Monday, 2 July 2012

Review: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What more is there to say about a novel as much-praised as The Great Gatsby, lauded by many as the supreme American novel, and by not a few as ‘one of the most perfect novels ever written’?

It is tempting, although surely blasphemous, to question what all the fuss is about.  The novel is barely long enough to earn that title, passing in barely 150 pages and with a finely pared plot.  Fitzgerald’s writing style is also elegantly minimalist, although he is very adept with dialogue, and the whole reading experience is consequently over within a few hours – eight, to be precise, in the current stage run.

In this brief time, though, the work’s undeniable quality does shine through.  Gatsby’s characterisation is ingeniously simple: self-effacing narrator Nick Carraway is treated to a catalogue of rumours about the man, who exists only as a charming but vacant figure.  The trick is then repeated for Gatsby’s lost sweetheart Daisy Buchanan, who we see both through the narrator’s slightly cynical gaze, and through the idealising lens of Gatsby himself.

As these examples indicate, this is a novel deeply invested in perception, from Nick’s opening maxim on reserving judgement to the memorable image of the bespectacled eyes that looks out from both the novel’s (original) cover and from within its world.  Fitzgerald succeeds in evoking a sparsely described yet still vivid setting, full of a 1920s decadence for which the era (probably significantly due to this novel) has become legendary.

Almost before we have adequately explored this world, Fitzgerald strips bare the emptiness at the heart of it: an early meeting is disrupted when a character brazenly leaves to answer an adulterous phone-call, betraying the more subtle corruption that underlies this whole society.  The novel’s particular genius lies in holding a balance between this materialist corruption and the idealising desires that attempt to transcend it.

In summary then, this is certainly a worthy owner of the title of ‘modern classic’.  It’s certainly worth a read, mainly because of its quality, partly because of its brevity, and not least because it will give you an informed perspective to watch the inevitable rage when long-standing fans are confronted with Baz Luhrmann’s impending film adaptation.

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