The Fitzgerald Revival

Monday, July 2, 2012 3:59 AM

[Taki’s Magazine]

I like best what he leaves out of The Great Gatsby. A unique book.

--Gore Vidal, 1974 Paris Review interview.

A recent Financial Times arts podcast indicates that we are headed for another outburst of Great Gatsby mania. A new movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic will be released in December 2012, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. Here's the trailer. It is a dreadful disconnect from the spirit and mood of the book. I sometimes wonder if movie-makers bother to read the books they make into films. 

Disconnection has been the norm. Previous cinematic efforts have used The Great Gatsby as a point of departure, not as a work of art to be recreated. I'm referring to the strange 1949 production with Alan Ladd and to the very popular 1974 misinterpretation of the book starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Then there is the 2000 version with Mira Sorvino and Toby Stephens. The latter may be the least objectionable. Judging from the DiCaprio trailer, the upcoming installment promises to be the worst, a disaster.     


The FT podcast is an intellectual gabfest. I highly recommend it. The four intense interlocutors regard Gatsby as a multifaceted metaphor for Fitzgerald's time and our own. Gatsby mania, indeed. And I just love the British accents. Moderator Jan Dalley points out, "There is certainly a lot of Gatsby about right now." 

The eight-hour, word-for-word theatrical rendition of the novel called "Gatz" has just opened in London, after being a hit in New York. In addition, a "speak-easy style adaptation" in London's Wilton's music hall is up and running. There is yet another musical version set for a London premiere in August. The short explanation: the copyright protection for Fitzgerald's masterpiece has lapsed.

These byproducts of the book are interesting, but the ultimate experience is a return to the printed page. In addition, there is the unexpurgated audiobook, read by the late Alexander Scourby. He makes the Nick Carraway narration come to life. I have Scourby's readings of Hemingway's short stories, and they are almost as good, especially the gut-wrenching "The Snows of Kilimanjaro".

Critics and scholars have written a great deal about The Great Gatsby. Let me make just a few comments from my perspective as a casual observer and fan. Bear in mind that Fitzgerald was a meticulous, precise writer who took his work seriously. He revised constantly, right into the final galleys. The central problem of the book is Jay Gatsby. Who is he? Where does he come from? In broad terms, a major theme is new versus old money, to wit, Gatsby versus Buchanan. 

Fitzgerald likens Daisy Buchanan to "the king's daughter, high in a white palace, the golden girl." She could not marry Gatsby when they met and fell in love in Louisville, Kentucky. Gatsby, an army officer off to war, had no prospects and no fortune then. Daisy breaks it off when he is fighting on the western front in France. On the rebound, she marries Tom Buchanan, a strapping young man from a wealthy Chicago family. He is a football star at Yale. The day before the wedding, Tom gives Daisy a string of pearls, "...valued at three hundred and fifty-thousand dollars." We are talking 1919 dollars. 

The book begins four or five years later, when Tom has "...come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away...he'd brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest."  The narrator Nick Carraway comments, "It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that." Nick is starting out in the bond business and commutes from the north shore of Long Island to lower Manhattan each day. 

Fitzgerald never elucidates the source of Tom's family's fantastic wealth. It’s old money. Tom and Daisy have rented an enormous, waterfront mansion with stables and vast grounds. Nick is renting a bungalow in a nearby village. The bungalow is next to a Hôtel-de-Ville styled mansion with forty acres of lawns and gardens. This is where the upstart Jay Gatsby lives.

It is a coincidence that Nick went to Yale, in the same class as Tom Buchanan, and that Daisy Buchanan is Nick's second cousin, "once removed". It is no coincidence that Gatsby's waterfront palace in West Egg sits right across the inlet from the Buchanan estate in the more tony East Egg. At the end of Tom's dock, there is a green light, which shines all night. Gatsby watches that light from his front portico. He is fixated upon it.

Gatsby has returned, now flush with cash. He is intent, against all odds and reason, to take up where he left off with Daisy. He is living in a dream world. Such is the plot. Gatsby confides to Nick further along in the story, "I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before, she'll see." Nick cautions him, "You can't repeat the past." Gatsby responds confidently, "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" We are going to find out. 

Considerable space is taken up with the party people speculating about Gatsby's background. He's a mystery man. He does not even make an appearance until chapter III. This is when Nick attends a party next door. Gatsby gives casual, open-house parties every weekend. They are well-attended. The party-goers don't know Gatsby or anything about him. He does not drink, or very little. The talk is, Gatsby was a German spy, a nephew or cousin of the Kaiser, the illegitimate son of Von Hindenburg, a bootlegger and killer, among other things.

