A few months back, I'm working furiously on the new website for the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society, typing in endless news about their participation in the "Big Read," featuring The Great Gatsby. And then it happens.
After about the eightieth time I type "Gatsby" it occurs to me that I haven't read this classic myself since... yikes... high school? Seems like a damned good time to pick up my son's dog-eared copy and see if I could refresh my memory. I mean, what was all the fuss about?
Well, they say youth is wasted on the young. Let me amend that; so are the classics. Seriously. Who pays proper homage to the Brontes and Faulkner and Fitzgerald when you're a high school senior battling SATs and college admissions forms and carving out time for Friday night lights? I sure didn't take The Great Gatsby very seriously back then, though I liked the story well enough. Of course we all liked it a little more when our English class got to watch the Redford rendition (especially the girls). Twenty-some years later and to my utter shame, about all I remember of the story is that Jay Gatsby was hot.
I finally get around to opening the book late one night, figuring I'll knock off the first obligatory chapter, then maybe squeeze in a few here and there between an ever-hectic schedule.
I turn the first few pages ever so gingerly, as if the paper might crumble to dust in my hands, handling it like my treasured 1715 copy of Milton's Paradise Lost. I forget this is a 2007 reprint, one of so many reprints, not the coveted original.
I begin to read in earnest then, turning the pages with increasing speed, immersing myself back in that pre-depression era, that crystalline recording of the American Dream. Two hours later I look up at the clock and say, "Oh, crap."
It's that good.
Two days later I'm watching a favorite movie, Up Close and Personal and get a Gatsby jab in the ribs. Twenty years after Robert Redford's appearance in the film version of Gatsby, his appearance in this film as Warren Justice quotes a famed Gatsby line; "Her voice is full of money... that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it..."
I'm jazzed to know where the line came from before he explains it.
But beyond the cheap thrill of feeling well read, I'm reveling in the discovery of Gatsby's treasure trove of strong characters, solid storytelling, and enduring lines. A true classic is one that stands the test of time, and as I read it through again – this time for pure enjoyment and not homework – I can't help but think of Rod Stewart crooning, "You're ageless, timeless, lace and fineness; You're beauty and elegance."
I mean, Rod must have been singing about Daisy Buchanan. Pluck her out of 1924 from whence she came and the archetype still resonates. In fact, the Redford film version of The Great Gatsby released an entire fifty years after the book, in 1974 (the third film rendition after less successful attempts in 1926 and 1949).
And, over 25 years later, a fourth rendition was born, this one featuring Mia Sorvino in Daisy's famed role. At the rate of a Gatsby film every 25 or so years, my sound prediction is that there'll be another before the great book celebrates its 100th birthday.
At its core The Great Gatsby is a love story, the attempt of Jay Gatsby to "...recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy."
But it's so much more, and all of it relevant to today. After all, is the slice of life given us in Gatsby, "symbolic and manifest of all the pre-crash hubris and prosperity that engulfed America at the time" not unlike today's threshold of uncertain economic times? We drink champagne and resurrect cocktails and jazz as we seek to thwart off our own fears and desperation and find meaning where there may be none. Or as Nick puts it so eloquently, "I had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound."
Need more proof of Gatsby's 21st century relevance? How about Tom Buchanan's take on world affairs? "'Civilization's going to pieces... I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things.'"
Or take this classic line; "I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything...Sophisticated — God, I'm sophisticated!" Daisy Buchanan says... or is that Paris Hilton?
Or, as those on Wall Street can attest, "Can't repeat the past? ... Why of course you can!" — That's the great Jay Gatsby himself waxing prophetic.
Or, (and think of those financial company CEO's with the golden parachutes as you read on); "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have penned the words, but surely Bill O'Reilly or Anderson Cooper has said something similar in the past few months?
And that's the inherent joy of revisiting Gatsby, or picking it up for the first time – even if it's homework. You'll find, as I have, a voice that resonates with such power today, it's hard to believe it was written – dare I say it – nearly a century ago.
My own favorite line? Ah, that's easy: "‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.'"
And so I'll leave you with a strong recommendation to settle in with your own copy of The Great Gatsby, and a fond wish; that ole Fitz could be here with us in New Orleans this week (www.wordsandmusic.org) for the celebration of his work.
Then again, who says he's not?
Causes Shari Stauch Supports
LILA: Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts
Pirates Alley Faulkner Society