Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is a classic of the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, exposing it as a playground of the idle rich, an orgy of excess and bootleg alcohol where people’s lives are carelessly thrown over in search of the next sensation, but its resonance for later generations makes it all the more pertinent today.

Nick Carraway comes to the East Coast to work in New York (something nebulous in bond selling) and moves in next door to the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a man of some considerable means who throws wild parties every weekend entertaining the city’s fast set.

Gatsby certainly knows how to show people a good time:

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars... On weekends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

And as if to back up the rumours about where Gatsby got his money (some say he is a bootlegger, others that he has killed a man) there is plenty of hooch available, despite the Prohibition of alcohol:

In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

Half of the people who come are not even invited. They are bright young things, flitting like butterflies from party to party:

Suddenly one of these gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her, and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray’s understudy from the Follies. The party has begun.

Nick is one of the few people actually invited to this particular party, and he wanders around looking for his host, accompanying the beautiful but dishonest Jordan Baker. Gatsby himself remains aloof from the saturnalia taking place in his home. He is pining after Daisy, Nick’s cousin who lives just across the sound, further along Long Island. Unfortunately, she is now married to the boorish womanising Tom Buchanan, but between Jordan and Nick, he hatches a plot to meet her again, hoping that she’ll come back to him after five lost years. The end result is tragedy.

Part of The Great Gatsby’s power lies in the fact that each new generation of readers sees themselves in the book. We might perceive ourselves to be once again in an era where ...careless people... smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made... but things were probably always thus, and always will be. For me, the poignancy is in Gatsby’s futile attempt to win back what has gone. He wants Daisy to deny that she ever loved Tom, he wants to wipe away that half decade as if it had never existed and start again. No can do, old sport.

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