Adapting Gatsby plus Bert Lahr in Godot

by John Holbo on January 11, 2011

Provoked by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Matthew Yglesias ponders the difficulty adapting Gatsby, in the face of the looming 3D threat.

I agree this seems like a problem. But I think an awful lot of it has to do with the fact that Gatsby is basically crap, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why everyone disagrees with me about this. Yglesias quotes a typical bit:

Or consider: “some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away.” How is it that Nick know for certain that Eckelburg isn’t practicing in Queens any longer but is unsure as to whether he’s moved or died?

I can answer that one. Fitzgerald is a bad writer.

Let me illustrate, by way of offering advice to aspiring 3D directors:

Usually her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool, as if a divot from a green golf-links had come sailing in at the office window, but this morning it seemed harsh and dry.

Now that would work great in 3D! When she speaks, the audience can barely dodge the divots, flying off the screen like asteroids in some space opera! Thrilling! On the other hand, it’s just terrible on the page. Because (I hope I don’t need to explain it) a divot sailing in your office window is, frankly, not fresh and cool, nor harsh and dry. More Caddyshack, or Bob Hope ‘playing through’ – so if they want to make a 3D Gatsby as a Caddyshack remake … but this may not be what Coates has in mind, ‘loosely inspired’ adaptation-wise.

Anyway, Fitzgerald’s prose: too divot-pocked for me. I don’t deny some well-manicured sections. That famous bit about the lawn, for example. No divots there.

In other strange adaptation news, I’ve been reading up on history of ‘theater of the absurd’ and found some incidental confirmation of something I always wondered about. I knew the first American performance of Beckett’s Godot was in Florida, and starred Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell. I always thought that was either the most brilliant casting decision in theater history or the worst. (Ewell is one of my all-time least favorite actors and seems just wrong all way round for this sort of role. How’s by you?) Having now learned the play was initially billed as ‘the laugh hit of two continents’, and that half the audience left halfway through on opening night, I am going with ‘worst’. But Lahr could be a great casting decision, and apparently he was a critical success in New York without Ewell. “Mr. Lahr is an actor in the pantomime tradition who has a thousand ways to move and a hundred ways to grimace in order to make the story interesting and theatrical, and touching, too. His long experience as a bawling mountebank has equipped Mr. Lahr to represent eloquently the tragic comedy of one of the lost souls of the earth.” I’m pretty sure this is intended, in part, as reproach to Beckett. But it’s just how the play should work. There’s a great portrait of Lahr in the role, by Richard Avedon. You can see it here.

I just noticed Amazon has an mp3 version of Lahr performing as Estragon, in Waiting For Godot, with E.G. Marshall, for just $3.50. A good deal! I know what I’m going to be listening to on my commute today. (There seem to be other mp3 albums of old recordings of plays that look good. Cedric Hardwicke and Charles Laughton in Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. Hardwicke was, apparently, Shaw’s favorite actor, I think I remember reading somewhere. Curious to give a listen to that.)

I don’t really like E.G. Marshall, on the other hand; but – now that I think about it – there was something Beckettesque about his best scene, as the President, in Superman 2:

President: What I do now, I do for the sake of the people of Earth. But there is one man on this planet who will never kneel before you.
General Zod: Who is this imbecile? Where is he?
President: I wish I knew.
President: Oh God.
General Zod: No, Zod!

If Superman had never showed; if the President and Zod sat down to wait … well, it might have made for an interesting movie. Sort of a de-boot of the Superman franchise, rather than the usual sort of reboot.

While on the subject of Lahr, who is best known for his role as the Cowardly Lion, I would like to mention that The Wizard of Oz [amazon] on Blu-Ray, looks a lot better than the DVD. There’s Munchkins and other stuff in the background you’ve never seen before. (I’m not sure how much difference this Blu-Ray business makes, in a lot of cases. But Oz is transformed by it.) It’s a good deal, I say.



john beer 01.11.11 at 3:28 am

Zizek I’m less certain about, but my bet is Scott Fitzgerald survives the scorn of John Holbo.


