IN­TER­EST IN THE NOVEL HAS SURGED IN POST-GFC AMER­ICA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - The Great Gatsby

be ‘‘ borne back cease­lessly into the past’’.

Luhrmann, too, finds a res­o­nance in this story of a man who chased so fu­tilely af­ter the mys­ti­cal ‘‘ green light’’. Speak­ing ear­lier this year with nov­el­ist and film his­to­rian Richard T. Kelly (the in­ter­view is pub­lished in Pan Macmil­lan’s new Bri­tish edi­tion of The Great Gatsby), he says ‘‘ Fitzger­ald . . . more or less pre­dicts the Wall Street crash of 1929. He said of the 20s that he was pretty sure ‘ liv­ing wasn’t the reck­less, care­less busi­ness th­ese peo­ple thought’. To me, that felt very rel­e­vant to what we’ve just gone through in the re­cent global fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008 and that was prob­a­bly my sin­gle mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor telling me I had to do Gatsby now.’’

Fitzger­ald, Luhrmann says, had wit­nessed how Pro­hi­bi­tion had made hyp­ocrites out of an en­tire so­ci­ety: ‘‘ It was par­tic­i­pat­ing in a col­lec­tive lie. And this lit­tle bit of moral elas­tic­ity fes­tered and ex­ploded, and on Wall Street there was a golden orgy of money be­ing made and an aw­ful lot of scams. Now in our own time we’ve seen a sim­i­lar sense of un­ease, a kind of moral blur­ri­ness about the way we’re mak­ing money ... the way the Amer­i­can dream was be­ing re­alised. And that’s why I thought you couldn’t get a bet­ter fic­tional re­flec­tion of the pe­riod we had just come through than what Fitzger­ald wrote in The Great Gatsby.’’

Per­haps the most pow­er­ful as­pect of Gatsby is its ex­plo­ration of so­cial mo­bil­ity and class. Fitzger­ald’s in­ter­est in this area is re­flected in one of the orig­i­nal ti­tles he was con­sid­er­ing, Among the Ash-Heaps and Mil­lion­aires (Charles Scrib­ner, a mem­ber of the pub­lish­ing fam­ily that pub­lished The Great Gatsby, quipped at a din­ner last year that it was a slo­gan that per­haps ‘‘ Oc­cupy Wall Street could adopt’’).

In­ter­est­ingly, Church­well says, Fitzger­ald was the first to make ref­er­ence to the 99 per cent, which pops up in a lit­tle known short story, The Swim­mers, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 1929, just five days be­fore the first stock­mar­ket crash. In it, a French woman, watch­ing a group of young Amer­i­can women at the beach, re­marks to her hus­band that their dreams of suc­cess are just that: dreams. ‘‘ That’s the story they are told; it hap­pens to one, not to the ninety-nine.’’ Church­well shiv­ers: ‘‘ It gave me goose­bumps when I read that — I went, wow, he’s done it again.’’

Peo­ple laughed at Fitzger­ald when he hinted at the fal­li­bil­ity of the great Amer­i­can money ma­chine but, as Church­well says, Fitzger­ald beat not just Oc­cupy Wall Street but Marx­ist crit­ics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to sug­gest the Amer­i­can dream was a rigged lot­tery and that its cap­i­tal­ist ty­coons — Amer­ica’s new aris­toc­racy — were noth­ing more than ‘‘ glo­ri­fied crooks’’.

‘‘ Be­hind ev­ery great for­tune is a great crime,’’ Honore de Balzac once said. The globe is lit­tered with the vic­tims of the burst bub­ble while Wall Street’s masters of the uni­verse by and large have es­caped un­scathed. The ac­tions of th­ese ‘‘ care­less peo­ple’’ have cre­ated such a yawn­ing di­vide that last year econ­o­mist Alan Krueger in­tro­duced the con­cept of the Great Gatsby Curve, which plots the re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­equal­ity and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional so­cial im­mo­bil­ity across the world. In the US, the top 1 per cent of in­come earn­ers make 25 per cent of all the coun­try’s wealth, mak­ing it one of the most unequal so­ci­eties.

