeply about people but also misjudges them, massively.

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  25. Jeremy, like all great novels it's capable of multiple readings. There is a beguiling ambiguity to it.

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