Monday, June 3, 2013

Summer Dreams and The Great Gatsby

With the new film version out this spring, many of us are taking another look at a beloved work of American fiction known as, The Great Gatsby, by F.Scott Fitzgerald.  Like so many readers, I fell in love with the book when I was in high school in Toronto. It was required reading for us in Grade Twelve when we spent the winter on American Literature. I adored the beautiful, lyrical prose. Going on to read other works of his and reading about his troubles with his wife Zelda, I felt nothing but compassion and love for the man.

It almost breaks my heart to know that he felt like a failure in his lifetime. As he was writing The Great Gatsby, he was in the south of France, taking care of his health and deeply engrossed in the story.  Fitzgerald knew he had written his best work. He was in Paris in the spring of 1925 when the book was released. He anxiously waited for cables, reviews and sales reports. He thought it would be a bigger smash hit than his previous books. In a perfect world, it would have been. Yet the reviews were mixed, and sales dismal. What happened?

During the years when depression set in and writing became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, Fitzgerald likened himself to a "cracked plate." In the archives of the New York Times, I found this statement. "Sometimes though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never be warmed on the stove, nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do for crackers late at night, or go into the icebox with the leftovers."

It was not until after the second world war that the book gained the acclaim it deserved. By this time, the country had gone through the crash of '29 and then saw the world nearly tear itself to pieces. Was the story a portent of things to come? Was it ahead of its time? When the resurgence came, Fitzgerald was lost to us and gone from this world. Perhaps he resides in some part of heaven where all the literary magic lives. To say that while he lived, he wrote with the voice of an angel, is not an overstatement and I am not the only person to think so.

People write of his talent: the word is synonymous with him. How many of us have woken up in a cold sweat, slumped over our keyboards, crumpled pieces of paper, put the windshield wipers on in the car without realizing it is our tears, not the rain clouding our vision. We fear in our deepest souls that we do not have enough talent. A horrible rejection letter, or a snide remark can send us reeling, head long into this fear. Are we wasting our time? Is there a person somewhere who would know for sure and who could give it to us straight and save us from endless toil for nothing? No. They could be wrong. Shame on those reviewers who did not see the power of this novel. My search through the archives of the Times brought me to this headline: "Fitzgerald launches another dud." Shame, shame.  Whether the talent is there, God given, or whether it can be earned, or acquired, whether its a matter of luck, or not, does not matter one whit. We are all given an imagination. What we do with it is up to us. Whether we succeed, or fail ought to be measured against the mirror of our own taste. If a writer creates something they are pleased with, if it is work they can pick up ten years from now, and not cringe at every sentence, if it has been well-crafted and reworked and refashioned into something lovely, then it is a gift to all and we should view it as such. Some hugely successful writers envy Fitzgerald to this day and feel that they will never enter the same cloud. My foray into reading more about the man did reveal this truth: the gorgeous sentences that make you stop and reread them, marveling about the beauty and the clarity, were revised and rewritten many, many times until they sounded right to his very fine tuned ear. Talent, discipline and tenacity are as a holy trinity to any work of genius.Then there is something else that none of us understand.
Years ago, I had a neighbor who signed her son up for a summer workshop where he would learn to play the bagpipes. He took to the instrument like a duck to water. After attending his first concert, I asked a teacher, a master piper over from Scotland, if it was just me, or did he, too, see a staggering level of talent, as well.
"Once in a hundred years," he said, "it will come along like that." 

"And so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past." F.Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby.


Jennifer Rova said...

Interesting post. I love to read about history especially when it is about an author and his writing. Great post.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you. I plan to re-read all of his work this summer.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I'm falling in love with Gatsby (or maybe F. Scott) all over again. My favorite of his stories is "Bernice Bobs Her Hair."

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

My copy of his complete stories is in a box somewhere in my garage. When I get to the bottom of my unpacking, I am going to sit down and read it. 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' will be something to look forward to.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Update: "The Great Gatsby" is currently number 8 on the best seller list.