Like an arche­o­log­i­cal dig, Gatsby’s rich­ness is re­vealed layer by layer. It’s an en­dur­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing hymn to a brash young New York, per­fectly cap­tur­ing its spiky en­ergy, the smoky speakeasies and jazz bars, the ca­sual in­ter­sec­tion of high so­ci­ety and gang­ster cul­ture. A lit­er­ary time cap­sule of sorts, it takes us back to 20s Amer­ica, a buoy­antly ex­cit­ing time. At the same time, says Don An­der­son, for many years a Univer­sity of Syd­ney aca­demic spe­cial­is­ing in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, ‘‘ one of the key things mod­ern read­ers un­der­stand is that it was re­ally a book about the fu­ture’’. There’s an un­de­ni­able ‘‘ shock of the fa­mil­iar’’ to the novel, agrees Aus­tralian author Melina Marchetta, who has writ­ten a fore­word to Text’s new Aus­tralian edi­tion. We recog­nise our­selves — for good and bad, ve­nal and heroic — in th­ese char­ac­ters. We all know Gatsby or some­one like him (Charles Scrib­ner said Gatsby came to life for him for the first time when he met Bill Clin­ton at a book party in 2003: ‘‘ Clin­ton made Gatsby real; or per­haps Gatsby pre­fig­ured Clin­ton?’’) We know Myr­tle Wil­son, the hun­gry, claw­ing fig­ure with her face pressed to the win­dow. We know Tom Buchanan — the em­bod­i­ment of Wall Street’s ar­ro­gant, born-to-rule alpha males — and we know his wife, Daisy, wil­fully delu­sional and self-ob­sessed. We know this so­ci­ety, with money con­jured from thin air, gleaned from frauds and swin­dles.

Marchetta sees, too, sim­i­lar­i­ties in the em­pha­sis on reinvention and im­age, on chas­ing pub­lic­ity and the con­struc­tion of fame as a com­mod­ity to be traded. HL Mencken wrote in 1922 that the thing that set the Amer­i­can man apart from oth­ers was ‘‘ so­cial as­pi­ra­tion’’. Now it’s a global trait, it seems. Marchetta says: ‘‘ I’m struck by how sim­i­lar the 1920s and 21st-cen­tury age of celebrity is. We only have to wit­ness the ob­ses­sion with the Kar­dashi­ans, which seems to be all about a cul­ture of con­sump­tion and celebrity and vac­u­ous­ness.’’ (In­deed, Carey Mul­li­gan, who plays Daisy in the film, re­cently com­pared her char­ac­ter to a Kar­dashian.)

Michael Hey­ward, head of Text Pub­lish­ing, says it speaks to us be­cause ‘‘ it’s our world, a world of dis­con­tent and de­sire, of want­ing all the wrong things in the for­lorn hope that they might lead you down the road of love and hap­pi­ness’’. De­spite its glit­ter­ing fa­cade, ‘‘ it’s one of the sad­dest books I’ve read’’, says pub­lisher Mered­ith Curnow of Ran­dom House Aus­tralia. ‘‘ The re­sponse to the black pop­u­la­tion, the di­vide be­tween the wealthy and the poor, those who got ev­ery­thing and those who didn’t . . .’’ Curnow is struck, too, by the par­al­lels be­tween the so­cial dy­nam­ics of Gatsby’s world and the cul­ture of so­cial me­dia. Peo­ple in Gatsby’s world watched and ad­mired and gos­siped about the rar­efied club of beau­ti­ful peo­ple at the cen­tre. In a way, this mim­ics the way so­cial me­dia works. Curnow says: ‘‘ We’re all on the edge, par­tic­i­pat­ing and watch­ing oth­ers with more glit­ter­ing lives.’’

It’s not just The Great Gatsby that’s at­tract­ing in­ter­est in the lead-up to the open­ing of Luhrmann’s film. Fitzger­ald him­self has be­come a source of re­newed in­ter­est, his life and work the fo­cus of scores of schol­arly ar­ti­cles and bi­ogra­phies. His tragic, volatile wife, Zelda, too, has be­come an ob­ject of much study. It’s lit­tle won­der. To­gether, the Fitz, as they were called, were a two-headed force of na­ture, the bright, pho­to­genic sym­bols of an emerg­ing celebrity cul­ture.

