Does it happen to you as often as to me that one book leads you to the next in your reading progress? Sometimes because there is an actual reference in the first book, or sometimes simply because you suddenly think of another title?
I always wanted to record my „Book Travels“ which all of the time lead me away from the path I originally wanted to take. I never came by to actually do that. Sometimes perhaps…
The trial against The Great Gatsby in Azar Nafisi’s book Lolita lesen in Teheran and a goosebumps creating quoation she took from the very end of the novel made me want to reread Fitzgerald’s classic again. The quote is from the narrator Nick Carraway who ponders on how the first sailors from the Netherlands probably felt when they saw the coast of America for the first time.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors‘ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (187f.)
The Great Gatsby is a short novel, more like a novella with its paperback version of 188 pages. It is the only one which I possess one of those old Penguin Books of (btw. is preposition stranding fine now or not?).
I love the style and the layout which is rather simple but, as often, this is just the good thing about them. The new Penguin classics editions are nice enough but I like the old ones much better.
Last time I read this book was three years ago. My notes back then show me that I felt intrigued by the obvious contradiction between Gatsby’s half-silken wheelings and dealings and the fact that he still turns out to be the character who readers can sympathize most with. In contrast to all of these people who gathered around him when he was the host of luxurious parties, and these who even at this point only half-heartedly tolerated him in their elitist circle of the east coast and who at the drop of a hat vanish when the radiant star of Gatsby’s success perishes.
When I read Gatsby this time now, I kept focused on the questions that Azar Nafisi brought up when she discussed the book with her students. Additionally, I was occupied with some emblems of symbolism in the book like „the eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg“ and the „Valley of Ashes“. It was not so easy for me to grasp the entire meaning of these at once.
In the second chapter Fitzgerald repeatedly mentions the colour „grey“ and things related to it, like „dust“ or „ash“ etc. I did a little research – I thought that someone perhaps might have been teaching their classes about Fitzgerald – and came by a very short but concise explanation for the „grey“ issue. It said: Where East Egg [on Long Island where Daisy and her husband Tom live] is “old money,” West Egg [where Nick and Jay Gatsby live] is “new money,” the Valley of Ashes is in essence, “no money” (source). The landscape is linked to industrialism and „dirty labour“ with its residents being no part of the world of the rich and the famous. The author underlines this concept by use of the colour Grey which is usually associated with desolation, bleakness and hopelessness. In German you say f.e. „alles grau in grau sehen“ (to see everything grey and drab) or somebody is a „graue Maus“ (a grey mouse –> a plain Jane). Fitzgerald implies that the people living in that landscape, the Valley of Ashes, are not, like the people of West and East Egg, a part of the American Dream, the hope that you can achieve everything if you are only trying hard enough. The inhabitants of the Valley of Ashes are people like Wilson and his wife (Tom’s affair) Myrtle.
With Dr T. J. Eckleburg, it was even more complicated for me because I never understood completely about the setting and the appearance of the billboard sign, about how Fitzgerald wanted it to look like. Only when I read that particular part in the book again, where the sign is described, I could imagine its appearance. A collection of images on how one could visualise the eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg is here. With the „giant eyes“ gazing down from the billboard on every passer-by, Fitzgerlad introduces something like a judge-like or even god-like appearance who in opposite to the self-assessed neutral and unjudgemental narrator Nick is watching over everything that’s going on. Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, once tells someone about a conversation he had with his wife when she was still living:
„I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window“ – with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it – „and I said ‚God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!‘ “
Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.
„God sees everything,“ repeated Wilson. (166)
My husband T. never read the book but only watched the screen adaptation with Robert Redford once which he wasn’t that fond of. He only liked it for the atmosphere, the costumes and the spirit of the era of the Roaring Twenties. The story itself, however, didn’t catch him. I hope he will give the novel a try sometime in order to experience the beautiful art of Fitzgerald, his eloquence and his humour. A scene which I liked especially for this humour is when Gatsby who is surrounded by myths about his obscure personality seemingly tells Nick about his origins. But Nick, probably because of the elaborateness in which Gatsby’s tells him about his past, is convinced that he made it all up:
„After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe – Paris, Venice, Rome – collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.“
With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of turbaned ‚character‘ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Bologne. (71f.)
If that still won’t do the trick (coaxing my husband into giving the book a chance), at least we have another movie version of the novel to look forward to. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy) and Tobey Maguire (Nick), it will release presumably in May, 2013. (Trailer)
Let me conclude with a passage from Lolita lesen in Teheran where Azar Nafisi explains the importance of books like The Great Gatsby and why we shouldn’t read great novels as moral or ethical operation manuals:
„Man liest Gatsby nicht“, begann ich, „um zu erfahren, ob Ehebruch gut oder schlecht ist, sondern um zu verstehen, wie kompliziert Dinge wie Ehebruch, Treue und Ehe sind. Ein großer Roman schärft die Sinne und das Einfühlungsvermögen in die Komplexität des Lebens und der Menschen und befreit uns von unserer Selbstgerechtigkeit, durch die wir Moral in ein festes Schema von Gut und Böse pressen…“ (Nafisi, 176)