I missed its 90th anniversary, on the 10th April, so consider this a belated something or other trying to make up for my rambunctious oversight.
Gatsby came at a very weird and vulnerable point in this silly biopic of mine. Think of it as a peachy somewhere between Much Ado About Nothing and Synecdoche, New York. Like a hike not in the Lake District, but more in the Yorkshire Moors. And it’s Winter. And you’ve forgot your wellies so your fifteen-quid trainers will have to do. Also you forgot to buy a sandwich and you now probably have a vague picture of this emotionally vague situation.
Except Gatsby was put forward to me in the form of a classroom introduction. You know the type. Slides on a whiteboard, small sparse passages, some ‘notes’ on its structure and the reductionism that manages to package an entire author’s work down to a few bullet points and expect you to parade quotes out in an exam in a little bid to get a grade or number next to your name. Sorry. My cold cynicism towards the English educational system is hard to get rid of.
I was thankful for having an English teacher who was jubilant and expressive and kept breaking the chapter-by-chapter and ‘analysis’ and ‘examination criteria’ that turns independent thinking into ‘independent thinking’. Sorry, I’ll stop throwing wordbombs at Michael Gove’s Department of Education regime to which I was reluctantly a part of.
Basically, my first approach to Gatsby was treating it as a ‘text’ to be studied, rather than something to actually be experienced. When reading it I was looking for quotes to express ‘language, form and structure’, pieces of words that would point towards the ‘context’. Stuff I could use. The hard stuff that a lot of us have to deal with, as arts student, is a lot of our study isn’t so much understanding the broad issues that face humanity, nor is it wrestling with any deep philosophical questions that underpin our very existence, but instead it’s about a simple fact of utility. In our post-Thatcher world we must learn to ‘argue’, and to ‘research’ and to ‘plan effectively’. There is little room to develop impassioned attachment to whatever we study, because it is all about utility. The studies of the arts have been annexed unto the ideology that you do not study for the sake of study, that you aren’t enlightened but rather ‘educated’ for a ‘good job’. That the thoughts and expressions within literature are a luxury to be hard, that they serve no purpose. I believe a good education makes you thoughtful with the world and makes you not just a contributor to society but a conscious and creative thinker that can inform and help develop the world in the most important place. Not the economy, but the human mind. It doesn’t just put quotes in your head but stirs the mental pot so to speak.
Sorry. Again. This whole ‘avoid the Michael Gove in the room’ routine is starting to pale. I read Gatsby, took notes on its chapters and then made the decision that it was pretty good. It had some nice language and some ‘themes and ideas’. It was linked to a rather fatalistic reading of the context it was within: that beneath the icy-gloss of the 1920s lifestyles there was an impending disaster ready to crack open the pillars of civilization. It was cynical romanticism and I understood it as just that. A genre piece. A nice ‘classical’ book and then, well, life became entwined with the poetry of Fitzgerald’s novel.
I will avoid specifics, but to this day I find it a peculiar circumstance that the fiction of my life so perfectly aligned with the facts found within a slim paperback holding the thoughts and feelings of a man so long dead. How it truly captured the human spirit of cautious nostalgia, and of the sparks of existentialism inside all of us. The tragicomedy that is our life. Gatsby wasn’t just about ashen valleys and wealth inequality, it wasn’t just about the class divides and the political disenchantment, it was about a lost generation trying to act that it wasn’t that case. Beneath it all, beneath all the rhetoric and argument and failed pleas to strike emotional iron into the past, there was a resounding sensation that underneath all our work and toil we are but these small things that sing and dance our short time before resetting to zero. Within this little time though, within our fraction of nothing, we are vessels for stories before us and beyond that are filled with profound and real joy.
That’s why I study history. It is the story of compassion, power, wealth, ignorance, death, deceit, violence, fanaticism, belief, attachment and, yes, love. It is the story of men who waited until their ambitions aligned with passion, as with Lyndon Johnson, and released a torrent of liberal emotion into legislation. It is the story of philosophers throwing pamphlets and attempting to change the institutions that had oppressed humanity for centuries. It is the moral arc of the universe, bending towards prosperity and happiness for all with and without advantage, and once in a while it is bent further and hurried along to its ever distant and illusory direction (like the green light really).
Gatsby’s fingertips reaching for the light at the edge of Daisy’s dock. The death of Myrtle Wilson. The simple fact that Michaelis, the definition of ‘background figure’, held the most power in the entire story over the course of its consequences. Life is a series of accidents, some of them happier than others. I don’t mean to get profound with all this inane stream of consciousness, but Gatsby‘s cynical romanticism is what slashed through my brain. It’s what makes me cry every time I finish the book. The ‘point’ of it all. I love reading about Gatsby’s return to the haunted pieces of his life, where Daisy was made “lovely to [him]”. I love reading Carraway’s takedowns of Tom Buchanan, and his final handshake with the man. I love how Gatsby’s life story is sparse throughout the book. Just like the text, just like ‘literary studies’, we strip away the ‘utility’, we strip away the class and the quotes and the structures, and what we are left with is one singular human trapped within a moment of time in which he throws his worth and his life into melding past and present all for the aim of simple human happiness.
Beneath all the pretentious rhetoric and pseudo-scientific writing, beneath all the contextual nonsense, beneath all the cynicism there is romanticism. My personal circumstances melded so scarily with this book, and my appreciation of it has grown with me. I don’t admire Gatsby’s journey as much as I have, but I understand it deeply. Gatsby really did bust me out of the jail of ‘education’. It finally put in me some kind of fire. Some kind of feeling that there is a point to it all, that there is a love in learning, that knowledge and ideas must be shared and experienced not through textbooks and exams but through genuine heart-to-heart nonsense. I’m a writer because of a lot of things. But Gatsby is the sort of trajectory I always attempt to aim for. A novel composed with genuinely moving sequences and fleshed out characters, with profound philosophical questions stabbing at the reader and, underneath it all, a simple story of human emotion that can touch people centuries after I’m long gone; provide people with some solace that they are not alone in their loneliness. That’s what we’re for really. Not the economy or even philosophy, just for the simple fact of having a nice time and furthering the development of humanity.
I think I kept that all as vague as possible. The Great Gatsby‘s impact upon me, and my ‘circumstances’ to which it attached itself to, in a symbiotic sense too, was something I finally translated into novel-form, Trimalchio which you can still read. It’s a little rough by my standards now.
I must end this with a quote from Gatsby. Probably ‘the’ quote, and its placement in the novel makes it ever more powerful. Before resigning I must say that I’ve been out of the literary game for a while. This blog of mine has been dead, thanks to the stresses of my Cambridge career and the other nonsense that is ‘my life’. I want to pledge then that I intend to come back. I intend to release ‘something substantial’, maybe more than one thing too. Gatsby‘s 90th birthday has reminded me of the timing of things. I must do better. I hope to share my thoughts and feelings with you in some form in around June-ish. I think you’ll like what I’ve been writing and experimenting with all this time. In the biopic of my life, this is me moving forward…
So we beat on, boat against the current. Borne back ceaselessly into the past.