The Great Gatsby, By F.Scott Fitzgerald
Brevity and greatness, minus Beyoncé's vocal distractions
Now the film hullabaloo is dying, we can relish Fitzgerald's richly absorbing text on its own merits. Published in 1925, Gatsby is among a handful of novels combining greatness with brevity that you can enjoy over and over again. A re-reading underlines the crass noisiness of the fourth movie version.
Why on earth did Baz Luhrmann commission music from the likes of Beyoncé when Fitzgerald provided his own soundtrack? Children in Central Park sing "The Sheik of Araby", while Gatsby's own pianist conveys "the hour of a profound human change" with "Ain't We Got Fun": "One thing's sure and nothing's surer/The rich get rich and the poor get – children.".
There are a host of reasons why Fitzgerald's gripping fantasy of new money, self-invention and obsessive love evades the repeated assaults of Hollywood. Without actually reciting the book, no film could equal the two-page list of hangers-on who attend Gatsby's parties: "And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife…" A whole stratum of society is depicted in the litany.
Fitzgerald's descriptions are terse, vivid and surprising. He conveys tranquillity ("Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips, the women preceded us") as effectively as sudden violence: "Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand."
There are notably accurate accounts of drunkenness. At this stage Fitzgerald was only starting the descent that makes biographies of him such depressing reading. His Long Island neighbour PGWodehouse insisted, "Those stories about his drinking are exaggerated…"
Along with coinages famous as any in 20th-century literature ("Her voice is full of money"), Fitzgerald conveys Twenties America with a poetic power that is the verbal equivalent of Edward Hopper: "We drove over to Fifth Avenue, so warm and soft, almost pastoral… that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner." Films may come and go but Gatsby remains a fresh-minted pleasure.
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