I have not seen the latest version on the big screen – waiting for Netflix to release the DVD – and don’t remember any of the previous versions (1926, 1949, 1974, 2000, and 2002, per Wikipedia). As with most classics, I read it long ago, in Portuguese, because my grandfather said it was a masterpiece. The minds of thirteen year olds, though, are usually not ready to appreciate masterpieces.
It did make Grandpa happy that I picked that volume from his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. We probably talked about it after dinner one night, in his office, until after ten o’clock. I don’t recall details of his comments or what I said in our conversation – we had many of those to the day he passed in November of 1989. What I do remember is that the story and the location confused me so my memories from it were a blur; like one of those Monet paintings we see in a museum, with the addition of a sweating glass pane between our eyes and the picture on the wall.
The protagonist is a man in his twenties. DiCaprio, now that his boyish face seems to be finally fading away, is at least one decade older (38). But then again, who in Hollywood, in his twenties, is experienced and talented enough an actor to play such multi-faceted personality as Jay Gatsby without making the character feel silly? Or frivolous and shallow? Or worse, caricaturish? For example, Gatsby refers to all men in his social circle as old sport, a habit that irritates Tom Buchanan, his rival, as much as the Gatsby’s taste in clothing.
So DiCaprio it is and Tobey Maguire (my favorite Spiderman) was picked to play Nick Carraway in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, released last May.
Nick is the novel’s heart, soul, and narrator. His opening paragraph – “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.(…) ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”– will make perfect sense as the reader finishes the last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, now almost a century old.
We would have never met Gatsby, the great, were it not for Carraway’s willingness – Fitzgerald’s voice and eyes – to tell us how they found one another, in the summer of 1922, in West Egg, a fictional area of Long Island, fresh from the war. How Jay, years before, fell in love with Carraway’s cousin Daisy (dark haired in the book; a blonde in the movie) who loved him too but went on to marry physically and financially impressive Tom Buchanan (Australian actor Joel Edgerton) nevertheless. “One of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven”, recalls Nick and then proceeds to describe Daisy’s husband: “Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body – he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body.”
Daisy and Tom are spending the summer in East Egg (more fashionable than West Egg), across from the Gatsby estate, while Nick commutes every day to New York, where he got a job in the “bond business”. From their reunion spurs the trauma that moves The Great Gatsby’s plot.
I reread the classic aware of how our perception and taste in literature changed. Not necessarily evolved. The Great Gatsby is not an action-packed story, like the ones by Dan Brown. People get killed, however, death itself is not desiccated as in the new forensic science and serial murder shows. There is an enormous amount of conflict and tragedy, futile and vain, but it is dealt with quietly, among people who almost perfected the art of self-control and civility. Even the bulky and belligerent Tom surprises by how tolerant he is of the encounters between Daisy and Jay for a while, perhaps as a quid pro quo for his most recent affair, with Myrtle, the unhappy wife of a local car shop’s owner.
It’s not a long book. I read the nine chapters on my Kindle in three or four train commutes, trying to decide whether or not I liked Jay Gatsby’s gang: Daisy Buchanan – the love of his life – her husband Tom, and Jordan Baker, the young golf player who is a consummate liar, eternally tan (a blonde in the book, dark-haired in the movie) from the many golf courses in her life, moving from house to house, guest to this and that celebrity, sponsored by this or that socialite. Nick is half in love with her, half angry at her: “The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something… Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because… She was incurably dishonest.”
If the story begins with Nick Carraway slightly amused by the wealthy crowd around him (Nick himself is not poor – far from that – the son of a hardworking and traditional Minnesota family, well succeeded in the hardware business) and, above all, by the parties taking place in his neighbor’s mansion, at the end of The Great Gatsby Carraway is fed up with them and relieved to leave it all behind.
Having not seen the movie yet, I can only imagine how the screenplay will treat Jay’s unconventional wardrobe and in particular the iridescent pink suit he wears on the critical evening of the story. A curiosity, which I found by chance, watching the Asian channel on cable: Amitabh Bachchan, a celebrated Hindi actor, veteran of many acclaimed Bollywood productions, plays the part of Meyer Wolfshein, a business associate and friend of Gatsby’s – the man who fixed the 1919 World Series (remarks Jay to Nick, as if reporting a major professional accomplishment).
Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, from his modest rental home, where the lawn is always too high and full of bald spots, we are introduced to Jay Gatsby’s world bit by bit. From a distance Nick watches the procession of cars every night, the orchestra, the laughter and beauty of the guests, the abundance of food, the perfection of his neighbor’s lawn cared for in a meticulous way. Nick is curious but not jealous. He is genuinely surprised by Gatsby’s invitation to come to one of those lavish parties.
As soon as a glass or two of champagne make Nick feel less awkward among so many faces he doesn’t know, his mission is to find Gatsby, his unknown host, to thank him for the invitation. Up to that point, I was enjoying Fitzgerald’s writing immensely already. But it was how Nick Carraway finally meets Jay Gatsby that first night in his huge house, always bathed in light and music that gave me the hint I was reading something impeccable and unforgettable.
It is again through Nick Carraway’s eyes that we see Gatsby standing atop of a majestic stairway, smiling at the crowds enjoying themselves on his lawn, cherishing the prodigality of his own parties, scrutinizing this and that group. He is powerful, mysterious, and generous as a host. Carraway becomes fond of him.
In Nick’s words to Jay, “You’re worth the whole bunch put together.” As the story approaches its end Nick’s admiration for Jay grows as much as his repulsion toward the Buchanan couple: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The Buchanans have a daughter – Pamela. The poor thing is about two years old and her only vague and quick appearance in the story, by the hand of a nanny, I figured, is further evidence of her parents’ egotism and self-absorption.
As for Jay’s opulent life style, it didn’t impress me in Portuguese or English. A parade of back to back parties sounded like torture to me even as a teenager. I missed the point that such parties had a reason to happen. Often removed from the crowd of guests (most of them self-invited), from his superior point of view on the stairs, Jay hoped to find Daisy, night in and out. He sees the light of the Buchanan home every evening, across the bay, in East Egg, and the proximity intoxicates him. Little did he know, as Nick sadly concludes, “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
My confusion, as I read The Great Gatsby before I was fourteen, before my first trip to a foreign country (Argentina), I know now, arose from Fitzgerald’s insights into WW I and the Postwar American society – it was all too alien for me – and, too, from how unexpectedly and unconventionally his characters behave. Even the most primitive of them, Wilson, the car shop owner, is capable of lines and reactions so original that The Great Gatsby is a collection of peculiar dialogues and unusual interactions. That’s what makes the magic of this classic shine anew whenever a novice reader opens its cover; every time a movie director decides he too has to try his own interpretation of Fitzgerald’s unparalleled hero. Heroes. Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway cannot be separated. One would not exist without the other.
I’m in love with the author’s talent and will read more Fitzgerald soon. Published in April 1925, The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and sold poorly. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing himself a failure and his work forgotten. But Grandpa knew things. The Great Gatsby is an American masterpiece; it will never get old.