Magazine article The Spectator

Larva and Butterfly

Magazine article The Spectator

Larva and Butterfly

Article excerpt


by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by James L.W. West III CUP, L30, pp. 192


by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by James L.W. West III CUP, L35, pp. 398

The Great Gatsby remains a galling example of how an author's intentions can be subverted by the very values of the society which he sets out to satirise. Fitzgerald's story about a charismatic bootlegger's obsession with the wealthy girl who jilted him appeared just three years after The Waste Land, and is every bit as damning as Eliot's poem in its critique of the brash materialism of American society in the Roaring Twenties. Yet in successive film and television adaptations its pointed social criticism has routinely been reduced to schmaltz. To many readers (and to many more who haven't read the book) the frenetic world of Fitzgerald's novel has come to represent all the lost glamour of the Jazz Age. The American market, succumbing to the seductiveness of this romantic mythology, is regularly flooded by Gatsby products: in 1974 alone, to tie in with the release of the Redford movie, these ranged from Gatsby sportswear by McGregor to rerecordings of 1920s music, Teflon II Cookwear and Ballantine's Whisky - all inspired by a story which, in tracing the rapid rise and fall of a hero who constructs a fragile persona with the help of gimmicks just like these, stresses the vapidity of consumer culture. The publication of Timalchio, the original proof version of The Great Gatsby, is a welcome reminder that Fitzgerald's masterpiece bears revisiting once in a while.

Gatsby is a novel which achieved its greatness in the galley stage. It is impossible to imagine a book named Trimalchio (after the ostentatious parvenu party-giver in Petronius's Satyricon) catching on in quite the same way; dispiriting to be told, in James L. W. West's absorbing introduction, that other titles suggested by Fitzgerald, right up to the moment of publication, included `Gold-hatted Gatsby', `The High-- bouncing Lover' and `Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires'. (In the early stages of composition Daisy and Gatsby were called, flatfootedly, Ada and Dud). Fitzgerald was lucky in having an unusually shrewd editor in Maxwell Perkins at Scribners. It was Perkins who drew a line under his protege's last-minute crisis about the title, and ' whose suggested structural improvements to the galleys, all of which Fitzgerald followed up, have made the novel the exquisitely patterned piece of work we now know. As West points out, reading Trimalchio is rather like `listening to a well-known composition, but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage'. Essential similarities remain. Both books `explore the effects of money and social class on human behaviour and morality'; both are divided into nine chapters, and both are narrated by the selfdeprecating Nick Carraway. The eyes of T. J. Eckleburg brood over the Valley of Ashes in both novels; Jay Gatsby says `old sport' repeatedly in both; both feature his epic parties, with the famous guest list in Chapter Four that reads like a catalogue of Homeric ships, and we see him stretching out his arms towards the green light at the end of Daisy's dock in both. Trimalchio, though, is a wordier, less tidy, more randomly acerbic book. …

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