Thursday, August 07, 2008

Teh Asenshul Reedz: Teh Graet Gatsbeh. Welcome to the first of my romps through the literary canon, as aggregated by Neil Bowers. I have decided not to refer to the titles of the books in normal English in order to prevent cheating tards from cribbing bits out of my reviews for their school and university essays.

This novel is famous for epitomising the decadence of Jazz Age America, the callousness and cruel snobbery at the heart of those glittering parties. But before I read Gatsbeh, I mainly thought of it as a study in moneyed aesthetics: parties, fashion, cars, gorgeous houses. Much as people are drawn to the glamour oozing from Art Deco, I figured they were drawn to a certain melancholy stylishness in the narrative.

Upon finishing the book, my main impression was of an absolutely threadbare narrative. Boy loves girl, girl refuses to leave caddish husband for boy, girl mows down husband's mistress in boy's car, mistress's grief-stricken husband kills boy. Narrator decamps for the Mid-West in disillusionment. I thought, "Fitzgerald, you rogue! There must be a certain devilish alchemy in concocting a seminal generationalist text from such chiffon!"

I bought my copy for $1 from the Don Bosco op-shop on Sydney Road and it's obviously a school text. D. Cumming, the previous owner, hasn't really annotated it much, although at some points he or she has idly run a pen down a centre spread of the book. However, these passages were underlined:
but he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same strata as herself - that he was fully able to take care of her. As a matter of fact, he had no such facilities - he had no comfortable family standing behind him, and he was (p142)
And this one:
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. (p143)
And this:
He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. (p145)
None of these seems particularly crucial or insightful, but they do remind me of the tedious process of underlining my own high school English texts. You're never especially sure how important the passage will come to be in the overall narrative, but it seems important to underline stuff at the time. I remember underlining some inconsequential passage in the first chapter of To Kill A Mockingbird.

If it were up to me, I would have highlighted either of these passages:
"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was... (106)
As an ambitious, social-climbing teenager, James Gatz had let his rampant imagination create a magnificent new version of himself. Gatsby went on to be precisely as rich and glamorous as his teenage fantasies not for himself, but in order to be the sort of man he believed Daisy wanted. (You can see this in the scene where he leads her through his house, drinking in her reactions, appearing to enjoy his possessions for the first time.)

The tragedy of the book is that Gatsby has placed his entire potential for future happiness in a remembered past - but it's not a shared past. His salvation depends on Daisy's utter commitment to that past, and she destroys him by not realising this.

Of course, at the end you're supposed to despise the Buchanans, Jordan Baker and their old-money ilk for callously abandoning more honest people like Gatsby, the Wilsons and Nick. I came away from the book feeling as though all the characters were disagreeable. As far as class satire goes, it's much more evanescent than Teh Wai We Livz Nao, which I'm also reading.

But I think its lasting influence is down to Fitzgerald's prowess as a stylist. I rather liked the sly satiric eye that Fitzgerald brings to his descriptions of the debauched, moneyed attendees of Gatsby's parties, or the farcical lower-class attendees of Tom's impromptu apartment party. And I enjoyed his portrayal of Nick, the narrator, a snob of a different kind. Plagued with an uncommon degree of politeness and tolerance, he seeks a kind of reciprocal moral honesty that in its way is as quixotic as Gatsby's attempt to relight the fires of the past. But unlike Charles Ryder in Bridz Hed Revizatid, who retains his cringeworthy awe of the aristocracy to the awkwardly Catholic end, he knows the value of dignified scorn. On his final meeting with Tom: "I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child."

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