July 6, 2012

inspired: the great gatsby

It has been a really long time since I first read The Great Gatsby, but I remember clearly the results of that first reading. I am not certain which year, but I'm pretty sure I read it in high school. Most likely early high school, so it has probably been about fifteen years. Not coincidentally, that was around the same time I began to dream of being a writer, not just in my journals, but with a dream of being published one day. I remember being filled to overflowing with inspiration and wonder: I wanted to shout my praise and delight in Fitzgerald's writing, and at the time had no one to really even tell. There were many formative classics in that period of my life: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the entire Jane Austen collection were just a few of the titles that provided a comfortable transition from my years of voracious childhood reading. Those worlds offered me challenge and immense stimulation, but The Great Gatsby felt to me like an entirely new approach to all writing, all literature. I had never been exposed to writing like this, vivid and descriptive and daring for me, at that age and place in my life. 

I went on to read This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night - I could not get enough of this new, amazing world. Quickly, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and subsequently Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, when I first read their works, became my "favorites" in Literature. They were worldly, adventurous, and sophisticated. For years, these writers were my touchstone as I feebly attempted to summarize my passion for reading and writing in response to the excruciating question: "Who are your favorite writers?" I knew virtually nothing about the Expatriate movement in the '20s, or about "The Lost Generation." I did not read all their books - I was not any sort of expert. But I held so tightly to them as that beginning of my writer-self. Years later, in college, I encountered these writers and their work again in my "American Lit 2" class, where I was incredibly lucky to have a professor who brought them to life in new ways. I learned about Zelda in her champagne glass, and about Hemingway's alcoholism, and about their community in Paris with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, who were new to me. She was a professor who turned the lights down low sometimes, to help us hear the voices of the works she read. She was amazing. (Thank you, Professor Darcy Zabel, if you ever by some chance were to read this!!)

As I moved on from college into the world of bookstore jobs, I clung tightly to my Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Eliot. I spoke my preferences confidently and hoped no one would ask more questions and expose my actual ignorance on the fullness of the topic. And I began to discover new writers, thanks to my daily work among high shelves filled with books, alongside other avid readers. I read Marilynne Robinson (back when I could only get my hands on Housekeeping), Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer, Leah Hager Cohen, and Jeffrey Eugenides, to name just a few of my new favorites. (Thank you, Katie, for being my Personal Librarian - I will owe you forever for this!) My journey of discovery continued and I branched out into the worlds of modern literary fiction, and fell in love in an entirely new way. I was enchanted by their prose, amazed by the boldness of their writing, their subjects, their characters. And I left my Expatriates alone, for the most part. I intermittently collected their works, but never attempted to sit down and read them all, or to really validate why they were even my "favorites." Luckily, no one ever argued. It was sort of a safe answer, which over time was replaced with more relevant, current authors and works, as well as more confidence. 

I have not re-read The Great Gatsby since, until now. I am not a great re-reader: there are so many new books to read, and I am always afraid that re-reading will be a waste, even though I know better. When Gatsby came up in conversation over the years, I was confident that I loved it. And I would still, if pressed, choose it as my "favorite." I remembered bits and pieces, like the characters of "Gatsby" and "Daisy" and the fact that the narrator of the story is not either of them, but I could never remember his name. I had a vivid memory of what I had imagined Gatsby's home to look like. And somewhere along the way, the movie poster from the 1974 film starring Robert Redford had linked into my memory, too, even though, for me, that felt all wrong. When I heard that Baz Luhrmann is making a new film version, to be released at Christmas, I knew it was finally time. (I have high hopes for this movie, and somehow it felt important to be as acquainted as possible with the original text.)

It is a lot of pressure to face your "favorite" again after fifteen years. That is officially half my life, at this point, and it feels like a distance twice that much, when it comes to experience and learning. It is the very marrow of my life journey, and specifically my writing journey: this sorting out of what I will carry with me and what I will leave behind, of who I was versus who I am, and so on. What if Gatsby were to disappoint?! What if I learned I had somehow left him behind with so many other lost loves and causes? Or worse, what if I could not find those early remnants of my beginning writer-self within those pages? I sat down to read the novel with great trepidation.

I re-read my old, worn vintage paperback copy of The Great Gatsby in two days, staying up much later than I should have the second night, in order to finish. I enjoyed and loved it more than I could have even hoped! I wanted to underline every single word. I was as enchanted and absorbed as I was in that first reading, and perhaps even more. And when I finished, I wanted to find the nearest rooftop, again, to proclaim loudly my love and passion for Fitzgerald's writing. I am not, nor do I aspire to be, a literary scholar: I believe that you can talk a book to death, if by 'death' you mean to suck the life out of it through analysis. If my years so far have taught me anything, it is to step away from analysis and let the writing work its magic. Let the words wash over you like waves, let the imagery linger in your mind and live on to haunt your dreams, and let the mysteries remain intact. I do love to think about what an author might have aimed for, or what devices they use or what they have accomplished, but I love a mystery more than any concrete answer.

So I will not bore you to death with an analysis of this well-known, overanalyzed novel. I will share with you instead just three reasons why it remains my "favorite":

  1. Nick Carraway: self-aware and self-deprecating, yet confident of his own place in the world, when it all comes down to it. He feels compassion, intrigue, disgust; he is aspirational, yet honest and true, and somehow, his voice inspired and motivated me as I read. (And Nick turns thirty in the course of the novel, which feels so synchronous for me, in my own re-reading at age thirty.)
  2. Chapter Five: the whole, entire chapter. I love it from start to finish, and I could read it again and again. The tea, the dialogue, the tension, the lyrical, descriptive passages, and perhaps most pleasing to me, the way the entire chapter centers on the characters who charm me most: Gatsby, Nick and Daisy.
  3. This passage from Chapter Eight: "The track curved and now it was going away from the sun, which, as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. 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. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever." The longing, the wistfulness, the yearning: it speaks deep into my idealist-soul and will echo long within. 
I am remind of what it is I love about writing. 

(You can read one of my 'Personal Librarian' Katie Chase's stories here, in The Best American Short Stories 2008 - she is an amazing writer!! And my professor, Darcy Zabel, wrote this book, The (Underground) Railroad in African American Literature.)


  1. Great reasons for loving The Great Gastby - I teach it to my a-level students and they never like it at first, but then really enjoy it when we analyse it and study it as a class. We all hate Mia Farrow's adaptation of Daisy and are looking forward to seeing what Luhrman does with this enchanting novel.

  2. Mel - Love hearing your thoughts, thank you for reading!! Here's hoping that Carey Mulligan will be a much better Daisy (I believe she will!)... :)