Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell
The brittle genius of Zelda Fitzgerald shines through in this exploration of her husband’s masterpiece
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
Nothing, not even Baz Luhrmann’s heavy-handed burlesque treatment, can diminish the enduring allure of F Scott Fitzgerald’s eerie and perverse elegy The Great Gatsby. It may not be a perfect novel, but it is wonderful and achieves perfection in its unsettling wisdom. Fitzgerald stared deep into the human heart, and his findings are indeed shocking.
Added to this is the tragic story of Fitzgerald and his glittering wife, Zelda Sayre. Together they epitomised glamour and promise as well as the squalor that followed when life made them pay dearly for their early excesses. Of such human error is American literary history composed, and few personal tragedies end as starkly as Fitzgerald’s. Dead at 44, his meagre funeral echoed that of Jay Gatsby.
The academic and media pundit Sarah Churchwell sets out in her enthusiastic, if sprawling, narrative to identify the sources and possible inspiration behind The Great Gatsby while offering a study of the era that provided its background. She also attempts briskly outlined biographical studies of the couple, cataloguing their drinking and their partying; the good times and, particularly, the bad times. The Jazz Age was about living on the edge. Prohibition was being enforced, but no one stopped drinking, at least apparently not within the Fitzgerald set. Churchwell’s textual asides are surprisingly pedestrian. To an admirer of Fitzgerald, this fan’s book should be a pleasure to read, but it is not; it is repetitive and unoriginal.
The most astonishing insights are presented by Zelda. When her husband, outraged by her novel Save Me the Waltz, told her, “You are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet dancer”, Zelda replied: “It seems to me you are making a rather violent attack on a third-rate talent then.”
As Churchwell enjoys labouring points it is surprising that when referring to Zelda’s stated identification with the salamander she fails to note that although the mythical salamander could survive fire, Zelda was burned to death, aged 48. It is ironic to see the way that the strange intelligence of Zelda stalks the narrative. In her despair, Zelda would admit to Fitzgerald: “I wish I had been what I thought I was.”
Churchwell presents her theory – and it is not entirely convincing – that an unsolved double murder of two adulterous lovers may have influenced Fitzgerald in writing The Great Gatsby. The murder of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall, her rector, runs through Churchwell’s narrative. In its wake it drags a Mrs Gibson, a proven liar, who always claimed to have witnessed the murders. Time and again this red herring surfaces, as do references to other random crimes. Fitzgerald appears to have been so self-absorbed it is difficult to imagine him reading a newspaper, never mind thinking about the deeds of others. For all his astute observation, Fitzgerald put a great deal of himself into Gatsby.
Churchwell quotes at length from the novel. I am not complaining, as the extracts provide some relief from her gushy, cliched prose. The preface, in which she refers to Careless People as an histoire trouvée, is off-putting; in it, she is preparing the reader for the great adventure that is to follow.
“The problem with trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art is that it is so easy to think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded, simplistic equations between fact and reality.” I don’t know what this means, anyhow. “Such literalism is reductive and unimaginative, can be deeply tiresome, and often misses the point of fiction entirely,” she warns.
Churchwell’s self-help-style, conversational, soundbite approach makes this overly long book seem even longer than it is. She also assumes that her material is fresher than it is; as her 14-page bibliography confirms, most of it is well known. The literature of the Jazz Age and the facts of Fitzgerald’s life are as familiar as his work.
There are other difficulties. Churchwell insists on offering her reading of The Great Gatsby. “Gatsby delights so many readers in part because it is a book of symbolic senses, carefully designed to make the pleasure we imagine palpable. Food is drenched in music, lights burn in deep jewel colours, people drink mint juleps or luminescent champagne. Enchanted objects defy the laws of physics: houses and women alike tend to float, while cocktails glide, disembodied through gardens.” It is as if Churchwell’s book was conceived as a series of lectures: it wanders about from the unsolved murders to The Great Gatsby to the Fitzgerald marriage. Without a structure, repetition is inevitable: twice we are reminded of Nick’s farewell declaration to Gatsby.
Churchwell ponders Gatsby’s dilemma, “suspended between chasing the future and longing for the past: the present means nothing to him”. Daisy Buchanan, the object of his passion, is then put under the microscope. “She needs immediacy, for she dwells in the shallows of time, drifting unrestfully and without purpose from moment to moment.”
The novel is continually explained to the reader. Why? According to Churchwell, “the ninth chapter of The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s ninth symphony, his ode to lost joy”. It is somewhat opportunistic of her to make this assumption, as it impinges on Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Scottie, explaining the appreciation of beauty and comparing Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Elsewhere she writes of “the altar of his art”. Fitzgerald and Zelda played wild and outrageously, only to collapse into lost shadows. Their shared tragedy is part of literary history. The Jazz Age, with its gangsters and bootleggers, as presented here by Churchwell, lacks the sinister edge of Weimar Berlin. The Great Gatsby is a novel of layers, and it compounds the argument that, even in the US, and particularly in Fitzgerald’s time, class was a more complex issue than race. And that despite Churchwell’s reference to Rebecca Felton, from Georgia, the first woman senator in the US, who was sworn into office on November 21st, 1922, an avowed racist at 87.
Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby in 1922, the year that began with the publication of Ulysses and ended with The Waste Land. It was TS Eliot who acknowledged The Great Gatsby as the first major step in American fiction since Henry James.
Perhaps Babylon Revisited would have been a better title for this book than Careless People. No one could dispute Sarah Churchwell’s enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby, and, yes, hers is a fan’s book, but it is also chaotic, random, unintentionally condescending in its elementary-level literary criticism, repetitive and heavily dependent on anecdote. Her arguments could have been presented at half the length – ironic, considering the inspired brevity of The Great Gatsby. Instead of engaging with its attractive material, this book irritates.
Yet, if nothing else, the brittle genius of the unstable Zelda flickers throughout and makes an earthbound, jargonistic narrative shimmer, if, sadly, all too infrequently.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.