Some time ago I read The Great Gatsby. I remember that I liked it, but it has been a long time, and I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve also pretty much forgotten Mr. Gatsby, except for his yearning posture as he reached out across the water to the beacon on the other side. Recently the book was mentioned in the comments here, and I was thinking about that pose, about the hopelessness of it but also the sureness of it, the purity of the ambition it embodied.
Or was I just making that up? I was in the bookstore the other day and there was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, and when I saw the price, I was decided.
My impression after the first page: somewhere between Somewhere between D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (completed in 1917) and The Great Gatsby (published in 1925), the twentieth century began. It’s not right, I guess, to expect literary trends to follow the Julian calendar, and I expect someone else has already identified this moment in artistic history and come up with a name for it (modern?), but I am no art historian and I have no intention of expanding what is probably already a body of criticism so vast as to border on useless. No, I will just say this. Fitzgerald retains an elegance to his writing that I can only envy, descriptions that are organic and evolutionary, yet thrifty. In the end, however, he speaks my language.
Near the start, Nick meets two women. They are in a mansion by the sea, resting on a mighty divan in a hall with windows open at each end. The paragraph is about the wind, how it moves the curtains, the ladies’ white dresses, the nap of the carpet. The women are part of that wind, idle, undirected and free in a somehow useless way, aloof and self-contained, and the description ends with a bang when Tom slams the windows shut, and a place that had been alive dies.
I haven’t finished the book, but I think he told the whole story right there, somewhere around page five.
I know I’m not going out on a limb to say this is a pretty dang good book; many others have done so in the past. But hey, every once in a while the general consensus is right. And for all the beauty and grace of the prose, it still reads easy. It’s a well-crafted story on top of everything else. Boy am I glad I decided to give this one another go. (Except that now I have a new yardstick to measure myself against, and this one seems forty-two miles long from where I sit.) If you’ve got that old high school copy you were forced to read lying around, pick it up and chew on a few pages.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.