LFC 01.11.11 at 4:36 am

There seem to be other mp3 albums of old recordings of plays that look good. Cedric Hardwicke and Charles Laughton in Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell. Hardwicke was, apparently, Shaw’s favorite actor, I think I remember reading somewhere.

IIRC, Don Juan in Hell is one long act (or long scene?) in Shaw’s Man and Superman, not a whole play in itself. And I thought Shaw’s favorite actor was Harley Granville Barker. (At least one author has suggested that Shaw was, even if he didn’t quite realize it, in love with him. But we might as well not get into all that.)


geo 01.11.11 at 4:39 am

JH: Fitzgerald is a bad writer

And you thought my mild deprecation of Shakespeare was eccentric?


John Holbo 01.11.11 at 4:40 am

Ah, I stand corrected re: the Shaw point. But I do remember reading that Hardwicke was one of Shawe’s favorites. I suspect I read it in Hardwicke’s biography, “A Victorian In Orbit”, so he might have been exaggerating his status as a Shaw favorite.


John Holbo 01.11.11 at 4:43 am

“And you thought my mild deprecation of Shakespeare was eccentric?”

I don’t think I ever denied eccentricity in my own proper person, merely alleged it in yours. (My memory of the event is hazy.)


blah 01.11.11 at 5:45 am

Fitgerald certainly could write poorly, but it is absurd to say he wrote poorly in Gatsby, one of the most elegant and lyrical novels ever produced in the U.S. – as both T.S. Eliot and Ernest Heminway recognized at the time.

To get a sense of how finely Fitgerald crafted the novel, check out these essays:


Gene O'Grady 01.11.11 at 6:12 am

I only ever read The Great Gatsby past the age of fifty, because my younger child was reading it in school. Strange experience to be doing something at that age that everyone else had done thirty years younger.

However, my three impressions were (1) did this guy write to become part of the canon of American high schools, (2) there’s an awful lot of bad writing in here, and (3) it’s a nearly great book in spite of that and a triumph of the imagination that is very unFitgeraldian, at least based on trying to read a couple of his novels previously where (2) was true and (3) wasn’t.

Apparently Fitzgerald was involved very early on in movie production (I don’t mean his later years in Hollywood) but I gather none of those movies still exist, like the 1925 Gatsby?


Phil 01.11.11 at 7:56 am

I read Gatsby for the first time quite recently and can’t say I was blown away – my son’s currently doing it at school & I’ve struggled to remember the characters he talks about. That said, I read “Raise high the roof beam, carpenters!” more recently, and it struck me as doing very much what Fitzgerald did, only more successfully – you got your cool and witty and ultra-perceptive narrative voice, you got your similes and gags and digressions, you got your absurd randomness of life *and* your deeper tragedy which is never quite named directly… and you got your cool, witty narrator. Kind of light-witty, light-witty, tragic tragic light-witty; very New Yorker (reminded me of Thurber’s later & less joky stuff, “In the catbird seat” & suchlike).


andthenyoufall 01.11.11 at 8:06 am

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. 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. . . .


dsquared 01.11.11 at 10:55 am

I can’t for the life of me figure out why everyone disagrees with me about this

I don’t disagree. I would also add that the whole premis of the book is screwed. Tom and Daisy might be a bit arrogant and privileged and maybe even a bit racist. But look at Gatsby! He’s an organised criminal and a really creepy stalker.

Also, when does the narrator do any work? The bond market doesn’t close down for summer.


Anderson 01.11.11 at 11:59 am

Now that would work great in 3D! When she speaks, the audience can barely dodge the divots, flying off the screen like asteroids in some space opera!

Except for the blessing that 3D wasn’t yet in vogue, that seems to be precisely the approach taken by Peter Jackson in the LOTR movies. Every “as if” or “seems” had to be CGI’d literally. God, I hate those movies. Enough to drag them irrelevantly into blog threads, even.


ajay 01.11.11 at 12:25 pm

Usually her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool, as if a divot from a green golf-links had come sailing in at the office window, but this morning it seemed harsh and dry.

