“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. . . . When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.”
If in 1925 I didn’t gasp at that, there would have been something seriously wrong with me. Those words, and the few hundred others that follow as the novel reaches its end, seem to me now — eight decades after that imagined first reading — the most beautiful, compelling and true in all of American literature. Each reading of them is a revelation and a gift. If from all of our country’s books I could have only one, “The Great Gatsby” would be it.
With caveats. One of them is that I’m not American, so I wouldn’t be picking the best of “all our country’s books”; ours have yet to be written (and the current attempts are, when set beside Gatsby, stodgy, overwritten, or overstuffed — but let’s not go there.)
The other is that I’d go further. When I was teaching literature, which I have done now off and on for about half my life, heaven forfend, I took pleasure in identifying (with some hubris) what I considered to be “perfect” pieces of work. The “perfect poem”, to my mind, was Keats’ “To Autumn“. And the “perfect novel” was The Great Gatsby.
What did I mean by perfect, you ask? In the case of the poem, I wanted students to find an example in which everything, every major tool at the poet’s disposal, came together to illustrate the meaning of the piece. Keats’ poem is an ode, which was the closest thing his generation had to free verse — it meant you could make the form up to suit your needs, and (more importantly) to suit the needs of the subject. So Keats’ ode has three stanzas, just as autumn in Britain has three months (he is not writing about fall, which is a far more violent and dramatic thing, and which, depending on where one finds oneself, can last from between six weeks in kinder climates to six days in certain Canadian cities). His first stanza is summery and lazy and o’erbrimmed and clammy; the second recounts the last of summer’s bounty and the opiate sense that comes after fullness; the third is thin and cold, like the end of autumn. There’s a sense of youth, middle age and old age in the three as well, and the poem (as all great ones seem to do) makes a pronouncement not only on autumn but on life and death as well. And the images, and the sounds, and the rhythms, and the grammar, and the movement all feed into the subject. The entire poem serves its content, and the content fills out the form.
Gatsby exemplifies for novels, as “Autumn” does for poetry, what the essence of the novel is: in this case a conjunction of a clutch of generally appealing characters — appealing, but not all terribly likeable, and very few of them very deep — and a few real people: Gatsby the outlaw, the passionate, the wealthy and the scorned, and George Wilson, his mirror image, passionate and poor and scorned.
There’s social commentary, a plot (who knew?), and some of the most beautiful language available in prose. In 50,000 words, one can learn more about the United States of America — information which, though written in the Jazz age, still resonates — than in a hundred websites or encyclopediae.
Here’s my favourite passage, or one of them at least:
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
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.