I guess you probably know that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, opens next month.
It may well be really good. The 1974 one wasn’t all that bad either. So I have been rereading The Great Gatsby and really savouring it – not for the plot, but for totally gobsmacking writing like this, which no film could ever really emulate:
For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues. while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.
The hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues…
Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the book – but nor did I the first time I read it, because I had to teach it in an HSC some time in the 1970s. Not absolutely convinced being on the HSC entirely does the book a favour either. For the skeptics about the novel see Neither love nor loathing…a review of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby is a strange book for me to review. Exciting neither great love nor great loathing, even I find my own opinions of it rather dull. I read the story in a rather matter-of-fact frame of mind and finished it without feeling any great emotion or shock. The story simply began, padded along and then rolled serenely to a close. As I clapped the covers together, having finished, I didn’t feel any strong emotions, rather just an “oh, so that’s how it ends” reaction. It seems odd to me that a book such as The Great Gatsby should feel more alien to me than, say, a book set hundreds of years ago like Middlemarch or a story about a gender-shifting Duke like Orlando…but it does.
That reviewer, it appears, was reading for plot and life lessons. This time round I wasn’t. Rather like Melina Marchetta, whose introduction to the new Text film tie-in was published in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, I was rather savouring the brilliance of the language which can make even lists sing.
On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.
“He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass.”
Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.
From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember. He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden. From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells. Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand. The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga’s girls…