April 17, 2012

Reading: The Great Gatsby


I have to catch you up on my C. S. Lewis reading (ah! Till We Have Faces was so good. How could I have doubted?), but first: I am re-reading The Great Gatsby. Goodness, it's been years, and I hardly remembered the story, but I remember so much of the imagery. Fitzgerald writes the most perfect sentences. Like the artist who gets to see the Great Masters in person, and never wants to paint again, but can't wait to get back to his studio, I simultaneously never want to write another word, and (oh! there I go again) can't help but try.

"For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened--then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."

"Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle but the efforts of nature toward restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face."

"Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering.  I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

"In this heat every gesture was an affront to the common store of life."
I've always wondered how familiar Fitzgerald was with Eliot, and specifically The Waste Land. I have scribbled in the margins all over my book the initials TWL, when a phrase struck me as particularly evocative of Eliot's masterpiece. This paragraph in particular:
For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.
Thinking of Daisy as the woman on the throne in "A Game of Chess" helps me understand her better.  Sure, Daisy floats and whispers and I picture her as a chiffon curtain floating in the breeze, but her madness and boredom is the same as Eliot's woman.  Likewise, it is surely not coincidence that the original cover also evokes James McNeill Whistler's painting Nocturne in Black and Gold (above), which in turn inspired Gershwin's masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue. (There's a thesis topic in there for someone brighter than I.) I guess we'll call it "the spirit of the age." They all used the same vocabulary to describe the same world, the same desperation.

By the by, my Aunt Dolly always tells a story about how one of our cousins was bored by this novel, and didn't see what all the fuss was about. "Chapter Four!" she proclaimed, going on to describe the incredible party Gatsby throws--and how Fitzgerald takes you there.  It's true, of course, but it's easy to dazzle, I think.  This read-through, it was the previous chapter, where Tom and Nick spend the afternoon in a hot little apartment with Tom's mistress and her sister and others (the third quote, above) that struck me this time.  As he tells the story of the dull drunken haze that descends upon the room, and the growing antagonism caused by forced merriment--you cannot forget the little room with over-sized furniture, and the throbbing city beyond, so that you, like Nick, are enchanted and repelled (and perhaps a little drunk on words, too.)

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