The New York Herald Tribune's review of The Great Gatsby called it "a literary lemon meringue", so delicate, so sharp, yet "purely ephemeral". Published in 1925, it was set three years earlier, when F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were a rich and glamorous couple in New York. Using diary extracts, newspaper cuttings and letters, Sarah Churchwell has pieced together the real-life events of 1922, including a gruesome double murder, and shown their influences on the novel.
Churchwell is an American academic who teaches literature at the University of East Anglia. She is also a talented journalist, and I have heard her speak with authority and insight on the radio. But in Careless People, she has created a book that is at once bogged down in detail yet peculiarly lazy in its ambition. It is a prime example of the publishing space-filler, that hopes to sell by association with a dazzling subject. A clue is in the subtitle: "Murder, mayhem, and the invention of The Great Gatsby". Who, other than a breathless ad man, would promote a book on so vague an idea as "mayhem"?
Sadly, the flimsy generalisations continue within. The first two thirds cover the period from September to December 1922, when the Fitzgeralds went to a lot of parties. Ah, parties: a Gatsby theme. Part of the joy of the novel is that it conveys the exuberance of a truly great rave-up. Ideally, a historical account would shed some light on the real-life parties attended by the Fitzgeralds, with some illuminating anecdotes. Instead, a typical line reads: "Their cab might have been yellow, but it probably wasn't" followed by a history of the New York taxi .
Graduates of English literature will be familiar with the straw-clutching critic. I could only laugh at Churchwell's earnest observations on the parallels between history and parties: "History resembles a guest list," she informs us, "in that sense, of the invited and the gatecrashers, the people for whom we have been waiting, and those whose presence takes us unawares." Then: "History is prone to mistakes in identity, and facts are not always solid things." Later, really getting into the metaphor: "If history starts as a guest list, it has a tendency to end like the memory of a drunken party: misheard, blurred, fragmentary." It took me back to stifling afternoons in the faculty library.
The book only really gets going towards the end, when Churchwell rattles through the fascinating story of Zelda's breakdowns, the loss of their fortune, and the squabbles over her attempt to become a novelist.
Who knows if Sarah Churchwell timed her book to coincide with Baz Luhrmann's film? If she did, it was an even more cynical mistake than its initial premise. Luhrmann's orgiastic juggernaut generated so much hype that even committed fans have been left with Fitzgerald fatigue. For all its flaws, the movie had some jazz age magic, and served the purpose of sending us back to the novel, as second-rate adaptations do. Churchwell's pudding is one lemon meringue too many.