The Books: “The Great Gatsby” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

GreatGatsby.jpgThe Great Gatsby – by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Strangely enough, I did note in my head that yesterday was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday – I was just too busy to re-post my birthday tribute to him. Too busy, too, to finish my Quantum Leap post – but that’ll come!! I know now to not promise a timeline for these things. Ack!!

This post here chroicles my journey with The Great Gatsby, starting with when I first read it in 10th grade English – which is probably, when all is said and done, the greatest class I have ever taken. With a truly great teacher: Mr. Crothers (known, lovingly, by his students as “Crud” or “The Crud”. We called him that TO HIS FACE. “Crud – will there be a quiz on Friday?” I mean – what?? “The Crud says there’s gonna be a big paper at the end of the quarter ..” we’d mutter to each other. How did we get away with it? We meant it KINDLY, too. We loved him. He was a great great teacher. The best thing about that post above I linked to is if you scroll through the comments … look who shows up at the very bottom. !!!! My blog is a wonderful thing. People FIND themselves when they Google their own name … it has happened more times than I can count!)

Anyway, that post about “Revisiting Gatsby” has a lot of the pertinent memories of that class – and how I still remember some of The Crud’s lectures, on Gatsby certainly, but on other books – almost word for word. When I came to re-read Gatsby decades later … I STILL remembered some of his points and observations. Like: the names of the people at Gatsby’s party. We spent a whole class analysing all of Fitzgerald’s in-jokes, embodied in those names. The Crud was a great teacher. We were 15 year old students … but he introduced us to literature. I didn’t like all of it (cough Billy Budd cough) … but he gave me SO much in that class. He taught me how to write, too. I mean, I could always write – but he taught me how to write a paper. I can never thank him enough.

When I came back to Gatsby, I was surprised at what a slim little volume it was. It had seemed so HUGE in high school. But I read it in 3 days this last time.

As far as I’m concerned – the opening and closing paragraphs are pretty much as good as American literature gets. It is amazing to think of how young he was when he wrote such lines. The comparison with Michael Chabon is quite a propos, I think … an old soul, a keen mind, in a young man’s body.

Here’s a lyrical excerpt from the book – the book has a kind of magical space in my mind, and I’m not sure why. I haven’t analyzed it. I know it has its detractors, and I respect their position. But from my experience – you can’t explain why something is magic to you. It just is. To me, the book doesn’t have a flaw. And it works on me on multiple levels – there’s the story level – where you just get into the plot and the characters. And Gatsby is such a character. He could not exist in any other country. He is American. The American tragedy. How did Fitzgerald see it? But the book also works on an intense subconscious level – I would almost use the word “keening” – a word I don’t really understand – at least not deeply – The word “keen” in that sense comes from the old Irish – caínim – “lament” – or “I lament” -so when one “keens” with grief, or despair … it is like a swoon. It is not abrupt or jagged … it is a dive, a long slow dive. That’s how the book works on me.

Here’s the excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM The Great Gatsby – by F. Scott Fitzgerald

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

By seven o’clock the orchestra had arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.

Suddenly one of these gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her, and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray’s understudy from the Follies. The party has begun.

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7 Responses to The Books: “The Great Gatsby” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

  1. ted says:

    Lovely post. Funny, I was thinking of re-reading Gatsby and posting something on it myself just the other day…in my abundant spare time. It is utterly deep – like Mary Poppins’ bag – how does so much come out of that little book? I totally see your point about the flip side of the American dream – so you’ve gotten what you thought you wanted – what was that again? And how do you like it so far? I can image Fitzgerald himself must have had a taste of that – trying to live up to his own success, the tragedy of Zelda – a life of broken promises.

  2. red says:

    Ted – have you read this piece?

    It’s haunting. I do not know what it was that dogged F Scott Fitzgerald, I will not pretend to know the ultimate source of his despair … but it is palpable. And the whole Zelda thing is just unspeakably sad.

    This quote from Fitzgerald:

    Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering – this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutory daytime advice for every one. But at three o’clock in the morning … the cure doesn’t work – and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream – but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world.

    One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza – one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality.

    in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning

  3. Brendan O'Malley says:

    In my head, Crud’s face is the one on the billboard that haunts the poor mechanic (?) and Crud’s glasses too.

  4. Ted says:

    Oh my god – that piece is devastating. He should have been played by Montgomery Clift.

  5. red says:

    Ted – God, wouldn’t that have been something. When Montgomery Clift was able to tap into his own demons, there was nobody better.

  6. red says:

    Bren – Dr. Mecklenburg or something like that – that’s the dude with the glasses. I remember at Beth’s graduation party (from college) we were all getting tipsy at her house – and the Crud was there and he kept saying, ‘Please. At this point in your lives – call me Jim!” And we kept trying but we could not do it!! “So … Jim … NO! I can’t!” Better to just keep calling him Crud, apparently.

  7. tim says:

    Interesting comparison between Chabon and Fitzgerald. Chabon’s soul belongs in a bygone era.

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