Jay Gatsby and I go back a long way. No not to that hot summer of 1922, but to the hot summer of 1952. Having cycled to Burlington beach by myself, I lay in the sun reading Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the first time. The 18 year-old boy I had given my heart to had, apparently, thrown me over, so I fell for Jay Gatsby instead. And got sunstroke. Next day, I was invalided home from my summer job on the ladies’ blouse counter and spent 3 days hallucinating lightshows, green and otherwise, and longing for a cool, blue pool.
That was just the beginning. Even after the boy came back into my life, became my husband and the father of my two children, Gatsby and I carried on and not clandestinely. I taught the novel to my grade 12 classes throughout most of my 35 year career as a high school English teacher. My husband and I began by believing Fitzgerald’s dictim that “living well was the best revenge” and ended by revising it to “eating well is the best revenge”. That was after the energy crisis and subsequent recession in the 70’s.
Meanwhile we lived in a house under a hill, where springs bubbled to the surface and pheasants called. We built rock gardens and planted bushes and trees for the birds. We planted a cedar hedge and built fences and dry stone walls. We sunk a pool beside the house. We bought a sailboat. We lived in a cul de sac and walked to work. We holidayed in Europe en famille.
Then Robert Redford’s Great Gatsby came out on film just in time for me to show it to my classes as my dream came apart.
It is many years later now, so many that I wasn’t sure I even had a copy of the novel. Not that I really need it since after so many repetitions I have virtually memorized it. But there it was beside Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz and Scott’s This Side of Paradise. I searched it out when I came home from watching Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby.
In his Los Angeles Times review, Charles McNulty begins by remarking that from reading some reviews of Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, “you’d think that the Australian… would be facing extradition for his crime against an American classic”. McNulty begins by calling the movie “relentlessly bouncy” and the CGI-enhanced opulence eye-tiring, but very soon, he concludes that it is a “diverting pop-culture riff that has as much to say about Fitzgerald’s novel as it does about the connection between two decadent eras, the Jazz Age and our own”. He goes on to illustrate how our perception of a classic, such as Hamlet, changes as we age and as the times we live in change.
I found myself an audience of one in a huge auditorium and absentmindedly wandered back out to pick up my 3D glasses. But no, this theatre was not equipped for 3D. Just as well, I got dizzy anyway. Yes, it was dazzling; yes, the party scenes were fantastic and overdone; yes, their effect was shallow and empty. (Wasn’t that the point?) True some of the music was Twenties -Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’- but much of it showed Jay Z’s hiphop influence, startlingly vital. For a brief moment I caught Beyonce singing Amy Winehouse’s ‘Black to Black’. And frankly, the window sequence at Myrtle’s Manhattan apartment was worth the price of admission.
Robert Redford in the 1974 movie was never my idea of Jay Gatsby. Too cool. Of course, Gatsby played cool but locked inside was James Gatz, the desperate poor boy and the bootlegger, the fellow rumoured to have killed a man. Di Caprio has more of that inner tension, so that when he strikes out at Tom Buchanan, it is not entirely unexpected. Daisy is hard to get wrong. Be beautiful and vulnerable and Carey Mulligan can do that. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s characters are not deep. Gatsby is mysterious, but not complex.
Christopher HItchens said that The Great Gatsby “remains great because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face it unflinchingly”.
Nick Carroway, the narrator, strengthened by his father’s midwestern upbringing, goes back to Chicago to work in finance, sobered but unbowed, Mr Luhrmann. He does not end up writing out his pain in a rehab centre. Just sayin’.
Spoiler alert: Gatsby and his creator died young. As indeed did Zelda Fitzgerald, Daisy’s prototype. At least Gatsby did not fall victim to alcohol, madness or fire. Having outlived his dream, that was probably for the best. But even to the last, Gatsby lived in hope, waiting for Daisy’s call. It was that hopefulness that made NIck call out, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
Much to my surprise, I survived into old age in spite of opportunities not to. I survived loss and grief and illness that, each in its turn, felt unbearable. Gatsby has gone with me through the years, the real one in the book. Screen Gatsby’s are just for an afternoon.