Not-So-Great Gatsby

By Murray, Douglas | The Spectator, May 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Not-So-Great Gatsby


Murray, Douglas, The Spectator


The cult around Fitzgerald's most overrated work feeds the illusions of upper-crust Americans

You do not need to have read the book or even seen a film adaptation to feel a thrill at the word 'Gatsby'. More than a novel, a film or a character, 'Gatsby' is an aspiration. The golden age of jazz, cocktails and evening dress, F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is one of those works which has been subsumed and overtaken by its own myth.

Such is The Great Gatsby 's enduring glamour that even the release of trailers for the latest film version (starring Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan) made news. You can see why. The film promises everything:

beautiful people, luxurious locations and great clothes. After Gatsby has received this terrific fresh kick we will doubtless be able to look forward to imitation cocktails, imitation fashions and even - though we must hope not - imitation parties.

But just as most people now seem to remember Brideshead Revisited not as a novel about religion and alcoholic disintegration, but one of idyllic summers and teddy bears, so Gatsby is remembered as something it is not. Rather than a description of futility and envy, it tends to be recalled for its aspiration and glamour. It is just as well for his posthumous renown that Fitzgerald's novel has attained this position. For, returning to the original, it is difficult to see how its reputation would hold if it was based on the actual work.

In any poll of great 20th-century novels, let alone great American novels, Fitzgerald's most famous work always comes at or very near the top. Not least among the reasons must be its brevity. A number of Fitzgerald's works are better, but they are also longer.

Gatsby 's briefness (around 150 pages) means people can get it early as well as easily. It remains a staple study-book for schoolchildren on both sides of the Atlantic.

And though it is not a bad book, it is not a masterpiece. Fitzgerald famously stripped down Gatsby 's text to its bare bones, paring away the stylistic clogging of This Side of Paradise and other early work. But the popularity of the novel, and the acclaim it receives, remain slightly mystifying.

Of course there is good writing. But there are also terrible, clunking passages ('There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby's enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple'). …

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