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I picked this up rather expecting something along the lines of Saki or P.G. Wodehouse. From a purely stylistic point of view I wasn't far wrong - Fitzgerald definitely displays the same facility with language, choosing words which are surprising in their context, but at the same time highly evocative of the atmosphere he is trying to create. (There's a collection of quotations from the novel on Wikiquote which should give some idea of this).

The content, though, is much more gritty and sombre. Yes, there are parties at lavish villas on Long Island - but there are also frustrated hopes, social divisions, emotional betrayals, callous manipulations, badly misplaced priorities and two entirely avoidable deaths. On the whole, the New York of the 1920s is portrayed as rotten and superficial, and the novel ends with the first-person narrator (Nick Carraway) choosing to return to what he considers to be his more wholesome origins in the mid-west.

I also decided to read it now because I had heard that it related to Petronius' Satyricon, and wanted to see how. In all honesty, it's not a terribly profound resonance. Jay Gatsby resembles Trimalchio in that they have both made a lot of money after coming from a humble background and like to give lavish parties, but Gatsby is far less brash and vulgar than Trimalchio, and far more concerned to draw a veil over his true origins. Indeed, he comes across as a reserved an enigmatic figure, whom we get to know only very gradually. For the first few chapters, our narrator encounters him solely via distant glimpses and reports, and utterly fails to recognise him when they do actually meet. We also hear several exaggerated, sensational and completely inaccurate accounts of his past before we get anywhere near anything which might plausibly be true - and even then there is still room for doubt. Gatsby is very much at the centre of the events of the novel, but it remains always a rather thin and insubstantial centre - presumably in keeping with the superficial atmosphere which Fitzgerald wished to create.

I did spot one other Classical reference which I hadn't been expecting, though. At the beginning of chapter 4, our narrator presents a list of everyone who visited Gatsby's house in the summer when the novel is set. It's too long to include here in toto, but a typical paragraph runs like this:
"From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the state senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another. And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly—they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day."
A list is a list when all's said and done, but the incidental details about the people being ennumerated reminded me rather of the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad (lines 2.494-759, starting here). And I think the closing phrases in each case seal the deal:
"Such were the chiefs and princes of the Danaans." (Iliad 2.750, tr. Samuel Butler 1898)
"All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer." (The Great Gatsby (1925) ch. 4).
Not identical, obviously, and anyway I don't know whether Fitzgerald would have encountered Homer directly in the Greek, or what translation he might have used if not. But the device of recapping what the list has just been about is the same in both cases. The immediate effect appears to be a sort of parody, emphasising the insignificance of what is going on at Gatsby's parties by comparison with the epic warfare of the Iliad. But evoking the theme of the Trojan Wars perhaps also has a wider resonance for the rest of the novel, since it raises the possibility of casting Gatsby's devotion to another man's wife (Daisy) and the disastrous consequences which it ultimately has for him in the light of Paris' devotion to Helen. All in all rather more meaningful than the Trimalchio reference, I think - but knowing about it is still not an essential prerequisite for enjoying the novel. It merely adds an extra hint of spice to what is anyway a great read.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 5th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
Fantastic choice - have you read Tender is the Night or The Beautiful And Damned? I reckon you would enjoy them. Fitgerald had a real knack for pulling the lid off the allegedly glamourous twenties and seeing everything crawling around underneath.
Aug. 5th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
No, this is the first of his novels I've read. He seems to have been pretty good at living the glamorous lifestyle himself during the '20s.
Aug. 6th, 2009 11:52 am (UTC)
Indeed, I suspect thats where a lot of the seeming disgust comes from. However, I would love to go back and live in that period for a while, just to see firsthand the glamour and decadance. Not to mention that it was a fascinating period for art and politics!
Aug. 5th, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
Did you think gritty? I loved the book but it's not an obvious choice of word to my mind.

I was recommended it when I asked people on LJ for melancholy books. I think it is now my concrete image for the word melancholy, the body of an otherwise successful young man floating in the pool as the leaves fall from the autumn trees.

The beautiful and damned is near the top of my reading list right now (but last time I tried I was exhausted from travel and settled for crap sci fi as more what I needed).
Aug. 6th, 2009 09:43 am (UTC)
I guess I just meant gritty by comparison with Wodehouse and Saki - so the bar wasn't particularly high! But quite a lot of the stuff which concerns Myrtle and George Wilson does seem generally pretty gritty, anyway.
Aug. 6th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC)
I guess I just meant gritty by comparison with Wodehouse and Saki

Laugh -- that has seriously recalibrated my gritty-ometer.
Aug. 6th, 2009 11:51 am (UTC)
The Beautiful and Damned is utterly excellent - This Side of Paradise is very worth reading too.

Sorry, you don't know me, its just its always good to find fellow Fitzgerald affecionados!
Aug. 6th, 2009 08:52 am (UTC)
I love The Great Gatsby. We studied it for A-Level and I couldn't have been happier (actually, I still have my A-Level copy with all the notes. A glimpse into earnest 17 year old me there!). And yes, do read more Fitzgerald now (it's generally quite easy to get second hand copies of his stuff); he's a splendid writer.
Aug. 6th, 2009 09:46 am (UTC)
Yup, I can see that would have been a great text to discover at A-level. And I actually got a brand new edition of The Great Gatsby for only £2.50, I presume because it is out of copyright now - so it shouldn't be too expensive a hobby to work through his other novels!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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