Finally reading The Great Gatsby
in my mid-thirties reminded me a bit of the few times I've met famous movie-stars or celebrities. ‘No no, she was great,’ you assure people afterwards. And then, in a vague tone: ‘I don’t know…she was a lot…shorter
than I’d imagined….’
Don't get me wrong, I liked it – I just can't quite work out why so many people consider it (in John Carey's words) ‘the supreme American novel’. I suppose part of the problem is that I have become a little blasé about authors pointing out the obvious limitations and drawbacks of the American Dream, even though most of the examples I can think of were probably copying Fitzgerald when they did it.
What does lift it, though, and what makes it such a pleasure to read, is Fitzgerald's prose style, which allows for some very sensitive characterisation, and which also has a tendency to break out into beautifully-crafted flashes of melancholy. Stuff like this, when Nick's gazing out of the window during a party:
Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets….
You get a sense of this from the first page, when Nick tells you he's been ‘privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men’ – the kind of phrase that makes me rub my hands with the knowledge that I'm going to enjoy what's coming up. This atmosphere of brooding, half-drunken melancholy – a sense of the ‘enchanted metropolitan twilight’ – is everywhere in the novel, and indeed as I write this paragraph out I have an increasing feeling of just how American
this atmosphere is, intimately tied to the jazz music which is such an essential background detail here. (In all of this lost moody Americanness, it reminds me very much of On The Road
; and isn't Nick Carraway just exactly who Sal Paradise would be, ten years older? With all due recognition of the different time periods involved.)
Despite this bluesy melancholy, the writing is never loose, and sometimes Fitzgerald surprises you with phrases of controlled efficiency:
Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.
This is almost Chandleresque. All these neat, moody descriptions become a way to build up the characterisation – Gatsby himself, for instance, is wonderfully described as someone who ‘dispensed starlight to casual moths’ – and the result is that everyone in the book seems layered and believable. Daisy in particular I found realistically baffling – she reminds me of so many girls I chased at so many parties, you feel like you don't really know them, they are sort of sexy and irritating all at once – FitzG captures it brilliantly.
‘These things excite me so,’ she whispered. ‘If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I'll be glad to arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card.’
Funnily enough poor old Jimmy Gatz ended up being the person I was least interested in – I was too busy staring with appalled fascination at the rest of the cast. Especially the narrator, Nick, who tells us more than once, perhaps rather too eagerly, what an honest person he is. Just before the very beautiful closing paragraphs, he has his little showdown with Jordan:
‘I'm thirty,’ I said. ‘I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honour.’
But that is itself another lie – the sort you tell yourself when you're thirty.