Actually, this is really quite funny in its incongruity – I wonder if it was lifted from Wodehouse, who wasn’t shy of a golf simile himself.

Also, when does the narrator do any work? The bond market doesn’t close down for summer.

“Sell in May and go away, don’t come back till St Leger day”. In the quieter days of summer, presumably the desk is left in the hands of a junior clerk while the seniors all go off on holiday. Times were leisurely then in the finance business. Look at “Lords of Finance” – one thing that struck me about that book is the amount of time that senior bank officials took off, to sail across the Atlantic or go to Baden-Baden for a month or whatever.


ajay 01.11.11 at 12:30 pm

I am now wondering what Bertie and Jeeves would have made of the Buchanans’ parties.


Sumana Harihareswara 01.11.11 at 12:40 pm

John, if you’re trying to be more reflexively contrarian than 2005-era Slate you’re going to have to work harder.

More seriously: Gatsby got at me the first time I read it partly because I read it in the same class where we’d read Ben Franklin and talked about Calvinism and simplistic definitions of success. Upon reread: those party scenes are much more informative, funny, and tragic when you’ve had friends, and been to parties you enjoyed, and not been the most awkward person in the room. In fact, all the interpersonal stuff is. I’m kind of wondering how it was that high school me loved this book so much for its aesthetics and psychological insight when I was so completely undeveloped on those fronts.


BenSix 01.11.11 at 1:02 pm

Apparently Hunter S. Thompson loved Fitzgerald so much that he’d type out page after page in the hope that he’d adopt the style. One can only assume that he got bored eventually and started taking drugs instead…


stostosto 01.11.11 at 1:02 pm

It’s reassuring to see that others have difficulty appreciating Gatsby. I thought it was just me.


dsquared 01.11.11 at 1:03 pm

In the quieter days of summer, presumably the desk is left in the hands of a junior clerk

yes but Nick Carraway was a junior clerk – he’s exactly the sort of five-years-out-the-graduate-scheme bod who you would leave the crappy months to while the senior brokers took off to their houses in the Hamptons. Given that he has his thirtieth birthday that year, he’s most likely a recently-promoted vice-president, at just exactly the sort of level where he ought to be snapping up the opportunity to take on a bit of responsibility during the quiet times to show he can handle it, not slacking off to go boating with criminals. Frankly, I think his career’s going nowhere.


Ginger Yellow 01.11.11 at 1:34 pm

The bond market doesn’t close down for summer.

Yes it does. August is pretty much dead.


ejh 01.11.11 at 2:10 pm

I don’t suppose they could just work August and not the other eleven months?


chris y 01.11.11 at 2:17 pm

“Sell in May and go away, don’t come back till St Leger day”.

Good advice in 1720, apparently still valid.


rm 01.11.11 at 3:14 pm

I, too, dislike it, but I am able to look past my idiosyncratic reading (the eyes, the eyes . . . car crash! do I have to finish this?) and recognize evidence that I am wrong, that this novel offers something valuable even if it isn’t what I value much in lit. I still prefer almost anyone else from the era, but I see the point.


Jonas 01.11.11 at 3:30 pm

We can argue about whether the writing is crap, but the writing that is in the narrator’s voice is actually designed to be crap. You can’t rely on Nick to actually understand what is going on in the book, and that is intentional. Sometimes he doesn’t understand what is happening, sometimes he is making stuff up. If you pay attention to actual accounts of events that are happening in the present instead of Nick’s spin on things, there is a different story that is told. Think of it as ‘The Usual Suspects” in the Jazz Age.


