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Vol. LXIV, No. 43
 
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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Book Review

Gatsby at 85: The Love Song of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Stuart Mitchner

The most compelling love affair being conducted on a New York stage this season isn’t between a man and woman… It is between a man and a book.

Ben Brantley in the October 8 New York Times

While there have been and always will be commemorative readings of the full text of iconic works like Moby Dick and Ulysses, what sets apart the Elevator Repair Service production of Gatz (playing at the Public Theatre in New York through November 28) is that director John Collins and his cast of player-readers have orchestrated the tribute in a way that celebrates not only F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) itself but the act of reading. As Ben Brantley notes in the review quoted above, while the production “does full justice to the inherent and often startling drama” in the novel, “what’s most purely dramatic about it isn’t in Fitzgerald’s plot. It’s in that elusive chemistry that takes place between a reader and a gorgeous set of sentences that demand you follow them wherever they choose to go.”

The circumstance that sets Gatz in motion has some resonance in the age of Kindle. If the computer being used by Nick, the impatient office worker played by Scott Shepherd, had been functioning effectively, he’d have had no reason to idly pick a paperback out of some desktop clutter and begin reading it aloud. He has no particular expectations. No one has assigned him the book. No one has urged it on him. It’s right there, at hand; it just happens. Maybe he’s reading it aloud to keep himself awake, a species of office behavior you might see on AMC’s Mad Men, where people are always trying out ideas. According to the reviews, Nick stumbles over Fitzgerald’s prose at first, but as the book’s charm begins to work on him (it may help when he discovers that he and the narrator, Nick Carraway, share the same first name), he becomes a better reader. With others in the office taking on the voices of other characters, the reading morphs into something like an ensemble piece in a musical. At the same time, the total effect recalls Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the Book People memorize and thus become books in order to save the texts from the flames.

Assignments

In The Catcher in the Rye, after dismissing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as “phony,” Holden Caulfield says, “I was crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.” One thing that put Holden off Hemingway is that his brother, D.B., twisted his arm (“got me to read this book… He said it was so terrific”). If he’s resistant to the recommendations of his older brother, you can imagine what would happen had Gatsby been an assignment in an English class at Pency Prep, as it is now in high schools all over the country. Imagine Holden being assigned a paper on Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism or underlying meanings in relation to the American Dream. “What really knocks me out,” says Holden, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” If he felt like calling Fitzgerald up after suffering through an assignment, he’d be more likely to express impatience with all that “phony stuff” at the end about the “fresh, green breast of the new world.”

Or maybe he’d ask, “Why’d you kill off old Gatsby? Why’d you let him let that jerk Tom Buchanan foul him up in front of Daisy? And then that phony bastard drives off in Gatsby’s car and you let Gatsby let him get away with it!”

Notebooks

This particular love affair “between a man and a book” began with the New Directions paperback of The Crack Up, a collection of Fitzgerald’s writings edited by his friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson. It was this book, not The Great Gatsby, that served as my introduction to the author and that gave me my first sense of how a real writer goes about his business. When you read the vignettes and fragments and nuggets of insight and wit and style in Fitzgerald’s alphabet-lettered notebooks, it’s as if you’re looking into his workshop, in touch with the bits and pieces he’s gathered and saved for fitting into the mosaic of a narrative. The mixture of craft and spontaneity, of freeform invention and recollection in the notebooks is such that, at age 18, you may find yourself behaving like the office worker in Gatz and reading Fitzgerald out loud, sharing choice bits with friends, like this entry under “C” for Conversations and Things Overheard”:

“Call me Mickey Mouse,” she said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It was always fun when you called me Mickey Mouse.”

Fitzgerald may never have used that exchange in his fiction, but it’s a fair sample of his literary DNA. Other sections are headed “Moments (What People Do),” “Descriptions of Things and Atmospheres,” “Feelings and Emotions (Without Girls),” and under “G” (“Descriptions of Girls”). Reading Gatsby after browsing through Fitzgerald’s notebooks, I felt as if I’d had access to his secrets, an insider’s knowledge that made me feel closer to him than I did to Faulkner and Hemingway.

