An English Lit student aged under 21 years old, I’d read the Great Gatsby, a ‘great work of literature’, because that’s just what one did. Fed on a diet of sweeping narratives, Dickens and Bovary and books at least twice as thick as my thumb, Gatsby was something different.
The book seemed pared back, clever and quite short. I didn’t quite get into it – or perhaps get it – and remember the book ending and feeling a little ripped off. The characters weren’t all that likeable and detail wasn’t painted on like that new paint job you’ve been wishing for.
Sparse but intriguing: it was more Streetcar named Desire than Gone With The Wind.
Yet Gatsby introduced me to the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Paris circles and Hemingway and the simply written, just wonderful A Moveable Feast. Basically, all the cool characters you see in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, from Hemingway to Zelda Fitzgerald.
Fast forward years later to, why just a few days ago.
The Great Gatsby, on at the movies. Led by Baz Luhrmann and his magnificent, unique story telling style, I discovered that this small novel has grew up to be a great film narrative.
And what a great choice! film is very helpful when detailing grandeur, and that’s exactly what Gatsby is about.
Tiffany and Co jewellery. Suits from the Brooks Brothers. Miuccia Prada collaborating with Lurhmann’s wife and costume designer Catherine Martin. Jay Z as executive producer whom Luhrmann praised as “totally nailing” the soundtrack with artists like Beyonce, Florence and the Machine, will.i.am, Gotye and Jack Black.
Watching the film, one is aware of the “excessive lifestyle” of both Gatsby, the narrator’s mysterious, big-cheque booked neighbour and also his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom.
Gatsby, on one side of Long Island, has a mansion which looks like it ate three European castles for breakfast.
He’s “new” money and whiz, bang – it’s the Roaring 2o’s!
Custom built cars, live-in servants, private beach and a money tree that sprouts lavish parties, French champagne and summer nights filled with partying among lush gardens while formal waiters with straight backs offer hors d’oeuvre
This generous millionaire – likely billionaire in 21st century terms – never stops his hospitality. Literally weekend after weekend, people come from all of the state to party at the Gatsby’s.
“Coincidences” unfold, set-ups occur and motives become – surprisingly – clear.
The Great Gatsby, the quixotic and intriguing protagonist who greets most fellows he meets as “old sport”, turns out to be not as great as he would have people think.
His cover blown, background unverified and the “why’s” coming to the surface, we meet a character which many can relate to, all if very honest.
He is: vulnerable, a dreamer, full of hope, energy and optimism. Yet, his downfall is defined by his old flame Daisy who protests, “Oh, you want too much!”
He is “new” money, and tries so hard to “become” someone as he sees it. All this he does “for” someone but the trouble is, by the time this happens, it is “too late.” The someone he wants to impress – the troubled and materialistic Daisy – has already married someone else.
The land of (the fictionalised area) West Egg, Long Island is the setting for everything industry, and everything which ambitious society has already achieved.
It’s in stark contrast to the “Valley of Ashes” – a kind of industrial wasteland between West Egg and New York City. Compare West Egg and the Valley of Ashes and the poignant symbolism of the “haves” versus the “have nots” of society smack you in the face.
The former uses the latter but even in that category, “new money” is at the mercy of “old money.”
The Great Gatsby is a fascinating narrative that raises issues of wealth and worth, all in an era where the skyscrapers were trying to reach the sky and stock market bonds were going UP and UP and UP.
With the benefit of hindsight, we all know what came next. The Wall Street Crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression which followed.
Yet Gatsby was published in 1925. With its decadence and outpouring of riches, partying and plenty of “new” money, The Great Gatsby serves as a precursor to this. Call it The Great Optimism.