Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Review - The Great Gatsby

or, This Emperor does Have Clothes!

I finished F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby Monday night. All in all, it was an excellent book, and far superior in virtually every way to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Maybe it's just simple old me, but there was actually a plot that went somewhere, characters that weren't two-dimensional cardboard cutouts and the style was much much better. In defense of Hemingway (not that I need to do that as I am sure I am very much in the minority here), but I have begun reading through some of his short stories after the significant disappointment of TSAR, and am enjoying them way more than I did the novel. At first, I would have attributed that to maturation on the author's part, but then I saw that the stories are ordered chronologically in the volume I have, and the first few I have read are the earliest, and therefore not far removed in time from TSAR. Oh well. Now I feel like I should read a later novel and see what I think of it.

As for Gatsby, it was very interesting to read this 20-odd years after the last time, from the vantage of adulthood rather than as a college or high school student. I am sure this time around that I felt more sad about the whole thing, and perhaps understood it better as well. I suppose that themes of unrealistic dreams, misplaced ambition, getting lost in the past and the like resonate better when you have a little more life under your belt. Not that this is to say that the characters are particularly likable; I found them to be more shallow this time around, and often pathetic, but this shallowness I believe to be intentional, and is not the same as undeveloped.

The writing itself often has a lyric beauty, and as pointed out by a friend, does have one of the greatest closing lines in literature. Some snippets:

As I went over to say good-by, I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams - not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of the illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. [page 87]

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to the perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. [p. 100]

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something - an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever. [p. 100]

The track curved and now it was going away from the sun, which, as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever. [p. 135]

And the ending passage:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther...And one fine morning-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. [p. 159]

This is a masterpiece of American letters, and at a slim 159 pages, is a recommended read for anyone who has not yet done so.

5 stars out of 5.

Books read in 2010: 6 (totalling 1334 pages]
Books by new authors: 5 (yep, counting Fitzgerald for the same reason as Hemingway...]
Books published in 2010: still none
Classics read: 2

It's a bit unfair to throw classics into the mix, so I will still consider Coetzee's Summertime to be the best book I have read so far this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment