The Great Gatsby: a personal response

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.

Mortality and Christopher Hitchens

In his recently released book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of how British journalist John Diamond chronicled his battle with cancer in a weekly column. Hitchens confesses like many other readers, he quietly urged him on from week to week. He says,

But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, 
miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No neither of those would work as endings.
Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this?- a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.
Hitchens’ own story was more elegantly structured. He told it in 7 essays published in Vanity Fair and now collected posthumously in this small book.

Mortality describes his initial collapse in a New York City hotel room during a tour in support of his latest book, Hitch 22, in early June 2010, saying of the emergency responders:

I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much backup equipment, but now I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle but firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

He dislikes the use of the metaphor of battle, fight or struggle to describe what ensued after he was diagnosed with metastatic oesophageal cancer. He says

Myself I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient.

But sitting “while a venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” And yet his dispatches from the Land of Malady are full of his customary wit and irony. His wife, Carol Blue, reports in the book’s Afterward that he wrote the jottings now collected as chapter 8 in bursts of energy and enthusiasm, his computer perched on the food tray of his hospital bed. He continued to hold court whenever he was hospitalized, “making a point or hitting a punchline for his “guests”, whom he treated like “participants in his Socratic discourses”. He had always been a great raconteur, as well as a bon vivant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and a rapier-like intelligence. And he could hold his liquor. After an 8 hour dinner, he would rise to toast the assembled motley crowd with “a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry, limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. ‘How good it is to be us’, he would say in his perfect voice.”

I started reading him in Vanity Fair, after many years of avoiding his work and like many others, I was immediately won over. I avoided him because he had betrayed me. For many years he had espoused causes dear to my heart, workers’ rights among them, what might be called leftwing views, but then after 9/11, he made a sharp turn right and supported the war in Iraq, believing the now disproved weapons-of-mass-destruction premise. Not to mention, he dissed Mother Teresa and rounded on Salman Rushdie, when Rushdie, under fatwa pressure, published “Why I have Embraced Islam”. I read the rebuttals that his friend Martin Amis wrote and imagined, in my innocence, that Amis was actually alienated from Hitchens. I was wrong. Amis remained his great friend, Rushdie was at Hitchens’ memorial and Mother Teresa – well that goes without saying.

Hitchens was a famous atheist, author of god is Not Great, and on his last Thanksgiving Day in November 2011, he was in my town, Toronto, debating his point of view with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Hitchens arranged Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends here and by all accounts carried the day in the debate.

His reaction to the Christopher Hitchens Day of prayer on September 20, 2011 involved wondering exactly what was being prayed for – his survival, his redemption? He examined the nature of prayer -the importuning of an omnipotent being to suspend His laws of nature for personal benefit- and found the practice specious. He noted that certain religious zealots had pronounced that his illness was God’s punishment and in short order analyzed the ill-logic and cruelty of that by citing blameless children suffering from cancer. He said there would be no deathbed conversion and told of Voltaire being badgered as he was dying to renounce the devil, whereupon the great thinker replied, “that this was no time to be making enemies”.

The best gift that Hitchens gave me, besides many good laughs, was the realization that I can listen to a point of view I don’t agree with, indeed that I might find contrary and wrongheaded although, of course, he said much that I found true.

He concluded an essay on The Great Gatsby by saying, “It remains ‘the great’ because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly”.  He died on December 15, 2011 at the age of 62. HIs unflinching voice goes on.