Each time I re-read The Great Gatsby, I am pleased to find it lives up to the hype of memory, which is appropriate for a novel about the inability of the past to live up to its reputation.
The credit for the book’s re-readability doesn’t go to any of the characters. Not even Gatsby is great. But his author is.
F. Scott Fitzgerald knew he’d produced something of value and wanted the public to appreciate it. So much so that he let his wife Zelda veto the original title despite it being the name of the book and the lens through which he saw the entire story. “Trimalchio,” it was to be called, named after a freed slave from Petronius’s first-century work Satyricon who becomes an early exemplar of the vulgarity of new money in fiction. Nevertheless, “All my harsh smartness has been kept ruthlessly out of it,” Fitzgerald wrote in a letter after finishing the manuscript.
The result is a crisp masterpiece that glides so seamlessly, it feels as though it should be read on a scroll, unspooling down a never-ending sheet, to save the reader even the distraction of turning a page.
The marriage plot is Jay Gatsby’s quest to regain Daisy’s love five years after the two parted. It’s a tale as old as time, but the originality is in Fitzgerald’s nearly perfect prose. Every word is right where it ought to be, and unlike Jay Gatsby’s ludicrous parties, none of Fitzgerald’s writing is ornamental or extravagant or striving.
“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun,” Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, says, evoking the godlike presumption of self-sustaining wealth that fueled such parties in the Roaring Twenties. He nails the desperation with which the limitlessly rich pursue something that can actually impress or terrify them, as they rumormonger over Gatsby’s past: “It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.”
A wife frustrated with her husband “appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond.” A pithy reminder that a mask shapes, not merely hides, what’s behind it: “most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning.”
A warning not to cross the line between flaunting one’s wealth and imposing it on others: “Americans, while willing, even eager, to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.”
And awe — the book is full of awe. As when Carraway sees a ferry on the Long Island Sound and for a moment can picture what its discovery must have been like: “Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Carraway’s narration can also inflate or burst the reader’s sympathy for the mysterious Gatsby on a dime. Listening to Gatsby ramble about his supposed accomplishments “was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.” Then again, there was Gatsby’s undeniable loneliness at the end of each night: “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.”
Sometimes, Carraway flips the reader’s impression within the same observation: “He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Sometime before he introduced himself, I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.”
Ultimately, Fitzgerald gives us the discerning narrator we need to let us join the people-watching: “The tears coursed down her cheeks — not freely, however, for when they came into contact with her heavily beaded eyelashes, they assumed an inky color, and pursued the rest of their way in slow black rivulets. A humorous suggestion was made that she sing the notes on her face, whereupon she threw up her hands, sank into a chair, and went off into a deep vinous sleep.”
The Great Gatsby is nearly a hundred years old, and I have yet to read anything quite like it. Perhaps that’s why I keep re-reading it, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”