And then another coincidence. This is a novel, after all. An anonymous gentleman sitting at a table with Nick asks, "Weren't you in the Third Division during the war?" The gentleman is Gatsby. It turns out that Nick and Gatsby fought in France together, but never met. They finally do, after Gatsby identifies himself. Nick did not know with whom he was talking. The next moment, "...a butler hurried toward him with the information that Chicago was calling him on the wire."

What is going on here? In the course of the next month, Nick reports that he has talked with Gatsby, "...perhaps half a dozen times...and found, to my disappointment, that he had little to say. So my first impression, that he was a person of some undefined consequence, had gradually faded and he had become simply the proprietor of an elaborate road-house next door." 

Then at a luncheon in midtown Manhattan, we meet Meyer Wolfsheim, a friend of Gatsby, a purported gambler whom Gatsby claims fixed the 1919 World Series. Wolfsheim is a businessman, the proprietor of an outfit called "The Swastika Holding Company". Much later, after Gatsby is shot and killed, Nick pays Wolfsheim a visit at his office in the vain attempt to get him to attend the funeral. Nick asks, "Did you start him in business?" Wolfsheim responds, "Start him! I made him...I raised him out of nothing, right out of the gutter."

Gatsby is a frontman for Wolfsheim. We never learn the details of their relationship. Fitzgerald keeps it vague. There are hints and clues. When Tom Buchanan begins to suspect that Gatsby and Daisy are having an affair, Tom asks Nick, "Who is this Gatsby fellow anyhow? Some big bootlegger?" Tom decides to investigate. In the FT podcast, Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature in England, calls Gatsby a bootlegger, a precursor to our present-day drug dealers. In the 1949 film adaptation, Alan Ladd is seen firing a machine gun at a rival gang of bootleggers. 

Boozing is a big part of the story, granted, but honestly I do not see bootlegging in the book. Tom Buchanan does his preliminary investigation of Gatsby and confronts Gatsby (along with Daisy, Nick and Jordan Baker) with the results. They have driven into town for no particular reason and take a suite at the Plaza to drink and talk things over. Tom now refers to Gatsby as "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" and then, "a common swindler". He tells Gatsby, "I've made a little investigation into your affairs--and I'll carry it further tomorrow." This is the showdown.

What has Tom found out so far? Three things. 

(1) Wolfsheim and Gatsby bought up "a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That's one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn't far wrong." But selling alcohol at a drug-store with a Dr.'s prescription was legal during Prohibition. 

(2) Bookmaking and/or the numbers game, the latter now legalized and called The Lottery in America. Presumably operated out of the drug-stores. Shady but not damning. 

(3) The serious stuff. "That drug-store business was just small've got something on now that Walter is afraid to tell me about." Walter Chase is a friend of Tom. Walter is down on his luck.

After Gatsby has been murdered, we learn what the last item is, the serious stuff. Nick picks up the phone inside Gatsby's deserted mansion. A call from Chicago. The man's voice at the other end sounds, "...very thin and far away." Something about bonds. "Hell of a note, isn't it? Get my wire?" Nick responds, "There haven't been any wires." Response: "Young Parke is in trouble. They picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter. They got a circular from New York giving 'em the numbers just five minutes before. What d'you know about that, hey? You never can tell in these hick towns...." 

From this, one must assume that Gatsby was involved in securities fraud and forgery. Whatever it was, it outranked the drug-store rackets, which were just "small change". Fitzgerald keeps us guessing. Parts of the puzzle are missing.

Take a look at Chapter V where there is an aborted, cryptic conversation between Nick and Gatsby about bonds. Gatsby asks, " don't make much money, do you?.... You're selling bonds, aren't you, old sport? I carry on a little business on the side.... It happens to be a rather confidential sort of thing." Gatsby is trying to pull Nick into the game and reward him for his help in inviting Daisy over for tea.  

It hardly matters if any of this makes sense. What matters is the quality of Fitzgerald's matchless prose. There has never been anything like it. Remember what Hemingway said about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, "If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby, I was sure he could write an even better one." Perhaps Tender is the Night fits that bill. Again, stick with the book. Forget the movie. 

--Copyright 2012 Patrick Foy--

Update: Film Review: ‘The Great Gatsby’, Variety, May 5th, 2013

Update: ‘As Big as the Ritz’, The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, 9/22/2014