The Course of True Love

I first read and reread The Great Gatsby in a 1934 Modern Library edition found at a Fourth Avenue bookstore, a soft-covered little beauty that might have serious market value in 2010 had I not ruined it with excited ballpoint underlinings (certain passages received multiple exclamation points). I know exactly where Fitzgerald began having his way with me. It happened in the third paragraph of the opening chapter, when Nick ends a rather prosy sentence about his habit of listening to others and reserving all judgments: “The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.”

My guess is Holden, or Salinger, might agree that this unpromising sentence is saved for glory by those last twelve words. It’s like the moment Beatrice gives Dante the eye. You’re nailed, smitten, dazzled, and set up for the next paragraph where, after some dense prose of the sort guaranteed to make high school students yawn and sigh, Fitzgerald gets to Gatsby: “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”

You melt. Bliss. He has your 18-year-old heart in his hand. No wonder “gorgeous” is an infectious word in the Gatsby milieu. Remember Ben Brantley’s “gorgeous set of sentences” demanding to be followed “wherever they choose to go.” Well, here you go. In later readings, you get the feeling that when Fitzgerald uses this word for his enigmatic hero he’s responding to the beauty of his own creation. He knows he’s discovered a treasure in Gatsby. He’s in love with his character.

But you’re only half in love with the book at this point. The moment of truth and total commitment comes at the beginning of the second chapter when Fitzgerald describes the valley of ashes and the giant billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Everything that follows is to some extent sustained by the beauty and wonder of that moment, the same way the genesis of a marriage or any love relationship might be a mere hour or minute of intimacy or even a single exchange of straight-to-the-heart gazes. Reading on, so great is the momentum of your admiration that you find yourself swept away by the most bizarre metaphorical combinations, like this description of Daisy’s face in waning sunlight: “then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.”

Some Impediments

Having stated my enduring love for The Great Gatsby, I have to admit being bothered this time through by some issues like the ones I imagined Holden raising in his phone call to the author. The one place in the book I marked on this reading, with a pencil, received a question mark instead of an exclamation point. I already had some doubts about Gatsby’s behavior in the scene where Daisy’s husband puts him on the defensive and about the way he seems to step aside to allow his doom to claim him. It’s not that he hasn’t been shown to be humanly vulnerable before. His nervousness when he sets the scene for his reunion with Daisy and then is wholly enraptured by it is deeply appealing. This is where the reader begins loving the character, where the mysterous personage who seems to have infinite resources, poetry in his soul, and underworld connections (“They say he killed a man”) also becomes touchingly human, the way any lovesick suitor becomes when confronted by the object of his passion.

This humanizing of Gatsby works because Fitzgerald stays true to his own edict, “Action is character,” one of the best-known lines from his notebooks. The passage I questioned is one where Fitzgerald, in effect, puts words in Gatsby mouth, where “character” is not acted but spoken.

All through the novel, Gatsby’s love for Daisy has been expressed poetically, sometimes subtly, sometimes gaudily, as in the splendor of his mansion or even the rainbow array of his shirts he spreads before Daisy’s astonished eyes. When toward the end (in Chapter VIII) he begins to actually speak of love, as he does with Nick after describing his courtship of Daisy, it’s as if Fitzgerald had briefly forsaken his edict: “I can’t describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport. I even hoped for a while that she’d throw me over, but she didn’t, because she was in love with me too. She thought I knew a lot because I knew different things from her… Well, there I was, ‘way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute.”

That Gatsby would speak so openly and prosaically about love never bothered me in previous readings, and it’s done nothing to alter my attachment to the book. Being a wise reader of his own work, Fitzgerald may have compensated for that lowering of Gatsby’s tone by making his character’s love as large as the book. That last vision of “Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” is worth a multitude of amorous declarations.

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