Boyd Tonkin: A classic tale of greed that's on the money for our times
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 11 February 2012
Towards the end of Scott Fitzgerald's novel, narrator Nick Carraway wakes up from dreams of the revelry that has passed to hear a "material car" in the driveway of his dead neighbour Jay Gatsby's house.
"I didn't investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn't know that the party was over." Published in 1925, with America's post-First World War shindig in full swing, The Great Gatsby held a limited appeal for the effervescent moment of its birth. Its later fame, and gold-plated prestige as a (or perhaps the) Great American Novel, dates from periods of flatness and of fear, when not even ghosts could fail to notice that the party had stopped.
True, the story's widespread popularity dates from the battle-scarred optimism of the Second World War, when a cheap forces edition put hundreds of thousands of copies into American kitbags. But Fitzgerald's aching lament settled into classic status on the anxious campuses of the Cold War decades, with corporate man in the ascendant and the swaggering bootleggers of the Roaring Twenties a memory shading into myth. Then, in 1974, the Jack Clayton movie (with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) fixed the "look" of Gatsby for millions.
Given this history, the incoming tide of adaptations hardly comes as a surprise. In a culture built on the idea of the future as a ladder of hopes, Fitzgerald struck a rare note of pastoral elegy. The past drives his people – rooted Mid-Westerners, never at home in the flashy East – and the past will claim them back. Gatsby may have tried to believe in "the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us", but we no longer do.
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