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.
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.
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.