Novel #1: “The Great Gatsby” — F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
One of the few advantages of working for the Indy is I get to meet a lot of writers. I ran into Allan Gurganus at a party last year and, knowing his great love of F. Scott Fitzgerald, asked him if he was going to see the new 3-D version of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrman. “Oh I don’t know,” he replied, “I think I have to. I’m nervous — but I’m such a fan of Baz Luhrmam. ‘Moulin Rouge’ was fabulous.”
He shouldn’t have had to worry — in spite of the hyperactive CGI and modern soundtrack, the latest big screen adaptation of the Great American Novel isn’t just faithful to Fitzgerald’s original, it’s almost slavishly so. It’s as if Baz used the Jay-Z produced songs to trick high schoolers into seeing a live-action novel. Even the entirely-invented framing device of making Nick Carraway the author of “The Great Gatsby” — allowing the character to read passages from the novel in heavy-handed voiceover — doesn’t detract. If anything, it just showed that Luhrman knew he couldn’t have written better passages than Fitzgerald, and didn’t even try.
If you’ve been reading this blog long enough and noticed certain key words — nostalgia, loss, bittersweet longing — it’s no surprise this is my all-time favorite novel … well, ok, novel that doesn’t involve elves, starships or cyberspace. Long before I read it for the first time, I remember high school friends Matt and Paul going on and on about the party scenes. This is of course what is going to appeal most to a teen, that promise of promiscuity and looming bacchanalia. Later, in your 20s, you pick up on the clusterfuck of intertwined relationships at the heart of the plot, and by the time you reread it in your 30s or 40s, you understand the longing Gatsby cannot escape — that urge to recapture lost opportunities — at the same time you recognize his utter delusion. I look forward to seeing what reading it in my 50s brings.
I saw Gurganus give a talk on “The Great Gatsby” a few years back, delving into things you don’t get in your average American Lit class: how close the story mirrored Fitzgerald’s life, how carefully he chose the names of the characters to load them with symbolism, how his editor saved the book from disaster by cutting out half the original manuscript. What remained is suave and svelte, unabashedly sentimental yet deeply trenchant. Is it any wonder that Roger Ebert flew into an online rage when a Scholastic edition of the book stripped it of all language and meaning? How could you mess with one of the best denouments every written?
“And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”