The Great Gatsby
Reading a really famous book for the first time is a strange experience.
It has taken me twenty-eight years to get to The Great Gatsby. This alarming fact stems from an early wariness of American classics (Henry James’ earnestness makes me want to laugh; Hemingway’s Ernestness makes me want to scream) which then calcified through the years in a bizarre self-defensive gesture of canonical defiance. And now that I’ve entered Fitzgerald’s gauzy, druggy, chiaroscuric world of beautiful people and ugly afternoons (via a fragrant Bill Amberg for Penguin leather edition) I have to poke aside a decade’s worth of cultural baggage (which yes, even stretches to special edition stamps) in my brain to see the words themselves.
It is more honest than I thought, and unhappier too; not one moment of loveliness is described without an undertone of weariness or artifice, self-doubt or destruction, even from the start. I realised from the opening sentence that my understanding that Gatsby and Daisy are the central characters was wrong, and that the whole novel resonates not with their childlike trampling but with the soft, feline tread of Nick Carraway, one of the great slippery narrators in literature.
Last year I finally got round to The Woman In White, The Scarlet Letter and Villette; this year, thanks to the wonderful essays in the anthology Of Books and Company, I am determined to hit up Walter Scott and Wodehouse for the (ridiculously) first time. Because the real joy of reading books you feel you already know – once you have broken through the sediment of adaptations and assumptions, prejudices and opinions that crust your mind – is that they always feel as if they have been newly written for you, box fresh, just then.
More than anything, I never fail to be amazed at how modern classics are; how experimental, how bold, how cruelly penetrative.
And at least I’ll now have some mental defences against Baz Luhrmann’s permanently in-production but doubtless gorgeous film version to come. He is surely just the man to capture my favourite moment, the pink suit; the pink suit that glows in the dusk as Jimmy Gatz becomes a ghost in his own life.