In my final year of secondary school, The Great Gatsby was on the required reading list for English. I eagerly lapped it up. It seemed to conform to the type of fiction I felt I ought to be reading.
Immature and inexperienced – although I read prolifically – I didn’t really understand it; not the characters, not the relationships between them and not the context. The Jazz Age, the American Dream, bootleggers – I had little idea what these things meant or represented. (My version of bootlegging was to record my favourite music onto blank cassettes.)
I gladly laboured over my essays on The Great Gatsby. None of them has survived. Undoubtedly they were bursting with earnestness and bristling with prime quotations (I loved quoting text back then) to passionately prove my arguments.
I’ve also lost my original copy of the book with its heavily annotated margins; something to cringe at, at every turn of the page. Still, I enjoyed the process, finding evidence for everything and gaining insight into the characters in spite of my limited life experience.
As with many others who have read The Great Gatsby, it’s a book that has stayed with me. References to it crop up everywhere – perhaps never more so than lately with the release of the film in Europe. But even without the Luhrmann production, it’s one of those novels that occupies a place in the collective consciousness of readers and anyone who has read it will have a view on it. This week I really enjoyed listening to a BBC World Book Club podcast about it. (I always enjoy their podcasts.)
I haven’t re-read The Great Gatsby in over a decade yet my understanding of it has ripened (or so I like to think). I’ve met people like Nick Carraway who claim they don’t judge others, but do! And people like Daisy Buchanan, whose voices might not exactly sound like money, but who exude their wealthy backgrounds in other ways. Then there are life’s Jay Gatsbys (relatively abundant in Italy though somewhat on the downlow in this never-ending economic crisis); throwing lavish parties at their private villas, splashing out on luxury cars, owning staggeringly expensive clothing – all paid for through ill-gotten gains.
The characters are certainly memorable and yet the novel provides only light sketches of them. And though excess is described, it is done so economically. Fitzgerald creates his microcosim with great brevity, but at the same time, he does not skimp on language. The book is slight, but paradoxically, not slight at all.
I haven’t yet been to see the latest film. At school we saw the Mia Farrow /Robert Redford version and it was a letdown. Neither actor was able to channel Fitzgerald’s Daisy or Gatsby.
In Italy they’re calling it il Grande Gatsby; I don’t think you can get a more faithful title translation than that! It’s the type of movie I will probably go and see at an outdoor cinema this summer. Whether the film is good, bad or unremarkable, I’ll enjoy the experience anyway because I like watching movies outside. On the other hand, the forecast for this weekend is rain, so it’s not inconceivable that I’ll go and see it at an actual cinema in 3D.
I must have read the last sentence in the book dozens of times in that final year of school, always trying to fathom it out.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
But it’s not a line that should make sense when you’re 17. Only when you’ve lived a bit can you see that the past is always there and yet, ceaselessly (to borrow Fitzgerald’s word), life goes on (unless you die, of course).
It’s an endlessly fascinating book. I’m sure it will live on and that I’ll rub up against it again, long after the film has left cinemas.