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.