Thanks to the release in Australia last night of Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular new film The Great Gatsby – and the fact I seem to have been talking (on Radio National and at the SWF) for the last week about this novel and Luhrmann’s film (which I LOVED) – I’ve decided to write about The Great Gatsby now, even though it’s not my next classic in line. (Curiously, perhaps excitingly, my next classic in line is also on Luhrmann’s mind as his possible next film. We’re talking EPIC. I’ll be writing about it next and will return to it below.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the handsome golden boy of American literature, once said of himself and his glamorous wife Zelda, ‘Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.’
Fitzgerald’s vision, with its blurring of the real and the unreal, may have contributed to his rapid decline into alcoholism – but it was also the source of his genius for evoking in words the ineffable, the radiant dream forever calling us forward, just out of reach, ‘a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing’. And nowhere is Fitzgerald’s genius realised with more focused intensity than in The Great Gatsby, his novel of the American dream and its underbelly: violent death.
The Great Gatsby opens in the spring of 1922. The narrator, Nick Carraway, recently returned from fighting the war in Europe and afflicted with the restlessness of his post-war generation, moves east to New York from his Midwestern city to learn the bond business. He rents a cottage in a commuting town on Long Island across the bay from his lovely, breathless cousin Daisy, with her voice full of money and her powerful husband, Tom Buchanan, and is soon drawn into the fantastic life of his neighbour, multimillionaire Jay Gatsby.
No one knows who Gatsby is or where his vast wealth has come from – it could have come from anywhere at a time when speculative fortunes were being made overnight on an American stock market that was rising to dizzying heights following the First World War, or through illegal activities like the sale of alcohol following its prohibition by the Eighteenth Amendment passed in 1919.
Everything about Gatsby glitters, all is light and shimmering surfaces. The whole front of his mansion catches the light, the wind-shields on his monstrous car mirror ‘a dozen suns’ and Gatsby himself smiles ‘like a weatherman, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light’. He has entered a world of the super rich, a world inhabited by people like the Buchanans, who drift about aimlessly in places where ‘people played polo and were rich together’. Over the course of the novel, Gatsby’s web of light is smashed apart to reveal the darkness and ashes that lurk beneath it – but what remains, beyond his Olympian wealth, beyond the ashes, is Gatsby’s possession of ‘an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever see again’.
The Great Gatsby is remarkable for Fitzgerald’s tender, poetic evocation of this gift for hope, this romantic readiness which drew settlers to the New World and was by Gatsby’s day lost in a restless pursuit of wealth and worldly success. Fitzgerald’s articulation of Gatsby’s dreaming gives rise to some of the most beautiful writing in the novel, such as when he describes the moment Gatsby’s dreams are finally given purpose, earthed in the bright-eyed Daisy:
‘He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her 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.’
The pages of The Great Gatsby resonate with the rhythms and lilt of the Jazz Age, the name Fitzgerald coined for the 1920s. It was an age of feverish change, phenomenal wealth, decadence, loose women, epitomised in Gatsby’s extravagant parties by ‘a great number of single girls dancing individualistically’ with their hair ‘bobbed in strange new ways’. Life in this frenzied maelstrom is governed by orchestras that ‘set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes’.
It was an era that saw the emergence of sport as a major phenomenon in American cultural life and the worship of its stars like Babe Ruth and amateur golfer Bobby Jones – and two of the novel’s central characters, Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan and her best friend Jordan Baker, are sorting stars: Jordan a golfing champion and Tom a one-time football hero.
Fitzgerald worshipped football. On his acceptance into Princeton, he telegrammed his mother: ‘Admitted, send football pads and shoes immediately.’ Born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald in 1896, Fitzgerald was named for his ancestor Francis Scott Key, who wrote ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. He was the only son of a salesman who eventually settled in St Paul, where Fitzgerald was born.
In 1913 he went to Princeton, where he was a brilliant social success, became prominent in the university’s literary circles and started to write his first novel, The Romantic Egoist, which was rejected for publication but which he later reworked as This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton in November 1917 before graduating to join the army and was posted to Camp Sheridan in Alabama, where he met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a Supreme Court judge and belle of Alabama. They fell in love, beginning one of the great and tragic public romances of the 20th century.
When the war ended, Fitzgerald left the army for New York, hoping to make his fortune so he could marry Zelda. He was successful. In 1920 his first novel, This Side of Paradise, ‘dropped like a bombshell on the American scene’, according to Princeton historian JT Miller. ‘It was questioning the past and giving voice for the first time to the youth of the twentieth century.’
The novel became a bestseller and Fitzgerald became famous. He married Zelda and in 1921 their daughter Frances (Scottie) was born. The following year his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, was published and in 1924 the Fitzgeralds moved to the French Riviera so Fitzgerald could write in peace. Here he began The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925 to lukewarm reviews.
His last finished novel – Tender is the Night, published in 1934 – is a tragic evocation of this time in an expatriate community in the South of France, of Fitzgerald’s efforts to write The Great Gatsby, Zelda’s attraction to another man, and her descent into insanity. In 1930, Zelda had her first nervous breakdown and continued to deteriorate until she had to be hospitalised. In despair, the Fitzgeralds returned to America.
In 1937 Fitzgerald went to Hollywood, where he found work as a scriptwriter and fell in love with the Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. In October 1939 he began The Last Tycoon, his novel about Hollywood, but he died of a heart attack aged just 44 before finishing the novel.
The Great Gatsby remains one of the all-time enduring classics of American literature, widely loved for its beautiful prose and evocative distillation of the s0-called ‘American dream’. The novel has been adapted to the screen four times: Herbert Brenon’s 1926 silent picture version, all of which is lost except the trailer; a version by Elliott Nugent from 1949; the 1974 film starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy; and now Baz Luhrmann’s lush 3-D adaptation has burst onto cinema screens across the globe. It stars Leonardo di Caprio as the last word (for me) in Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as a fine Nick Carraway, Joel Edgerton as an excellent Tom Buchanan, and Elizabeth Debicki as a haughty Jordan Baker.
And the classic up next, and Luhrmann’s possible next film project? Tolstoy’s 1000+ page magnum opus – and most days my favourite novel of all time – War and Peace. It seems Baz Luhrmann’s dreams are as big as Gatsby’s.