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F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) is the author of This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, Tender is the Night, and The Great Gatsby. A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously.

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The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.

– Back Cover Copy

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The Great Gatsby

The “Classic” Great Gatsby

02/11/12

The Great Gatsby sat on my bookshelf for more than three years. I had bought it with other secondhand classics that I thought I really ought to read, most of which I placed proudly on my bookshelf and then promptly forgot about. Some, such as Wide Sargasso Sea and Wuthering Heights were prescribed to me by teachers back in high school and deserved a re-visit. Others like Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, and Sense and Sensibility simply struck a chord in this wannabe-literary mind of mine, and presented themselves as noble purchases.

However, about halfway through this modest collection, I realised that the term “classic” gave absolutely no indication of how I might react to each individual book. It seems obvious to me now, as all hindsight evaluations do, but I always thought that these books were supposed to be, oh I dunno . . . a special kind of special. I imagined a table (in a library) of old (and for some reason, British) people who (are drinking tea, and) had mystical powers of infallible good taste and intellectual insight, making their way through a list of every book ever published and deciding if they were “classic.” Their decisions were based on unobjectionable merits such as talent and originality, but in each chosen text there was also something more. There was a spirit, or a spark, or an essence or something possibly indefinable -- whatever it was, each book had it, and that was how it earned its “classic” stamp. Nobody ever gave me an explanation why these books were in this class, so I think that justification could be as good as any.

Over the years I made my way through about two thirds of that bulk purchase, picking out books at random. A couple of weeks ago though, I was bumbling around the Internet and came across a shocking thing -- a screenshot from a new movie featuring Toby Maguire, Carey Mulligan, and Leonardo DiCaprio strolling through a lavish garden, all laughing happily and looking ridiculously dapper. What was this!? I really like all those actors! Some minutes of Googling later, I was reading about this new adaption of The Great Gatsby, which was being directed by Baz Luhrman. Holy shit! I love Baz Luhrman! This movie is going to be so so so cool. It’s going to be beautiful and witty and it’s going to make me fall in love with it because it’s so awesome.

And then. Instantly. The panic set in. Holy crap. I haven’t actually read that book.

I sat up in my chair and straightened my pyjamas and re-plaited my hair. I was totally alone, and yet seriously embarrassed. I walked straight over to my bookshelf, found the title, pulled it out and began inspecting it. It was smaller than most “classics,” which was comforting because it meant I could read it quickly. And in that minute, I sat on my bed and began reading, and, after several intervals, was finished the following evening.

I really liked it. Really. It’s quite simple, and the themes and symbolic representations are easy to pick up on but nonetheless poignant, and for me this is one big reason that I’m now seriously fond of Fitzgerald’s writing. I got roped into the bright lights. I honestly did. The parties and houses and dresses drew me in so much, and I recognized similarities between the “roaring jazz twenties” and what I see in the “upper cut” of my generation now. Gatsby’s story is the epitome of the “rags-to-riches” mould, and the Nick’s humble humanity keeps the whole scene accessible and easy to reflect upon. The girls behave like absolute girls, and the boys behave like absolute boys, and it puts the reader in the comfortable position of being able to make conscientious judgments about everything. The judgment in the voice of the narrator himself is not the least bit pushy, and so when you find yourself (inevitably) agreeing with him, it gives you the feeling that you truly understand what it was all about. The Great Gatsby creates a relationship with you. You become friends with this book. There is a universality in it that goes beyond the specificities of location or time. It’s transcendent.

A good example is my favourite mini-scene from the end of the book, when Nick awkwardly runs into Tom in New York, and cannot bring himself to be as rude to Tom as he deserves:

“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. 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. I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”

There is just a really beautiful simplicity that that the narration brings to the story, and keeps it transcendent. That’s the word -- the key word that forms the link between which “classics” engage me and which ones don’t. Transcendent. There is an underlying humanity in The Great Gatsby that lends itself just as easily to the 21st century, even though one of its greatest qualities is how well it captures that particular time in history. I know people like Daisy and Tom, and of course I don’t really like them. I know of people like Gatsby, who I wish I knew better, and I’m friends with people like Nick. It’s so easy to cut and paste this novel’s elements to my own situation to intensify my response as a reader.

It’s just really good and I want everybody to read it before they see the movie. Not because I think the movie won’t do it justice -- but because I want people to enjoy the experience of entering Fitzgerald’s world for the first time, and respond to the narration for themselves. I want everybody to be friends with this little book and fall in love with it before they meet its glitzy Baz Luhrman cousin. I want them to put themselves in Nick’s shoes before those shoes are filled by Toby Maguire. I want them to think Daisy is pathetic before Carey Mulligan makes it impossible to hate her. And most of all, I want them to hunger for that slow trickle of information that we receive about Gatsby as the pages go on. Because it’s just too beautiful:

“As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moment even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.”

It’s poetry, it really is.

And as it turns out, I really do think some of these “classics” are masterpieces. The Great Gatsby is the perfect example of everything that can be great about a classic. It’s original and insightful and it came alive as I read it.

