More often than not I will lay off the fiction when I’m choosing a book. For faintly ridiculous reasons, really. I like to know what’s really going on in the world, or has gone on in the world in the past. I like reality. I like facts and information I can utilise in a pub quiz (how sad, eh?). I like tidbits I can bore my friends and family with on high days and holidays.
This is, of course, forgetting that you can get all this, and more, from good fiction. I can find out just as much, and be just as moved, as I would be by a true-life story.
This was certainly the case with F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. After reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which features Fitzgerald around the time The Great Gatsby was written, the novel itself seemed a sensible next stop. Here I could perhaps flesh out that 1920s world, and see if Hemingway was right about this being Fitzgerald’s best work.
It did also help that the book is my Significant Other’s favourite. She has pretty good taste (well, she lives with me, right? OK, apart from living with me, she has good taste) and I doubted she’s recommend a book I wouldn’t go for.
You’ll be pleased to hear, dear reader, I wasn’t disappointed.
Here is a wonderful snapshot of 1920s decadence. Here was that sense of freedom and abandon after the First World War. Here was the truly modern(ist?) world, with its pleasures and its pitfalls. The book chronicles the recklessness of the age, which would eventually lead to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression (although obviously Fitzgerald was not to know of this when he was writing the book). People wallow in excess, on money that appears from nowhere, with no foundation, a modern Gomorrah, heading for disaster. Sounds familiar, eh?
Money is no object, and with Gatsby, he appears to have magicked it from thin air. The allusion is that he has gained his fortune by nefarious means (perhaps he is a con artist, perhaps a bootlegger, perhaps a fixer of the World Series). But the great and good are more than happy to accept his charming self, and more importantly are happy to see his money spent on their own enjoyment, at his countless parties. No questions asked.
I found Gatsby such a fascinating character as he does not seem of this (that?) world. He is a mirage. He seems to have appeared from nowhere, and can disappear just as quickly.
In the early passages of the book, Gatsby is but a mythical presence. The narrator, Nick Carraway, hears of him but does not meet him, despite living next-door. When he first catches sight of him, he vanishes. When they first meet face-to-face, Nick does not immediately realise who he is talking to.
Here is a character who is dropped into the ‘normal’ world and seems to unsettle everything. Yet, by the end, on the surface, normality has returned, or at least the unrest has been suppressed. This lends Gatsby an almost ghostly,dream-like air. For the main characters, to the outside world at least, it is as if nothing has ever happened. The status quo is restored.
He is soon forgotten by high society. They move on. Those who he genuinely touched will at least pretend to forget him, or wish that they could. Only Nick remains to mark and remember Gatsby. And so, Gatsby starts and ends a myth. He lives only in Nick’s words and memory.
Was Gatsby an illusion? Just as all that surrounded him was, and as the riches of that time were? It seems that way.