Amer­i­can writer Therese Anne Fowler, whose novel Z is on The New York Times top 20 best­sellers list, tells Re­view her aim was to res­cue Zelda, a crea­ture of glo­ri­ous self­in­ven­tion, from a fog of stub­bornly en­dur­ing mis­con­cep­tions about her role and iden­tity. She was no dazed, ditzy muse, Fowler says, but a strong, acutely in­tel­li­gent woman who was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary of her time.

Like other Gatsby lovers, Fowler speaks of the shock of fa­mil­iar­ity. ‘‘ We do see our­selves [and our so­ci­eties] in his long­ing, in his striv­ing, in his ob­sti­nate re­fusal to recog­nise the folly of his ac­tions. The pow­er­ful de­sire for wish ful­fil­ment is univer­sal.’’

Amer­ica, sim­i­larly, is a na­tion of in­nately op­ti­mistic risk-tak­ers, plagued by his­tor­i­cal am­ne­sia. This al­lows Amer­i­cans to dream big dreams, Church­well says, but it also con­demns them to a cy­cle of rep­e­ti­tion, and ‘‘ so once again we see Amer­ica div­ing into free fall, un­moored by any crit­i­cal or in­tel­lec­tual in­sight into its own myths’’.

Fitzger­ald knew the Amer­i­can dream was not real, that it was just a tan­ta­lis­ing chimera that (like Gatsby’s fu­tile chase of ‘‘ the green light’’) lured you ever for­ward to — what? ‘‘ But he also un­der­stood in­stinc­tively that we could not do with­out that hope of the Amer­i­can dream. Even now, af­ter the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Amer­i­cans still have faith in its pos­si­bil­ity. Ev­ery­one’s wor­ried, of course, but they just think it’s lost and they’ll get it back, not that it never ex­isted in the first place.’’

The novel’s sheer lyri­cism — the song of a lone nightingale, the colos­sal un­see­ing eyes of Dr Eck­le­burg, Gatsby’s slip­pery, can­dy­coloured silk shirts, the green light on the dock — can some­times blur our view of how sharply per­cep­tive a chron­i­cler of the Jazz Age Fitzger­ald re­ally was, Church­well be­lieves. On many lev­els, she ar­gues, Gatsby is a dif­fi­cult book to get, built as it is on a foamy bed of il­lu­sions and sug­ges­tions; Gatsby him­self is a chimera, a Cheshire cat smile.

This opaque­ness, she says bluntly, is partly why Luhrmann ‘‘ will be the fourth film­maker to take on Gatsby and fail’’ (cer­tainly none of the pre­vi­ous adap­ta­tions set the crit­i­cal world on fire). With his bril­liant vis­ual imag­i­na­tion, he’ll as­suredly de­liver a crowd-pleas­ing film but, in the end, Church­well says, Gatsby is a ‘‘ uniquely un­filmable book, and I say that know­ing that pro­fes­sors are al­ways run­ning around say­ing great nov­els shouldn’t be made into movies’’.

Gatsby is ‘‘ hos­tile to re­al­ity; it dwells in pos­si­bil­ity, to para­phrase Emily Dick­in­son’’. You try film­ing that, she says. Luhrmann, un­sur­pris­ingly, doesn’t buy this view. He’s con­fi­dent the creative lib­er­ties he has taken will bring Fitzger­ald’s tale to life (among other things his film fea­tures a hip-hop-heavy score by Jay-Z, and nar­ra­tor Nick Car­raway is trans­ported to a 20s sana­to­rium, where he tells us his story about Jay Gatsby). And as for the ti­tle role? Ev­ery­one car­ries their own Gatsby in their head, he con­cedes, but so what?

‘‘ I some­times liken Gatsby to an Amer­i­can Ham­let. He has to be at­trac­tive but he’s also in­cred­i­bly com­plex as a char­ac­ter and he goes from be­ing ro­man­tic to ob­ses­sive and maybe even men­tally un­sta­ble. And I think Leonardo tracks that jour­ney with such clar­ity and nu­ance,’’ Luhrmann says.

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