Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Great Gatsby

"I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love"

In one of the heart breaking moments of the movie Jay Gatsby's character confides this to Nick Caraway, the narrator, and perhaps his only friend. Gatsby is a billionaire who dubiously acquires his wealth through bootlegging and is not a perfect likeable character, but when he says, and the way he says this : every sinew of your hearts feels out for him.

I had read the book in my college, gratefully borrowed from my college's Student Activity Center library, and till date I haven't come across another book which has more flawed and deliberately dislikable characters than this one. None of us are perfect, but even when imperfect characters are honest in their love, we feel for them, just like Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind. She is absolutely mean, materialistic, ruthless - yet we love her despite all her follies.

Gatsby is not even the least like her - at least that is what the narrator tries to convince us. Set in the golden decade of roaring twenties - the Jazz Age - known for its excesses and bloom which eventually ended into the doom and gloom of The Great Depression, Nick finds him as the only one worth his willow amongst the "rotten" and "careless" crowd including his own cousin Daisy Buchanan, the love interest of Jay Gatsby.

Looking at the sheer shallowness of the people around him, he gushes to Gatsby - "They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together." His absolute admiration for his new neighbour-turned-friend can be seen in the very beginning of the book as he recounts : "It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

At one point one can't simply comprehend the amount of love and emotion Gatsby derived for the emotionally decapitated Daisy, but then you understand all when Nick eloquently articulates "There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart."

Even Gatsby's ambition and lust to go after wealth is spurred less by his impoverished childhood but more by his indefatigable infatuation for Daisy which is explained when he abruptly fills in Nick "Her voice is full of money" during one of their conversations when latter is found searching for words while describing her cousin.

No one can be more lonely than man living alone in a luxurious mansion, but Gatsby's loneliness can be fathomed aptly in the words he describes his wild parties "You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me." The man is sad and desperate in love, but he is hopeful. Deep in his heart he knows about the futility and fatality of it, yet he is endlessly, hopelessly hopeful.

In one of the final moments of the book when he is waiting for the call from his lover, who had promised to call, who had promise to come to be with him forever and the phone rings, reader is just as hopeful as he is. But there is a difference between the newly found wealth of the impoverished class and that of the wealth bequeathed in blood and bones of the privileged class. Gatsby is an aspirant to a class which no amount of wealth and parties can buy and Daisy is a blue blood upper class damsel who can chose to stay with an egotistical, philandering ivy league husband but not for a person whom she claims she "always loved". This masterpiece faithfully depicts the shallow hypocrisy of the rich and futility of an earnest, selfless but undeserving love in the era where not having social strata was even bigger pyorrhea than now.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a magician with words. His passages are descriptive with lyrical prose and many scenes stay with you long after you read them. Characters are well drawn out - so much so that reader believes, loves, hates, despises them but never dismisses them. Despite so many unlikable characters, Fitzgerald's himself falls short of condemning them ("Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply" or "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had"). Nick Caraway is the character through whose eyes we see the story unfolding and the characters colliding. Though he cannot be termed as an absolutely innocent bystander as he claims himself to be("Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known"), but the fact that he just observes others without really entering their world is the reason we believe his honest understandings and judgments.

Movie is less severe on the characters than the book. You actually feel little sorry for Daisy Buchanan. The wife beating, domineering, adulterous Tom is less of a snobbish bastard than he is actually in book. The other key characters like Myrtle - Tom's mistress and her cuckolded husband George Wilson are left as mere caricatures. The stress is more on Gatsby's absolute dream and efforts to get his love and his subsequent hope, angst, pain, melancholy and failure. Bryan Adam's "Everything I do, I do it for you" seemed to have been written for him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a hell of a writer. He describes the moments well. As tailpiece, I quote a masterpiece moment from his book which is filled with many such masterpieces for most of the other moments, and not a word is wasted. This book is a literary perfection.

"His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete."