LOVED this book! I wish I had Fitzgerald’s vocabulary and talent (as if!) so I could find an original, utterly charming, profound yet edgy way of saying that but alas…simplicity will have to do!
Where do I begin? Stripped down to its skeleton – this is a love story. Not a particularly original one either – Poor boy meets rich girl; they fall in love; after the initial romance comes the realization of divergent ideas of love, and the girl discovers in herself a reluctance to commit to an uncertain ‘material’ future, secure though it may be in the affections of her beloved; she withdraws into her rich, consumerist world and breaks her lover’s heart; he goes away to war and they meet again after he’s now her equal in wealth if not class; they try and take up where they had left off with disastrous consequences for both.
But this skeleton of a story is exquisitely layered, dressed in intricately descriptive prose, with characters and social commentary, of post World War I America in the twenties, which is what makes it original, and quite extraordinary. Now I’m no scholar, and the time period is utterly alien to me, but the details woven into the story lend it a rich atmosphere that is irresistible. One is immediately sucked into Gatsby’s world of decadence, opulence and edgy casualness. Fitzgerald’s considerable, indeed formidable talent as a writer is in evidence instantly. His descriptive prose is luminous and gives this ultimately dark tale a kind of radiance that is rare and precious. Every word is just so – nothing is superfluous, every verb, every adjective in its proper place! No wonder he manages to tell an epic story in the space of 115 pages! It’s almost as if he’s distilled the very essence of his story and served it up in a liqueur glass – to be savoured slowly, in silent contemplation, sip by delicious sip. And savour it you must – this is not a book to be read in haste. Every word carries import and every sentence meaning, so that if read in a rush or superficially, one is liable to miss the author’s intent, which makes this an almost impossible book to quote from, because every second sentence is quote-worthy! Here is Fitzgerald’s description of Nick Carraway’s state of mind when he returns from the War,
“When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention for ever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”
And shortly after, this astute description of Gatsby,
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the ‘creative temperament’ – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”
And these are just on Page 1! I could feast on this prose forever!
The book reads like a series of vignettes – which when considered in their totality reveal the personalities of the characters, their motivations, their flaws and their strengths. So Jay Gatsby is unveiled as a tycoon of uncertain origin, mysterious, remote, yet focused, forceful but desperately forlorn. Daisy is beautiful, shallow, ethereal, ephemeral and ultimately tragic; while Nick is seemingly ‘ordinary’, honest, run-of-the-mill, observant, happyish, trusting sort of lad – and a consummate narrator. He feels almost autobiographical to me, especially after I read up on Fitzgerald’s background and found many similarities. There are others, Tom Buchanan – meaty, conflicted and complex; Jordan Baker – a deceptively sharp, golf playing young woman and Daisy’s friend for all that is worth; Mr. & Mrs. Wilson – unhappily mismatched.
If I were to describe the book in a word – I would choose mesmerizing. The setting, the characters, the events – all have a haunting quality that transport the reader straight into West Egg and compel him to stay there long after the stage has emptied so to speak. Hollywood as had a go at bringing its literary iridescence to the screen, the most recent will be out in 2013 starring Leonardo Di Caprio as Gatsby, but since I haven’t seen any of the movies, I have no idea whether they have succeeded in capturing its mystical realism and the elusive undercurrents that simmer throughout the narrative. Although there are passages in the book that would make for fabulous scenes on screen, the acting talent required to convey the subtext would indeed be phenomenal! A tough ask me thinks.
I could say a lot more, but there’s enough written about this book by scholars and the hoi polloi alike. For me, this story could be set in modern day Mumbai and still be as relevant as it was when first published. I guess that’s what makes a classic – enduring sensibility combined with impeccable prose.
Now that I’ve added my two cents worth, I would like to end with a passage where Nick & Gatsby meet for the first time and a description of Gatsby’s smile…I have never read a more enthralling, apposite description!
“He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished…”
See what I mean? Delicious…sip by luscious sip! Those actors are up against some killer prose here although it would make for some mean dialogue, like this, “…I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” And one of favourite lines in a multitude of favourites is the last line in the book, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Now that’s what I call, a line 😉
For me this book is right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird, my all time favourite. They both teach without preaching and illuminate our consciences with their luminosity. Well, that’s the best way I know to put it.
Read, learn and surrender 🙂