Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Great American Novel?

When was the last time I read a novel of Gatsby's quality? Answer, a shockingly long time ago.

This year's best has been Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas. Last year's was The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, but neither are in the same league. The last genuine classic I had in my hands was Turgenev's Spring Torrents back in 2003.

Scanning down my list to the turn of the century I find I have highlighted Sandor Marai's Embers and his compatriot Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, and one more genuine masterpiece, Nabokov's Lolita. (also worth considering as The Great American Novel?)

While not quite being a candidate for canon-isation, Alberto Fuguet's Mala Onda made a big impression in 2002.

I picked up Gatsby because one of Haruki Murakami's characters in Norwegian Wood plugs it as a near perfect novel. I can see why this novel appeals so much to Murakami.
  • It's a tissue of mysteries and suggestion. Secondary stories are either told or hinted at using layers of narrative and symbol.
  • Nick Carraway is just the sort of ambivent, elusive narrator that Murakami himself favours: one that delivers a dispassionate commentary that avoids telling us what we most want to know at the crucial times.
Fitzgerald is however much better than Murakami at introducing his characters. The first four that manifest themselves in The Great Gatsby (narrator included) are revealed using subtly different techniques.

When Nick announces to a caller that "Mr Gatsby's dead" the notes in my edition point to parallels with Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Gatsby's debt to Conrad's doomed outsiders is even more extensive I feel. His partly accidental demise is similar to that of Nostromo and his basic flaws match those of Captain Lingard from The Rescue and Axel Hyest from Victory. (Possibly my favourite novel.)

When Gatsby was first published H L Mencken described it as "a glorified anecdote". This undoubtedly seems unfair to our generation given its symbolic intricacy (and sales are steady at 300,000 per annum), but to some extent the poetry of this book and the substance of its main character are indeed, for my tastes just a little bit over-rich for the actual plot. (Though perhaps some readers get more of a kick out of the techniques of careful omission.)

Anyway there's still a degree of flimsiness apparent underneath all the superlative literary style and structure. (Very much like Conrad's The Rescue in fact.) In the end you are being asked to believe that a man would devote all his energies (bending not a few rules along the way) to becoming the image of a successful technocrat, just in order to impress his ex!

No comments: