By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway met for the first time in 1925 in Paris, just as Fitzgerald's third novel, "The Great Gatsby," was being published in the United States. As recounted in the previous Second Reading, Hemingway was not a kind man and was especially unkind to Fitzgerald in "A Moveable Feast," his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, but when Fitzgerald gave him a copy of "Gatsby," Hemingway had to draw in his horns. With characteristic self-importance, he said it was now his duty to "try to be a good friend" to Fitzgerald because, he acknowledged, "If he could write a book as fine as 'The Great Gatsby' I was sure that he could write an even better one."
He never did. He took a bold shot at it a decade later with "Tender Is the Night," a thinly veiled account of the wealthy expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy and their circle, and at his death in 1940 he had written a significant part of a novel about Hollywood, "The Love of the Last Tycoon," published the next year in its uncompleted form, but "Gatsby" was, and remains, the monumental achievement of Fitzgerald's career. Reading it now for the seventh or eighth time, I am more convinced than ever not merely that it is Fitzgerald's masterwork but that it is the American masterwork, the finest work of fiction by any of this country's writers.
To say this is not to call "The Great Gatsby" the Great American Novel. That was a self-serving conceit drummed up by certain ambitious writers of the postwar era, most notoriously Norman Mailer, who fancied themselves in the boxing ring with Hemingway, delivering a succession of literary body blows to Papa and other writers of his celebrated generation. A few great American novels have been written, several of them by William Faulkner, but no single book knocks everything else out of the ring. It's mildly amusing to make lists and do rankings, as David Letterman nightly reminds his followers, but they aren't to be taken seriously. Hemingway and Mailer to the contrary, writers don't compete against each other, and neither do their books; each must be measured on its own merits.
It seems to me, though, that no American novel comes closer than "Gatsby" to surpassing literary artistry, and none tells us more about ourselves. In an extraordinarily compressed space -- the novel is barely 50,000 words long -- Fitzgerald gives us a meditation on some of this country's most central ideas, themes, yearnings and preoccupations: the quest for a new life, the preoccupation with class, the hunger for riches and "the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
That famous passage -- every passage in "Gatsby" is famous -- is on the novel's final page, near the end of six pages of prose so incandescent as, in my case quite literally, to send shivers down the spine.
Precisely because the book is so well known, there is little point in retracing in detail the novel's familiar ground. All of this has been done to a much-overcooked turn by academics (a few of them genuine scholars) and practitioners of lit crit. People have spent their entire adult lives in the study of Fitzgerald generally and "Gatsby" specifically, in some cases to considerable financial profit. Though most of the work of theirs that I have read is pedestrian and essentially irrelevant, the cumulative effect of it has been to leave "Gatsby," like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," totally strip-mined.
Coming to it now for an umpteenth reading, I tried to imagine myself a reader in 1925, opening the book for the first time. I would have known Fitzgerald as the author of two previous novels, "This Side of Paradise" (1920) and "The Beautiful and Damned" (1922), as well as numerous short stories, the most famous being "The Ice Palace," "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," many of them published in the Saturday Evening Post. Probably I would have thought of Fitzgerald as a skillful "popular" writer rather than a literary one, though even in his most commercial fiction -- of which there was a good deal -- the grace and beauty of his prose were obvious. I also would have been well aware of him as what we now call a celebrity: jumping into the fountain at the Plaza with his glamorous wife, Zelda, hanging out with the great names of what he had christened the Jazz Age, startling readers (and non-readers) with his cinematic good looks.
Within just a few pages I surely would have been hooked. Nick Carraway, the 29-year-old narrator, introduces himself forthrightly but modestly, describing how he had left a comfortable existence in the Midwest "to go east and learn the bond business" in New York. He rents a "weather beaten cardboard bungalow" in a town on Long Island called West Egg, and soon meets up with Daisy Buchanan, "my second cousin once removed," and her husband, Tom, whom Fitzgerald nails in just a few words. He "had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven -- a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anticlimax. . . . Now he was a sturdy straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner."
As for the beautiful Daisy, "her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth -- but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget." There is something else in her voice that Jay Gatsby identifies as he begins to realize that he will never fulfill his dream of having her for his own. "Her voice," he says, "is full of money." She and Tom are two of the most memorable and readily identifiable characters in American fiction, and when at last they have done all their terrible damage, Fitzgerald pronounces his immortal verdict on them:
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
That passage, like the whole of "Gatsby," should make conclusively clear that Fitzgerald's preoccupation with money and those who have it was a far more complicated business than is often understood. Whether he ever actually said that "the rich are different from the rest of us" is a subject of endless dispute, but if Hemingway did say in rejoinder, "Yes, they have more money," then he missed the point. Fitzgerald understood that the rich live in a bubble the rest of us cannot enter, as the upwardly mobile Gatsby eventually understands to his painful regret.
Ah yes, Gatsby. What, in 1925, would I have thought of him? If he remains to this day one of American fiction's most enigmatic characters, how must he have seemed at first encounter? Over the course of the novel it becomes apparent, though it is never conclusively stated, that his fortune has dishonorable roots, planted by Meyer Wolfshiem, "the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919," who played "with the faith of fifty million people -- with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe." Would I have focused on the corruption that enabled Gatsby to have his vast house on Long Island Sound, or would I have understood that Fitzgerald saw him as much more than that: a man "who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn," yet who has "something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away."
As that lovely passage suggests, Fitzgerald writes with extraordinary subtlety in "Gatsby," and sustains that tone throughout. He describes, for example, Tom Buchanan reading a racist tract: "Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart." Or: "Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry." In 1925, perhaps I would have said to myself that this Saturday Evening Post writer turns out to have a sophisticated wit and a keen eye. Perhaps at the end I would have called him a poet:
"One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. . . . When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again."
If in 1925 I didn't gasp at that, there would have been something seriously wrong with me. Those words, and the few hundred others that follow as the novel reaches its end, seem to me now -- eight decades after that imagined first reading -- the most beautiful, compelling and true in all of American literature. Each reading of them is a revelation and a gift. If from all of our country's books I could have only one, "The Great Gatsby" would be it.
"The Great Gatsby" is available in a Scribner paperback at $12.95.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.