Gatsby revisited

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…


7 May 2013

Compare Schulz: Why I Despise The Great Gatsby.

8 thoughts on “Gatsby revisited

  1. I dare say, young Mr Neil, that were you, in your younger incarnation as a teacher of “young Daisy”, faced with an hundred or so of such essays, you would soon take a blue pen to such florid posing prose as that which you now give as example of “gobsmacking writing”.

    The constant consonant alliteration, the slippery sliding of orchid to orchestra – prefixed with the word ‘redolent’ which invites one to at first misread ‘snobbery’ as ‘shrubbery’…

    Now I shall take my silver slippers, and shuffle off into the shining dust – always wondering just where within that silly sentence I could’ve with certitude inserted ‘sibilance’?

  2. Only a gentle leg-pull, Neil. But I must admit the book is one of those where I had great difficulty getting ‘past’ the language employed to the ideas contained, I’d contrast the ‘spare’ writing of, say, Helen Garner as an example of language as tool, rather than end.

    That aside, I very much enjoyed this post, and your enthusiasm.

  3. “s/he sat up/down” – alertly,miserably,rigidly, gloomily – plus a couple more nonadverbially qualified. This fellow was on a frequent buyer discount at the Adverb Shop 🙂

    And then there’s “Miss Baker and I exchanged a short glance consciously devoid of
    meaning”. Granted, you could argue that every sentence resonates and paints enchanting images in your mind’s eye – or, in that case, possibly not. And then:

    “The lamp-light, bright on his boots and dull on the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair, glinted along the paper as she turned a page with a flutter of slender muscles in her arms.”

    Granted, I’d like to be able to turn a page with the merest flutter of my slender arm muscles, but when the words flow over one another, like some sort of envelopng gloopy syrup, they lose any precise meaning; almost as if they are “consciously devoid of meaning”.

    Is all I’m sayin’ – politely.

  4. To quote the Intro to the Wordsworth edition:

    “Most readers remember the novel as tremendously atmospheric, but the ambient effects rest on Fitzgerald’s precise details of light and colour. Electric light, for instance, creates a strange, Edward Hopper-esque urban lyricism. Early in the novel Carraway notes how the ‘new red gas- pumps sat out in pools of light’ (p. 15). Short, lovely passages punctuate the narrative, creating memorable effects of lighting:

    I sat on the front steps with them while they waited for their car. It was dark here; only the bright door sent ten square feet of light volleying out into the soft black morning. Sometimes a shadow moved against a dressing-room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, that rouged and powdered in an invisible glass. [P. 69]

    “A poetic effect, certainly; but what such images do is to create a repeated pattern of strangeness in the text resonant metaphors for the glamour, allure and ultimate artificiality of the jazz age. Stylistically, the text itself is ‘lit’ by a succession of bright, jewel-like sentences and phrases. For Nick’s 1st-person narrative creates a written counterpart to the material world of Gatsby. Like Gatsby’s shirts, the narrative is gorgeous and shining, opulent, almost too much. It is built around a parade of glittering effects, bnlliant phrases, bursts of poeticism; Nick illuminates his meditations with sudden, radiant images. ”


    It was this intensity of language — the work was famously revised over and over — that really attracted me this time around in my reading. And yes. the language is very much heightened. One can see why T S Eliot so loved it.

    The creation of Nick Carraway’s voice and viewpoint is also a triumph of narrative method.

  5. Neil, I do appreciate the work, and only write of it to salute your own revisitation. But I have to assure you that the EXACT quote you reference above was one I just now used tongue-in-cheek on Jim Belshaw’s blog because of the light/shadow play, and well before reading your own comment.

  6. Point taken, and of course the point of my original post was the totally subjective one of recording the delight I found in my rereading after many years “The Great Gatsby”.

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