The Great American Dream?

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

fitzgerald booksHaving adored Baz Luhrmann’s new film of The Great Gatsby (which I blogged about here), I just couldn’t wait to re-read the book. It must have been a couple of decades since I last read it, and this time, for my third re-read, I was able to use my Folio Fitzgerald set rather than a paperback, which always heightens the experience.

I must say it immediately struck me how faithful the film had been to the book.  The actual dialogue in the book formed the majority of the spoken words in the film, and so many of the little details in the book – from the man with owlish glasses in Gatsby’s library, to Klipspringer playing for them to dance, Myrtle’s puppy, and not forgetting the giant billboard on the road into the city – are all present in the film too Where the two differ is in how the film sets up Nick’s narration with the framing device of him being in a sanatorium recounting the events of that summer.  You may argue that faithfulness to a text is not necessarily a good thing for a film, but each adaptation needs to be taken on its own merits. Personally, I think the critics were wrong in their lukewarm reception to this film.  But back to the book …

Nick’s outsider/insider status is set up from the off, when he visits his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan at their mansion bought with old money, shortly after arriving on Long Island…

‘I forgot to ask you something, and it’s important. We heard you were engaged to a girl out West.’
‘That’s right,’ corroborated Tom kindly. ‘We heard that you were engaged.’
‘It’s a libel, I’m too poor.’
‘But we heard it,’ insisted Daisy, surprising me by opening up again in a flower-like way. ‘We heard it from three people, so it must be true.’
Of course I knew what they were referring to, but I wasn’t even vaguely engaged. The fact that gossip had published the banns was one of the reasons I had come East. … I had no intention of being rumored into marriage.
Their interest rather touched me and made them less remotely rich – nevertheless, I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms – but apparently there were no such intentions in her head. As for Tom, the fact that he ‘had some woman in New York’ was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book. Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.

This dinner party tells us nearly all we need to know about Daisy and Tom.  She’s selfish and shallow, he’s a boorish philanderer.  There’s few true secrets between them; Tom’s mistress is acknowledged, although not accepted.

Whereas the rumours abound about Nick’s neighbour Gatsby, across the bay in less upscale West Egg, abound – unconfirmed.  When Nick goes to a party at his house, the host is elusive, and Nick sits in the garden chatting…

… I turned to my new acquaintance. ‘This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there – ‘ I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, ‘and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.’
For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.
‘I’m Gatsby,’ he said suddenly.
‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh, I beg your pardon.’
‘I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.’
He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey…

I’m an incurable romantic when reading novels of this period.  Even if Gatsby was a shady businessman, I wanted him to find love, to consummate his great American Dream – I was willing to suspend my prior knowledge of what happened (again) just in case it had changed. I’d previously been rather lukewarm towards the narrator Nick, but this time having seen what are almost throwaway comments made solid in the film, I appreciated him more.

Re-reading The Great Gatsby after seeing the new film, did give me a whole new appreciation of the book, and I revelled in Fitzgerald’s descriptions. Fitzgerald is one of those few authors whose novels I’ve read more than once before, and will doubtless revisit again.  The Great Gatsby will join Tender is the Night in my Desert Island Books trunk.

rosecliffI shall leave you today with a photo from my New England holiday a few years ago, when we visited several of the mansions at Newport, Rhode Island.  Rosecliff, with it’s beautiful ballroom, was used as the location for the 1974 movie of TGG starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

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Source: Own copy

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