Russell Arben Fox 01.11.11 at 3:55 pm

Frankly, I think his career’s going nowhere.

dsquared wins.


ajay 01.11.11 at 4:04 pm

17: well, you’re right, his career is going nowhere – he goes back to Chicago at the end of the book. His career probably stagnates and ends in disgrace when he’s found to have been a player in the 1958 Chicago Onion Ring.


ajay 01.11.11 at 4:06 pm

Also, the structure of banks and trading houses was a bit different then. A junior clerk wasn’t a thirty-year-old aristocrat with a degree from Yale who’d been through the graduate training scheme. He was a twenty-three-year-old grammar school boy with no degree who’d worked for the bank since he was sixteen.


y81 01.11.11 at 4:28 pm

As I understand, in the 1920s, the world of junior finance employees included a mix of hardscrabble office boys and Yale aristocrats. Indeed, I think it was that way until very recently, when it has become mostly Yale meritocrats (with a few aristocrats, who were able to adapt to the new order and hold on), and much less room for streetwise types with limited formal education.


bianca steele 01.11.11 at 4:29 pm

Gatsby used to be my favorite novel, but I agree with John Holbo, and the longer passage Yglesias quotes is a perfect passage to illustrate why. Do you have any idea what that sign looks like? I always pictured a dusty vacant lot with a billboard on the other side of it, but I’m pretty sure that can’t be right. It’s sloppy and too much of the time it’s hackish.

Is it supposed to be about the way the East Coast corrupts those from the Midwest? Then Fitzgerald forgets halfway through that Tom is from the Midwest too. It isn’t Nick who doesn’t know the social significance of bringing a string of poloponies down to New Haven, it’s the author. E.M. Forster would have roared with laughter to read the dinner party scene (to begin with are the servants black, or are they Irish?).

It is nothing like Salinger.


Lemmy Caution 01.11.11 at 5:54 pm

I am fond of E.G. Marshal because of this show:

For some reason, I listened to a lot of those shows for a couple years.


phil wilson 01.11.11 at 6:15 pm

I agree with you about Gatsby. And gimmicky 3D too (I think Baz should film it in Black and White and let some idiot colorize it, then we’d see the quality Gatsby deserves). However, Fitzgerald could write when he wasn’t too drunk – just read ‘Tender is the Night’. Forget the stupid names, and please forget the re-ordered linear version. This shows what Fitzgerald could have been had he not been in awe of Hemingway and bitched by his psycho wife.


gmoke 01.11.11 at 6:49 pm

If you think that Gatsby is bad, you should try This Side of Paradise. I fell in love with Fitzgerald when I was a teenager and read a lot of his work then. Thought he was a tragic figure. These days, I think that his Basil Duke Lee stories are some of his best work and that, probably, like another famous “drunk,” US Grant, Fitzgerald was someone who was highly susceptible to liquor, getting drunk on just a little bit.

John Lahr writes about his father, Bert, and his performance in Godot in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, if memory serves.


Ingmar Kierkegaard 01.11.11 at 7:40 pm

To quote from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, “Where the hell does a little Radcliffe tootsie come off rating Scott Fitzgerald?”


Patrick D 01.11.11 at 8:03 pm

If calling Bert Lahr an actor in “the pantomime tradition” was intended as a “rebuke to Beckett,” then the reviewer didn’t know anything at all about Beckett, who knew a lot about that tradition and exploited its conventions brilliantly in lots of his work. (Joyce too. I imagine they talked about it when they got deep into the wine.) I’ll bet money that Beckett knew about Lahr and approved.


Phil 01.11.11 at 8:10 pm

It is nothing like Salinger.

Well, I hated the narrative voice of Gatsby despite its charm and loved that of RHTRBC despite its charmlessness, so there’s that. But I felt in both cases I was reading a light and amusing story with something grotesquely horrible lurking in the middle of it, as told by a witty and intelligent self-regarding bore (who may or may not be aware that he’s a self-regarding bore). But the differences may well outweigh the similarities if you look at them more closely. (Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what I felt I was doing when I read Hawthorne. And it fits Pynchon like a glove. I think I’ve just defined American literature…)


Patrick D 01.11.11 at 8:12 pm

In fact, Beckett approved Lahr’s casting before Miami, and did not withdraw that approval after the disaster there. (See Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett: the Last Modernist.) Beckett knew what he was getting with Lahr, and Lahr got the play, “it’s tragic, but there are lots of gags in it.”


andthenyoufall 01.11.11 at 8:14 pm

That’s my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

(yes, he must have forgotten)


Michael Bérubé 01.11.11 at 9:20 pm

Oh, give it a rest already. You haters can get back to me when you write something half as unheimlich as this:

No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock– until long after there was any one to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the trees.

