F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is regarded as one of the great 20th century American novels, ��ever fresh, ceaselessly magical”, in the words of Washington Post critic Michael Duida. It was published in 1925 at the height of the Jazz Age (a phrase coined by the author), the time between the end of the Great War and the start of the Depression, when the United States became a world power. The American Dream still seemed attainable, and for the rich, life was an endless party. Its hero “believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us”, the light that burns outside the house of the woman he loved and lost and is determined to win back.
A fascinating neighbour
Part romance and part thriller, the novel has a first person narrator, Nick Carraway, writer and Wall Street trader, so we see events through his eyes. He has rented a house on Long Island, near New York City, and finds that he has an intriguing neighbour:
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”
“Si la personalidad está constituida por una serie ininterrumpida de actos afortunados, en tal caso puede decirse que había algo brillante en torno a él, una exquisita sensibilidad para captar las promesas de la vida, como si estuviera vinculado a una de esas complicadas máquinas que registran los terremotos a mil millas de distancia”.
the good life
Across the bay lives a distant relative of Nick’s, Daisy, who is married to a rich boor, Tom Buchanan. It turns out that she and Gatsby had been in love years earlier when she was a Southern society girl and he a lieutenant in the army. The social gap between them was unbridgeable and they separated. In the years that follow Gatsby has made a fortune and now intends to reclaim her, using Nick as a go-between. He gives extravagant parties attended by the idle rich and certain associates of his who suggest that his wealth comes from dubious sources. Fitzgerald is a master of poetic description:
"There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”.
“De la casa de mi vecino brotaba la música durante las noches de aquel verano. En sus jardines azules, y entre los susurros, el champán y las estrellas, los hombres y muchachas iban y venían como mariposas”.
The Far Side of the Dollar
At the other end of the social scale are George Wilson, a garage owner, and his wife Myrtle, who is Buchanan’s mistress. They live in “the valley of ashes" on the outskirts of the city. One of the most extraordinary sequences is an afternoon spent drinking in a New York hotel, which ends with Buchanan breaking Myrtle’s nose when she has the audacity to mention Daisy’s name. Fitzgerald conveys the atmosphere, the boredom and the pointless banter with underlying violence with amazing economy; one of the women is “shrill, languid, handsome and horrible”, four adjectives in an inspired combination.
Not surprisingly, Gatsby has been filmed four times, the latest being Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version with Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan. The core of the book is the scene where Gatsby and Daisy meet again for the first time. The awkwardness of the encounter is only broken when he takes Daisy on a tour of his house and finds a curious way of displaying the wealth that will enable them to be together again, a scene superbly rendered in the film:
“He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many coloured disarray.”
“Sacó un montón de camisas y empezó a lanzarlas, una a una, ante nosotros; camisas de lino puro, de gruesa seda y de franela fina, cuyos pliegues se deshacían al caer y cubrir la mesa de un colorido desorden”.
The Party Ends
From there, the story moves inevitably to its climax, which has as much to do with the age it is set in as with the characters themselves. Fitzgerald went on to write other fine works: Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon, which was left unfinished. But his own life in the fast lane caught up with him. His wife, Zelda, his “golden girl”, was put into an institution, and drink became a lethal problem. On 21 December 1940, he died of a heart attack. World War II had begun and the party was over. The famous ending of the novel seems prophetic:
“It (the green light) eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning… So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
“[La luz verde] nos esquiva, pero no importa; mañana correremos más deprisa, abriremos los brazos, y... un buen día... Y así vamos adelante, botes que reman contra la corriente, incesantemente arrastrados hacia el pasado”.