The Great Gatsby: don’t forget the book
F Scott FitzGerald’s funeral had a meagre attandance, but his novel grew a reputation that can’t be overshadowed by Baz Luhrmann’s new film
The beautiful and the damned: F Scott FitzGerald with his wife, Zelda, around 1935. Photograph: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty
In 1924 F Scott FitzGerald sent Max Perkins, his editor at the New York publishing house Scribner’s, the manuscript of a novel he was working on, which would be published the following year as The Great Gatsby . Perkins’s main concern was that its central character was too vague.
FitzGerald’s reply was a key to understanding the subtle power of a metaphorical masterpiece that remains as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1925.
“His vagueness I can repair by making more pointed,” FitzGerald wrote. “This doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.”
Indeed it is his vagueness that makes Gatsby so compelling, both for the reader and within the hard, amoral American world that FitzGerald paints with prose that is as luminous and cold as a diamond.
It is Gatsby’s nebulous mystique that also makes any attempt to film the book a risky proposition. How to capture Gatsby’s essential unknowability in a medium defined by close-ups?
The main events of the novel unfold at a series of parties, and FitzGerald’s prose is necessarily suggestive and impressionistic rather than concrete. Gatsby is mentioned a few times before we meet him in a conspiracy of speculation and interruption. “He’s a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s.” “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.” “One persistent story went that he didn’t live in a house at all but in a boat that looked like a house and moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore.”
Nick first sees Gatsby standing alone in his enormous garden overlooking fashionable East Egg, the green light of Daisy Buchanan’s house a beacon across the water. But it is a fleeting glimpse that quickly vanishes, and though the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, brings us closer to Gatsby as the novel progresses, he remains an aloof and isolated figure.
Even when Nick finally meets Gatsby face to face we are given hardly any physical detail about the man. The lengthiest description that Nick offers of Gatsby’s physical form rests on a brief smile. “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality for eternal reassurance in it,” Nick describes with typical richness. “It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
The description encapsulates the essence of what FitzGerald is creating with the cipher-like character: Gatsby is an empty vessel in which others see only a projection of themselves.
I first read the book as a serious 16-year-old with literary aspirations of my own. What appealed to me then about the book was the capacity for self-invention that FitzGerald’s United States offered: Gatsby was a tragic hero undone by the carelessness of others.
Although Nick reveals his mystery at the end of the book, Gatsby’s integrity remains intact.
Rereading the book many times as an adult, however, its meaning continues to change. If, as a teenager, I saw myself as Gatsby – standing apart from my peer group, misunderstood – as an adult I was Nick, aware that there is no “inside” and that the belonging Gatsby had pinned his hopes on is just a hollow dream.
When the first reviews for FitzGerald’s novel appeared, in 1925, the critics failed to grasp the several layers on which the book operated.
His earlier books, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned , had been bestsellers. But the general critical impression was that FitzGerald’s books were merely reportage, and The Great Gatsby was similarly dismissed as “nothing more than a glorified anecdote”. But the book also failed to capture the public imagination, perhaps because its parable of their inevitable doom cut too deep.
What the critics and readers had failed to appreciate would become unavoidably obvious in the following years, when the prophetic nature of The Great Gatsby was revealed. With the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the world of wealth and excess that FitzGerald anatomised so vividly would tumble down around its creators.
FitzGerald’s life would end as tragically as his greatest hero’s. Although he was to be the author of his own death through alcohol abuse, he was as much a victim of the crass culture of celebrity, its “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty”, as his greatest creation was. By the time he died, in Hollywood in 1940, FitzGerald had been almost forgotten, and his funeral was a sad affair, attended by just 30 people.
It seems particularly poignant, then, that it is through The Great Gatsby that FitzGerald’s name and fame live on. Gatsby’s great vacuity – his ability to be anything we want him to – has ensured a place for him in readers throughout the generations.
He is whatever we want or need him to be. An embodiment of progress, possibility, self-invention. A condemnation of consumption and the poison of celebrity. Unlikely as it seems, he can even be Leonardo DiCaprio.