The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

I bought a Kindle about a year ago now, and The Great Gatsby is the first novel I’ve read on it in its entirety – and let’s face it, The Great Gatsby isn’t exactly long. I have, I admit, read quite a few short stories and plays, even some novellas, but why this reluctance to read novels on the Kindle? Is it the screen? An inability on my part to adapt to the digital world? A troubling dislocation caused by not being able to gauge properly how long the book is in the first place? – No, I think it’s rather the same matter which for a long time held me off from buying a Kindle: the fact that I’ve got so many physical books to read, and the Pyrrhic battle I fight daily against them seems of more importance. – I bought the Kindle in the end, incidentally, for the sake of reading books in French, which, once you’ve built in a dictionary, is a lot easier by Kindle.

As to The Great Gatsby itself, I read it many years ago, and many years ago forgot everything about it – save the basic plot, which I don’t imagine I remembered from the book itself, but have just in the interim absorbed from the world around me. Since people say it is a great American novel, I have often wondered why nothing of it stuck in my mind (but then this happens with other books), and now was intrigued to go back and discover how good it was after all. It is very well written, I’ll give it that; there is much wryness and wit. You admire sentences. But there’s not much substance to it. Somewhere the other day I read, in one of those articles which laugh at original critical reviewing opinion of now canonical work (to demonstrate, once again, the inability of all humanity to judge art), how one critic claimed that The Great Gatsby was a work of its time and wouldn’t outlast it – and this was my opinion too, reading it. It captures that moment of arrogance in the late 20s, when the stock market was just going up and up and everyone had become a bond salesman and was obscenely wealthy, and yet it was all built on sand and we were being deluded by fakers. (Entirely of its time then, and in no way related to what happened in the 2000s, or what happens periodically every 15 or 20 years).

The plot though is even earlier than that: it’s that classic c19th plot: woman marries wrong man for money, is in love with other man, involves herself with other man, with tragic consequences. Oh how many times have we read this! Even the book we read before The Great Gatsby, Hjalmar Söderberg’s The Serious Game (1912) had exactly the same plot, but handled better; there really is something so trivial about The Great Gatsby, a superficiality drawn out no doubt by the sheer brilliancy of much of the writing. Now I think about it, today too I watched a Claude Chabrol film, À double tour (1959), which also has this plot, and so does William Congreve’s The Old Batchelor (1693), which I read earlier this month (although the difference between The Restoration Period and these c19th/c20th novels, is that adultery back then seems not merely to have been less of a problem, but, to go by some of these plays, the very basis of society). Or perhaps Gatsby loses some of its effect because, unlike the characters who share his world, I already know too much about Gatsby’s past before I’ve read the book.

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3 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

  1. I like Gatsby as well, and I agree there is a nagging slightness to the book that belies the massive freight of interpretation / significance people now insist on loading it with. I think that comes from the fact that critics (readers?) want it to be about themes, big universal Yankisms, the US century etc. Whereas Fitz writes small, people stories about mistakes, flaws, bad choices etc. About failure (he was a failure in many ways himself – certainly he saw himself that way).

  2. I’ve always admired this novel, maybe chiefly because of how deftly Fitzgerald structures its many symbolic elements, like building some delicate machine. I don’t think it’s lost its edge due to its age. Every week or so I see something that calls it to mind – vanity bookshelves, for instance, or rich people carelessly smashing up people and things. I love that it’s become a bestseller in contemporary China, where its relevance is all to apparent. And I never even think about the adultery element when I think of The Great Gatsby. While it obviously serves a plot purpose, it seems almost tangential in the book’s general atmosphere of monied carelessness.

  3. Ah, was there symbolism in it? That’s the trouble with symbolism, it always passes me by; unless it’s very heavy-handed, and then I get annoyed because it’s so heavy-handed. Probably I need the symbols pointed out to me (like for Dubliners), and then it will appear a much better book.

    Mentioning the plot reminds me of two things: 1, Fitzgerald never really explains how Gatsby acquires such wealth – you might say because it’s irrelevant, but I sense because FSF had never really thought it through; and 2, the novel falls into the usual narrator recounting another person’s love-affair problem, i.e. why the hell is he is present in some scenes, surely this is a moment for two people to be alone.

    I’m quite intrigued to re-read Tender is the Night too, which I was more impressed by in my younger days. I remember it had a duel in it (but that is all).

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