Saturday, November 9, 2013

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

John Irving spoke at my college graduation, in a speech he later rewrote for Esquire magazine; that is reproduced here. He used The Great Gatsby as a cautionary tale that amused me at the time, but truly I've never forgotten: "He ... threw his life away on a dream and on a woman not worth even the least of his time. He was murdered in his own swimming pool because he was mistaken for someone else." (Hope that wasn't a spoiler for anyone.)  I've read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby a couple of times since then (although I truthfully can't remember when I first read it -- high school, college?) and each time when I reach the point where Jimmy Gatz' plan for self-improvement is revealed (it can be found in Chapter 9 here) I get a little frisson of that young graduate and her fears and plans for her own future.

Was it the new(est) movie that brought me back to the novel again? I don't know, actually, but I'm so glad I went there. This book is truly a masterpiece. Synopsis: Nick Carraway, still casting about for his future a few years after the end of the Great War, takes a rental cottage on Long Island's West Egg from where he commutes to a job in the "bond business" in Manhattan. His closest neighbor is the mysterious and immensely wealthy Jay Gatsby, whose all-night parties and business relationships with famous gangsters (including the fictional character who fixed the 1919 World Series) are legendary.

Nick secures an invitation to a Gatsby party for himself and his second cousin Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is married to a Yale classmate of Nick's Tom, who is a bully and having a public affair with Mildred Wilson, fat and blowsy wife of a gas station owner. Later, Nick learns that before she married, Daisy had a love affair with Gatsby. And once she reconnects with Nick's neighbor, she and Gatsby become lovers again. In less than five hours (under 200 pages), it all goes horribly wrong.

What is so terrific about this book? Is it the amazing economy of Fitzgerald's writing? His word painting -- Gatsby's parties (although I really enjoyed the sweaty impromptu party that takes place early in the novel when Nick meets Tom's mistress and her white-trash circle), the enervated women, that hot summer drive into Manhattan, the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg? His truthful and honest characters, each one vivid and completely human in such small strokes? The way he captured the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties (while in the midst of it)?  I like how the book has this hurtling sense of oncoming doom, but never quite knowing why or where said doom is going to come from.

The late, legendary Frank Muller reads the novel. Muller and I never crossed paths before he stopped recording as a result of a motorcycle accident in 2001 (around the time I began steadily listening), and this is the first time I've heard him read. He's as extraordinary as his many fans claim (including The New Yorker last year), with his craggy world-weary voice giving life to a depressed Nick Carraway, along with the guarded and mercurial Gatsby. The reading ebbs and flows with a naturalness that makes you feel like he's simply sitting across the room and reading to you. He paces the novel so well, taking his time over the Fitzgerald's prolix (but metaphorically spot-on) descriptions and speeding up with the inevitable forward action, which may be the reason for that sense of doom that permeates the narrative.

It turns out that Muller narrates a lot of Stephen King, which nothing and no one can get me to read ... but my library appears to have a number of classics that he has read. I've always meant to get to Moby Dick, maybe Muller is my ticket.

I think I'll watch the new movie (now that I've read the book and can be all literary about what it includes and leaves out). I don't care about the 3D (those glasses give me a headache), so I think I'll go add my name to the hold list (497 and climbing). Get a load of the catalog description: "A would-be writer Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest and comes to New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby. It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits." Well, yeah ... that's what it's about, but that's not what it's about. Good grief!

[It's not the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock but it is a light, it's green and on a dock. This can be found at Torquay; the photograph was taken by Chris Downer for the Geograph Project (I've been using that image resource a lot lately) and it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Narrated by Frank Muller
Recorded Books, 1997.  4:39

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