I was plunged, involuntarily, into GATSBY, before I could read (read in a real way – I could technically read long before I met the book, of course, but I was barely reading at all, I now realise) and before I learned to discern what styles I admired or how one differed from another. The choice was not mine but my teachers. I was just gone eighteen, I believe, when Terry Dunne put this slim but mighty book before us. It was the story, the actual narrative, that grabbed me. This seems an important detail to me now, in light of a contemporary taste for deriding plot and dismissing it as something just a little bit twee. But that’s the kind of attitude that has frightened readers away from the great books.
It was the plot though, the love story, and what the book had to say about the illusion of love, that spoke most profoundly to me at eighteen. Nothing more than that. I would come to love Fitzgerald’s writing and to see him as the greatest of all the great stylists in my narrow library. His sentences do things that I don’t see in any other writer. They speak to me in a way that other writers’ sentences just don’t. It’s entirely subjective, of course. I recognise this. I’m not saying Fitzgerald is the best (I’m not well read enough to make any such claim with any degree of credibility). I’m just saying he’s my best.
I think, too, that it’s important to say that for at least half of my relationship with Fitzgerald I knew nothing more about him; knew nothing of his other writings or what anybody else had to say about him. In that sense, our relationship is a very old fashioned one – notoriety and reputation and PR have nothing to do with what goes on between me and Scott Fitzgerald.
It was love at first sight, and love in a vacuum; just us, eying each other up and learning to love each other while alone in a room. Philip Roth would be fucking delighted! There were no critics or reviewers or literary theorists – just me and the book.
Of course, in time I have come to read more of Scott Fitzgerald – This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, the unusual and peculiarly cobbled together Tender is the Night – and have learned about his life and his place in the literary world. I’m a true-blue literary convert now. I’m indoctrinated and obsessed and in awe and can consider myself, at this stage, the worst of kind of advocate for anything - the fan with a typewriter (how dated even this sounds!).
So I knew nothing of Fitzgerald’s troubled private life when I fell in love with him. This was no X-Factor relationship. It’s pure, in a way that barely any other literary relationship has ever been or can be. Like first love, we only get one shot at our first literary crush.
I’m trained now, as a reader, to one degree or another, of course. I can never read books again the way I read GATSBY. This is what makes it both a sentimental giant of my world and a wonder; a wonder because it is one of those elements of my youth that haven’t diminished under the cold eye of time and maturity. In fact, it trawls even deeper waters now, the older I get. Most of what we love and admire in our youth goes on to disappoint us – GATSBY has managed to dodge this bullet. I suspect this is because it possesses just the right amount of cynicism to survive adult reality and just enough idealism to keep us dreaming; the golden ratio. A great book.
- What’s a great book?
- GATSBY is.
That’s what I tell myself when I begin writing another one of my own. That’s what I tell my students. I think that GATSBY might well be the reason that all my books fall apart after 50,000 words. My literary upbringing has me attuned to the fifty-thousand-word novel. After that I’m over-reaching, I’m waffling. In fact, some of them see fifty thousand on the horizon and fall apart a few thousand short, so overwhelmed are they by the pressure to produce profundity in concision.
I’ve stayed away from writing about this book for so long because – simply put - I didn’t know where to start. Didn’t know what to leave out and where to begin. Then I thought, I’m just going to write everything I know about it. I’m going to keep writing about it until the words stop coming. Something I can’t do when writing a novel but feel free to do when writing an essay. When the words stop coming, I’ll know I’m finished.
So that’s where we are now - the beginning of that. And here comes GATSBY, the review, by a fan with a typewriter – and, worse still, a fucking website!
To be continued…