The first, not so great Gatsby to be published

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The Independent Online
THAT LITERARY mascot of the American 20th century, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, has a famous line warning that seekers after a brave new future will be "borne back ceaselessly into the past". On the brink of the 21st century, the hottest book news out of the US relates to a manuscript that was completed, not last week or even last year, but back in 1924. Say it again, Scott.

Trimalchio, Fitzgerald's original version of the novel that later became The Great Gatsby, will be published for the first time in spring 2000. It is certain to reignite a furious debateabout the ethics of editing rejected or abandoned works by long-dead authors who can no longer object.

Fitzgerald wrote the first draft of his story in summer 1924. Then he dispatched it to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, at Scribner's in New York. Fitzgerald called the draft Trimalchio after the nouveau-riche freed slave in Petronius' first-century Latin novel Satyricon, who - like his spiritual descendant Jay Gatsby - holds grandiose show-off parties that overawe and nauseate his guests.

Perkins asked for many major revisions. Fitzgerald, who depended hugely on his editor's judgement, agreed to the lot and rewrote the work in Rome over the winter. A much tighter, tougher and faster novel, The Great Gatsby, appeared on 10 April 1925.

Now Professor James West III of Pennsylvania State University has - with the help of a US government grant - edited Trimalchio for publication from the manuscript held by Fitzgerald's alma mater, Princeton.

The project crowns a disputatious year in which two other modern masters of US fiction have had "new" works published from beyond the grave - to a chorus of disapproval.

First, Ernest Hemingway's son Patrick issued True at First Light - his own edition of the abandoned work inspired by an ill-fated Kenyan safari in 1953, which ended in a disastrous plane crash. The publishers labelled it "Hemingway's last novel". Many critics called it a fraud and a disgrace. The writer Joan Didion said that Patrick's drastic surgery, performed on a shapeless mess of material that his father had forsaken in despair, amounted to "a denial of the idea of fiction".

Then came Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, which is published in Britain this week by Hamish Hamilton. In 1952, Ellison produced his pioneering novel of black American life, Invisible Man. Over the next four decades, right up to his death in 1994, he laboured anxiously on an ambitious follow- up. Juneteenth, in its published form, consists of the single main narrative that Ellison's editor and friend John F Callahan has moulded out of 2,000 diffuse pages of manuscript. Is this a proper novel, or an opportunistic scissors-and-paste job? The Village Voice damned Juneteenth as "monstrously fraudulent", although much of the raw material has an intrinsic power that Hemingway's leftovers never attain.

Professor West claims that Trimalchio is a complete work in itself: "That's different from an aborted novel or a fragment." Maybe, but the record shows that Fitzgerald agreed it was no damned good, and got stuck into a root-and-branch revision. Why buy the botched rehearsal as well as the definitive performance? For completists only, as they say in the music press.