Friday, February 17, 2012

Prelude to Gatsby

Before seeing Ensemble Parallele's production of John Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby, I took the time to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel.

I last read Gatsby as an impressionable teenager, and went on to read the then-current Fitzgerald bio, his short stories, Tender is the Night, and goodness knows what else. I had forgotten some of the sad details of his life - such as drinking himself to death at age 44 - but remembered some of the others (talented but mentally ill wife spending her last decade in an asylum before dying tragically in a fire). Thank you, Wikipedia, for the reminders.

I had also forgotten a whole lot about Gatsby, as in, almost all of the plot details. It's a compact novel and a quick read, which I knew because I'd picked up a used hardcover copy some years ago.

It's always interesting to reread a book you haven't touched in a few decades, especially a book with Gatsby's huge reputation. The book may be called The Great Gatsby, and the events of the novel may center around the mysterious Jay Gatsby, but from the reader's perspective, the central character is Nick Carraway, the narrator, who is the only character we see grow or change during the novel.

I understand why it's typically read by adolescents, though evidently not everybody does read it in junior high or high school. At that age, it's easy to identify with Gatsby and his dream of reunion with Daisy Buchanan, his longing for her and to be accepted in the upper-class society in which she lives. He's also, apparently, a self-made man who has risen to ostentatious wealth from humble beginnings.

But seriously. Past adolescence, it's just very hard to take much about this book seriously. The writing is sometimes beautiful but just as often awkward. The dialog is shallow and so are most of the characters. At my age, I have absolutely no sympathy for the 30-year-old Gatsby's adolescent longing and failure to understand that Daisy has moved on. I simply cannot swallow the impossible coincidence that brings on the final tragedy, or sympathize with how Gatsby protects Daisy.

It's easy enough to believe the shallow Buchanans and Tom's affair with the vibrant Myrtle Wilson, and to believe that observing all of this, Nick rejects NY society and goes back to the honest midwest. But it's hard for me to swallow Gatsby as a major American novel.


John Marcher said...


I re-read it as well before the opera, and though I have higher praise for it than you, it's not in the same league as the truly great novels of the era by Wharton, Dreiser, Dos Passos, etc.

Henry Holland said...

I understand why it's typically read by adolescents

That's the reason I'll never read Catcher in the Rye or On the Road or The Fountainhead or The Hobbit or Siddhartha or The Magic Mountain or any of a number of novels again, they were important to me at a certain time and place and I want to remember them like that.

Lisa Hirsch said...

JM - I don't know Dreiser or Dos Passos at all, am mixed on what I have read by Wharton.

HH - I'd be willing to re-reawd The Hobbitt, which is charming. I read a fraction of The Fountainhead (or ATlas Shrugged? :) and will never touch it again, not for all the tea in China. But the only Mann I've read is Death in Venice, so The Magic Mountain lies ahead.

Henry Holland said...

Ah, Ayn Rand. I read The Fountainhead in high school, the perfect time for its "I'm going to be me and stick it to The Man!!!" theme. I read Atlas Shrugged later and it was simply a case of "I'm going to finish this damn book no matter what", it's pretty awful. I even made it all the way through the 200 page+ "This is John Galt" speech. Yikes.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, that's the appropriate age. But I threw whichever book it was against the wall - the philosophy was simply anathema to me.

Civic Center said...

I disagree with you completely about the book which is aging brilliantly. Also read it in adolescence and didn't remember a a single detail as an adult, but I wouldn't have understood the class structures, Prohibition, east vs. west, modernist 1920s vs. old-fashioned pre-WWI, when I was a California beach town teenager anyway.

I read "Gatsby" very slowly recently in anticipation of the Ensemble Parallele production, in some kind of parody of the "slow food" movement. I'd read a chapter, then read it a second time a couple of days later, and then pick up the next chapter a week later. The slim volume took about two months to finish and by the end I felt like I'd actually absorbed the book. It is as great as its currently inflated reputation insists, and that has nothing to do with its plot or its characters who are elusive by design. It has everything to do with "those sentences," as Gertrude Stein used to embarrass Fitzgerald with in public praise.

And if you've never read Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," you have a great treat ahead of you. It's another Great American Novel, photorealist style, also about midwesterners who end up in New York at the beginning and end of their tether.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's a fascinating way to read a book. I'm not sure if I could sustain it that way.

The class structure, east v. west, Prohibition stuff is drawn very well, as opposed to what I thought did not work.

Joe Barron said...

I did it the opposite of sfmike (though I reread Moby Dick in the manner he describes): last summer, I reread Gatsby twice straight through and loved it every bit as much as I ever did, perhaps more. I go back to it primarily for the elegance of the prose (I don't know where these "awkward" patches are supposed to be hiding), and so, I must say, I don't care about adaptations like the Redford movie or Harbison's opera. The best part of the book gets lost in the translation, and if the music doesn't provide an adequate substitute, as in Verdi's renderings of Shakespeare, then it hardly seems worth the effort.

I was a young man myself once, and while I don't sympathize with Gatsby (and it is clear Carraway doesn't, either), I certainly understand carrying a torch for a woman for years.

Point of accuracy: FSF didn't drink "himself to death." He was more or less on the wagon and working again steadily when he had his fatal heart attack. The booze and the cigarettes contributed to the decline of his health, I'm sure, but you make it sound as though he dropped dead in a drunken stupor.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Some of the dialog made me really want to kick him.

Joe Barron said...

"No, Gatsby turned out all right in the end. It is what prayed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams, that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."

I mean, come on.

And now, to prove I'm not a robot, I have to try to read some indecipherable script. Speaking of wanting to kick somebody ... ;)