Monday, October 20, 2008

the last book I read

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The 1920s - it wasn't all cocktails, yachting, jazz and doing the Charleston on the verandah, you know. There was driving off gaily in your Hispano-Suiza, getting your scarf caught in the wire wheels and strangling yourself as well. Not to mention the Wall Street Crash and all that sort of stuff.

Yale graduate Nick Carraway is renting a modest house near Long Island. His near neighbours include Daisy and Tom Buchanan, whom he vaguely knows via some tenuous family connections, and also the mysterious Jay Gatsby, whose enormous mansion is the venue for a series of lavish parties featuring a large and varied cast of characters. Eventually Nick finds himself invited to one, and he and Gatsby (who turns out to be of similar age) strike up a friendship.

But all is not as it seems. For starters, Jay Gatsby is in fact James Gatz, child of a modest working-class background in the mid-West. It's also far from clear where his money has come from, though the local rumour-mill has plenty of theories. Also, most significantly, Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan knew each other back before World War I (the novel is set around 1922), and it transpires that Gatsby has designs on rekindling their relationship - indeed it soon becomes clear that this is the sole purpose of his acquiring the mansion across the bay from the Buchanans. Gatsby persuades Nick to engineer a meeting with Daisy, and events start down the inevitable road towards disaster.

At various points while reading this I was strongly reminded of other books - Gatsby's hopeless yearning to turn back time and return to some imagined idyllic and innocent past is very reminiscent of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, a book I was obliged to plough through in the original French when I was about 16 (needless to say I cheated and bought the English translation as well). Slightly more tangentially, the bit with the star-crossed lovers finally being presented with a chance at happiness after many years only for a bloody and violent car accident to spoil things irredeemably is duplicated in Barbara Vine's The Brimstone Wedding.

I hardly need to point out that this is a classic of 20th-century literature and you should read it. In fact my copy is in the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics series, just in case you were in any doubt. These tend to have lavish annotations, and this one is no exception; in fact the 50-page introductory analysis and the index and footnotes at the end make the novel look longer than it is - a scant 165 pages or so. Another one for my short novels series, perhaps, and as if to confirm my related theory it's been filmed no less than four times.

It also ends with what I think is one of the most perfect last lines of any novel. I won't spoil it for you here, but inevitably I'm not the first person to notice this; here's a list of what American Book Review thinks are the best 100 - Gatsby is number 3.

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