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.