If you haven’t, you should read it too. If only because you bought it for a few dollars and always pretended you had. Or because you’re relieved by how short it is. Whatever your reason, once you finish you’ll wish it could have gone on forever. You’ll see the jazz of the twenties flashing before your eyes, and as you watch the American Dream come crashing down, you’ll see the Occupy Wall Street movement on TV and realise it’s always happening all over again.

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7 Comments

  1. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 02/11/12 at 9:02 pm Reply

    It is beautiful indeed, but there is no simplicity to any of Fitzgerald’s writing…especially in Gatsby. The brilliance of this man cannot be measured. You did get the humanity…I give you that…but what you missed is the precise, ruthless, focused carving Fitzgerald performs not only on his own (Lost) generation, but on his insufferable social class (of which he was a part and with which he was always conflicted). I’m happy you like this…what I consider hands down THE greatest American novel (Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is a close second for me).

    I like Luhrman’s work, but I have HUGE trepidations about the movie; it’ll be “quirky” in that Luhrman way, and the stars who signed on to play the characters don’t give me confidence at all. It’ll be a Baz Luhrman production…and yes, I will reserve my judgment ’till after I see it, but I have no confidence that Luhrman will catch the brilliance that Fitzgerald put on the page. It remains to be seen…my money is on Fitzgerald and not on Luhrman.

    Reply

    Bri Lee said on 02/12/12 at 2:15 am

    I hear a lot of people worrying about their favourite books being made into movies lest they might be ruined, but I just don’t understand that fear! The movie will be a unique creation in its own right and even if it’s unbearably horrible it can’t do anything to diminish your appreciation of the novel, right?
    And I stand by my comment that the writing is often beautifully simple. Just because it’s easy to read doesn’t diminish its poignancy – the ‘carving’ is all more potent for the ease with which you can chomp through the words and understand them all clearly! The simplicity is the strength.

  2. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 02/12/12 at 7:41 am Reply

    Bri, in the States many people will check out the film before they even think about reading the book…and make their decision whether or not to take on the novel based on what they saw at the cinema. There are myriad of people here who will go see this film and not think once about grabbing Fitzgerald’s brilliant work. Why should they? They “saw the movie.”

    Traditionally, writers in the States have sold the rights to their books (not at all a condemnable thing…it’s a business after all), and then disassociated themselves fully with the Hollywood product. They’re smart. Their labours of love get eviscerated by mediocre, hack writers, shitty directors, and even shittier producers. Going way back, look what a horrific job Hollywood has done with Hemingway novels…even as recently as a year ago with “The Garden of Eden” which–true, wasn’t a good novel to begin with, as Hemingway had definitely lost “it” by the time he wrote it–but was even a more ghastly film.

    That’s why a lot of people “worry about their fave books being made into movies.” Why wouldn’t one be outraged at something that is perfectly brilliant, being shat upon by filmmakers? Why wouldn’t you be revolted at the aberration that is made from something you love and something you think is meaningful art and something that has influenced you to be who you’ve chosen to be? (in my case, a writer) If writers themselves are quick to run and disassociated themselves with what screenwriters/directors/producers are about to do to their novels, why wouldn’t that be telling to someone?

    Absolutely, there are film versions which at times are even better than the novels…we could name quite a few. But compared to the barrage of product that is released every year, they are a teeny blip on the gigantic screen that is the Hollywood machine.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the writing is beautifully simple” still. Are you serious? Have you really looked at the intricate construction of Scott’s nearly every line? Is it that he’s such a master with language that he makes it SEEM simple? Or is it that our contemporary English “literature,” that is, stuff most people read nowadays, is bogged down with such obscure, indecipherable language or conceptual bullshit that obfuscates what a good writer must always do: tell a “simple” story…and are we used to enduring that? I know I’m not.

    If I sound combative, I’m not. I am just tired of films tinkering with perfect literature because no one in the motion picture industry has original ideas any longer, and so they must go digging around like pigs looking for truffles. Scott’s estate will probably see nothing from this version; his stuff is mostly public domain now–you can get all kinds of free Fitzgerald stuff for your e-reader. I am rolling my eyes at both Luhrman’s and DeCaprio’s involvement in this project. With Luhrman’s track record of “quirky” and DeCaprio’s mediocre career, this is just lining up to be another laughable attempt. Waterston and REDFORD couldn’t do it in the 70s version.

    I’m ecstatic that you find this book beautiful; it is. It really is. And it has such gravity, import, and most of all: relevance. Look at what is happening socially today. “Gatsby” has held up throughout nearly 100 years.

    I hope, however, this “conversation” between us gets people out buying this novel…and enjoying it as much as you and I have…and gets them to talk passionately about it, as you and I have here. This is what it’s all about; not being combative, but just discussing passionately what we love or hate about art and books and music.

    Bri, I’m really happy you did this write up on Gatsby. And you loved it so much. I do too. Always have. I re-visit Gatsby literally every 10 years, and every 10 years I discover something new. Something beautiful.

    Reply

    Bri Lee said on 02/12/12 at 9:01 am

    Okay, first of all I think your ideas about why I find Fitzgerald’s writing simple might be entirely correct. It kills me when a writer covers up a great story with what you accurately described as “such obscure, indecipherable language or conceptual bullshit” and I just found GG so refreshing. The characters were strong and the story was there and the scenes were gripping, but all of these elements were so easy to absorb and understand – and I think that level of excellence in communication can only come through a “beautiful simplicity”.

    Secondly, I admire your defensiveness, but I still think it’s misplaced. A novel and a movie are just such entirely different mediums and forms that I barely even consider the film an ‘adaptation’ of the book. The film deserves to be appreciated in its own right. Luhrman isn’t claiming ownership of the story, he’s offering an interpretation of it which will presented in an entirely new and unique way. Surely you’re underestimating the ‘average American’ if you think they actually excuse themselves from reading the book when they just go and see the movie? I don’t think people in Australia actually believe they have experienced the novel in any way if they’ve only seen the adaptation…

    Your point about the (almost) free rights to Fitzgerald’s work is just an example of it all – anybody can make a play or a movie or a damn puppet show using the characters and the story, but nobody could actually do anything to dent the brilliance of the original GG novel. It’s almost a testament to how awesome Fitzgerald’s skill was, that nobody has been able to handle that combination of story and characters since. It makes him (and by extension GG) even more untouchable!

    When people say “no I haven’t read it, but I’ve seen the movie” they aren’t claiming an understanding or experience of the original text, they’re just letting you know that they know how it ends. Would you rather some kind of ban on bad adaptations? Or just let them make these movies and constantly remind the world-at-large that the novelists will always ‘do it best’.

  3. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 02/12/12 at 2:28 pm Reply

    Nah, I’m not about banning anything. They can make the garbage all they want, but if we stop supporting it and instead silently demanding outstanding product (for example, stop patronizing these films, stop tweeting about it just because it’s Leo or Luhrman or Gossling, etc.), we might have artists/writers/filmmakers pushing themselves again to make statements…like they did in the 70s in American cinema. Take Kubrick for example; an auteur who truly interpreted novels in his own way and, in my opinion, elevated the written art…transcended it, made it into his own, and therefore (re?)created a masterpiece. That is an interpretation; I will guarantee you that level of cinema can be achieved yet again if we, as consumers, demand it by not going to see the garbage that is being sold to us now.

    Believe me, I don’t under-estimate Americans.

    I will also give this film a shot, despite my allergy to DeCaprio; I like Luhrman’s work, but, like Wes Anderson’s “quirkiness,” it can wear off very fast. The worst thing an artist, ANY artist can be is a one-trick pony. Luhrman is headed that way. Wes Anderson has been there for a while now.

    Reply

  4. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 02/12/12 at 3:49 pm Reply

    To continue, and show you I don’t under-estimate people, I have often heard (most recently just 2 days ago from a Master’s student at NC State University in North Carolina, USA) that Cliff’s Notes (or Sparks or whatever in hell they’re called now) are almost exclusively used instead of reading novels. So…yea, Americans will go see the movie, but they are unlikely to pick up the novel.

    And just on films in general…they are produced to sell tickets, not make any sort of statement. The relevant films in the 70s by the Scorseses, Coppolas, Altmans, were in the end either self-financed (“Apocalypse Now”) or part self-financed when Hollywood producers pulled the money because these directors failed to comply with their standards/wishes. The new Gatsby is financed and produced and distributed by the shit that is the Hollywood machine in order to maximize profits; there is no intent of recreating art, despite Luhrman’s involvement. Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about art. DeCaprio is a star with huge financial pull. Luhrman has figured out a niche and has sold himself as “edgy” an “innovator” an “artiste” to Hollywood. “Australia” (sorry Bri) was an awful film, but it was right along the lines of what Hollywood likes.

    Reply

    Bri Lee said on 02/13/12 at 3:48 am

    Well we’re on the same page regarding “Australia” that’s for sure. When I think of Luhrman I recall R&J and Moulin Rouge, to be honest I actually almost forgot about Australia. Maybe it’s a selective memory thing because holy crap I (along with most other Australians) hated that movie. I don’t even like Nicole Kidman and the whole Aboriginal element was so forced and tacky. Eugh! I suppose I should have clarified that… for some reason I just feel like it would be impossible for him to make another movie that was quite so bad.

    I like your idea about consumers sending messages to film makers, too. I think there is an incredible relationship between supply and demand in the entertainment industry and that not only must consumers (watchers/readers/listeners) tell the big makers what they want, but we can’t forget that big producers also have a lot of power to tell the public at large what they should want. Perhaps the reason the American (and by extension Australian) public want these blockbuster churn-outs instead of the ‘quality’ films you talk about from the 70′s is because that’s what they’ve been trained to want? It’s the same with the news media and even art. This dichotomy is so back-and-forth it’s impossible to draw the line between who is shaping who.

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