Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This 1925 novel was considered by the author to be his masterpiece. Certainly it has achieved fame as a prime romantic story, a classic of American literature and a distillation of the Jazz Age. It is actually an odd book, told obliquely by a narrator who is part of the story – a technique perhaps borrowed from ‘Wuthering Heights. The romantic encounters are short, though Gatsby’s passion for Daisy Buchanan permeates the book, with his extravagant parties sending out a sad, wasteful message across the bay to his married lost love.

After reading this book at least three times in my life, I feel that Scott Fitzgerald did not write this love story from his heart. Rather, I have the uncomfortable sense that he is striving for a commercial success, which gives a stilted emptiness to some of the events and phrases. For instance Gatsby’s comment that Daisy’s “voice is full of money” itself is odd, but then it triggers a series of comments by the narrator that try too hard to catch the reader with poetic allusiveness: “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jungle of it, the cymbal’s song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…”

Or how about this overblown famous final sentence? “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Maybe it works. It works for many people, and it works for me in some moods.

There is a wildly-swinging ambivalence in my attitude towards this author. I can’t help admiring him too, for he mixes spot-on observation of modern life with a theatrical romanticism. And yet I feel he is putting on a show – a theatre show of a romance. The reader is being manipulated, and there is a shallowness in the characterisation sometimes.

There are many good elements to appreciate in ‘The Great Gatsby’. Brilliant title, to start with. The choice of a tragic ending is totally right. The discovery of their past towards the end of the book heightens the tension. The murder in the swimming pool is high and ironic drama.

It is a gem of a book, with sharp dialogue, masterful weaving together of plots, employing an economy of means: creating an epic feel in a mere 180 pages. It is the sort of enigmatic book that draws you back repeatedly to read it. No doubt, he will entice me to a fourth reading before too long…

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