So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
fuck fuck fuck
So we drove on towards death in the cooling twilight.
It’s fucking great.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is fucking great.
Obviously, I’d read it before. Obviously anyone who’s reading a literary blog full of male nudity* and coarse language has read The Great Gatsby before. They give it to kids in school. Thus, I’m presuming shared knowledge.
Gatsby is a literary staple. If you don’t eat your Gatsby you can’t have your trash, y’know? Everyone’s read it, and (to be blunt) I don’t want anyone engaging with my book-related opinions who hasn’t, unless they’ve deliberately gone out of their way to ignore it in some kind of politicised move against the established literary dominance of dead, white, alcoholic, straight men.
If you’ve avoided Fitzgerald – and this book specifically – because you don’t think it deserves the value ascribed to it: you are wrong. And you are missing out.
The Great Gatsby is not perfect. And it is in its momentary slips and slides away from perfection that it emphasises its true beauty. Just as, with a human, flawlessness is neither desirable or truly beautiful, with The Great Gatsby and its occasional dropped metaphors and crass jokes (e.g. a composer called “Vladimir Tostoff”**) Fitzgerald draws into stark focus the true depth and importance of his pen.
It is a novel about love, which most people forget, a love as rampant, overpowering, animal and destructive as the love in Wuthering Heights. It is a love that brings with it death and desperation, desire and despair; The Great Gatsby is a novel about the viciousness and the vacuousness of the beautiful – it is the terrible marriage of Daisy and Tom Buchanan that causes all the pain around them, their physical and financial charms exonerating them from any sense of compassion, any kind of guilt – detached, as they are, by “privilege”, they play with others until the others end up dead. Gatsby can dwarf their wealth with his own, but he cannot dwarf their sense of self: their behaviour is something trained, Gatsby’s is something learned.
Daisy and Tom are the beautiful, everyone else is the damned. There is the garage owner whose wife Daisy kills after Tom fucks her; there is the woman who had the affair with Tom who is killed; there is Nick Carraway, the narrator whose dream of the East ended in death; there are Gatsby’s ugly criminal connections; there is the glamorous golfer Nick rejects in confusion following the denouement, there are the others, the others, the others – circulating Gatsby while he is generous and gregarious like sharks around a seal – those who like to party but show no solidarity with the dead man, and there is, of course, Gatsby: an enigmatic charmer who dies for love, like all the lamest of heroes.
The rumours of Gatsby’s criminality, of the varying levels of truthfulness of his life story, oscillate and rebound, and it is possible to read the book doubting if even the “true” version of Gatsby’s life that Nick gives is anywhere approaching reality. Yes, he met and fell in love with Daisy, yes he went to war, yes he made his money dubiously: but there is no kernel of infallibility to any other information. What did he do? He may well have been guilty of far darker crimes than anything eluded to or believed by Nick, because Nick was taken in. Nick was taken in more than anyone else – he is one of only two friends of Gatsby’s that attend his funeral. Nick believes in the Gatsby he wants to believe in, which is that of the glamorous, hard-working criminal Romantic destroyed by his own obsession… Rather than the Gatsby that so many other people recoil from.
And this is what I mean. The Great Gatsby is a hundred fucking pages long and within it is so much more than a novel about rich people having affairs. It is easy to criticise – the dropped metaphors, the occasional teenage overzealousness with the prose, that joke about “Tosstof”, the focus on the affluent and the lack of characterisation of any of the servants.***
But these can all be ignored, washed over, because what is contained within these pages is a work of insightful genius.
There is despair, rendered on the page in an inexhaustible way. Gatsby dies hours before he is killed: Gatsby dies when he is rejected, but as a rich man is still afforded the luxury of a suicide where he is not to blame. He allows himself to die – even compared to Wilson’s death, Gatsby’s is the suicide.
The prose shimmers and shines.
But words conspicuously recur, there are (according to the notes) errors in historical facts, but these do not matter. The narrator is the narrator and the narrator is Nick Carraway, not F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I read it slowly, over almost two weeks, relishing every moment I spent within its pages and regretting every moment I spent outside of it. It is sublime: when it hits the right note it resounds with an unignorable chime that repeatedly sent me running for my notebook.
I found myself highlighting passages and then questioning their familiarity, before realising that my momentary deja vu was a result of the fact that I had highlighted these phrases before.
So we drove on towards death in the cooling twilight
I used to have that writ large and stuck on the wall of my bedroom as a student, when life was vibrant and the future felt like something I wanted to be in.
Now, I suppose, being reminded of how joyous the experience of prose can be is reassuring: there is no way that The Great Gatsby isn’t one of the finest artistic achievements of society. There is no way that I would want to live in any world that hadn’t produced it.
But it’s sad.
It made me cry.
I cried because of the work itself, because of its plotting and poetry, but also due to the awareness that I will experience few things as transcendental as The Great Gatsby, and that I am unlikely to ever produce anything as worthwhile as this myself. Particularly not if I continue with the life I’ve been leading for the last year.
After my serious mental collapse a few years ago, I built myself back up into a functioning adult by promising myself that 2015 would be “my year”. It wasn’t. The end of the year is approaching and I’m bald, friendless, haven’t written anything off this blog for months and I’m physically dependent on alcohol. The constant nausea aside, this is far from what I abstained from suicide for.
I’m here now, in a world where Gatsby exists. That is something. Maybe I can lock myself in a box and reread and reread Gatsby until I starve to death, because, and this is the kicker: rereading Gatsby has been the highlight of my year.
Rereading a high school set text about prohibition era adultery was the highlight of my year.
I need to get a life.
And I think it’s time that I did so.
The Great Gatsby has reminded me that there is joy to be found in life. Which, I suppose, was what I needed.
Thank you, F. Scott, for shining a little bit of melancholic light onto a very dark surface.
If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while, you really must. It makes me want to live, it makes me want to write, and it makes me want to do the things that I want to do.
Honestly, it’s worth being alive for.
* Of both the soul and the body.
** Like “tossed off”, as in “wanked off”, as in “masturbated to the point of ejaculation”.
*** The “working class” character, Wilson, may have money problems and a cheating wife, but he is still a small business owner and thus not on the lowest rung of capitalist society.