I am beginning to wonder whether an overdose of graphic novels doesn’t impede a person’s ability to appreciate passages like this.


Western Dave 01.11.11 at 10:17 pm

I grew up in West Egg in the 1970s and 80s. That experience is well chnonicled by J. R. Moehringer in The Tender Bar a book awash in alcohol and Gatsby allusions. My parents grew up in East Egg in the 1930s and 40s. (aka Manhasset and Great Neck). I always avoided Gatsby, perhaps due to my mother the English major pointing out the Valley of Ashes everytime we were on the train (it’s where the miniature golf course used to be and may still be in Douglaston not far from Alley Pond Park). We never read it in high school English, perhaps because so many of us were already trying to recreate it (see The Tender Bar). I finally read it over Christmas break and was indifferent to it (although I could see why it would teach marvelously) until I hit the exact passage andthenyoufall quoted above. And therein lies Fitzgerald’s genius. He takes the Western genre (Southern man, Eastern woman unite in West, he with his honor, she with her morals, and together they create a new and better America. He repudiates confederate lawlessness and she stays the heck out of politics while domesticating her man who protects her) and just blows it up. The East isn’t moral but full of crooks and immigrants, and “Negroes”; the South isn’t honorable, both Daisy and Tom are philandering and indecisive and loyal only to their reputations and thus unredeemable confederates- none of Owen Wister’s Virginians here; and the West is a bunch of screwy provincials who can’t fit in with modern society and have no answers. Jordan is a cross-dressing flapper who secretly just wants a man but is too mannish, Nick is a self-deceiving wuss with possible homosexual tenencies, Gatsby is a Ragged Dick who instead of making good is corrupted and destroyed.

It’s not the great American novel. It’s the great anti-American novel in that it destroyed both westerns and Horatio Alger stories once and for all. (at least until Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy reinvented Westerns).

Also, Fitzgerald’s writing may be stilted in places, but he writes about transportation in these books like nobody’s business. Reading with my historians eye, I think he eloquently captures some very real differences about what it means to travel by train into NY and what it must have been like to drive on 25a (Northern Boulevard) into NY or even just to drive around LI at that point.

So too with the much derided passage about divots. So many of the golf clubs were just being founded (mostly restricted, a few mixed that later became almost entirely Jewish, none that allowed African Americans) My golf game is certainly bad enough to send a divot of fresh, cool sprinkler watered grass through somebody’s window. Especially since sprinklers or even lawns were not yet common things and he repeatedly mentioned that the summer was hot and dry which in the absence of sprinklers, would have made whatever grass there was brown, harsh, hard, and dry. Not to mention the whole suggestion of wealth thing that the image evokes. I think TGG may be trapped by it’s time, but it does a great job evoking that time for me (once I sat down and thought about it as a book of that time, instead of as a transcendent text).


geo 01.11.11 at 10:56 pm

What Michael said. And here’s another passage, plucked almost at random:

Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone — fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.

I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone — he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.


geo 01.11.11 at 10:57 pm

Sorry, second paragraph should also be in italics.


bianca steele 01.11.11 at 11:18 pm

Of course the paragraph Michael Bérubé quotes is better than the ones andthenyoufall did (what’s the difference between what he describes and Westchester County?), except for “how grotesque a thing a rose is,” which sounds like the novelist’s attempt to get at his pal Hemingway by writing a nasty parody of his mentor, Gertrude Stein.

Maybe a few more paragraphs will reconcile me again.


Kenny Easwaran 01.12.11 at 12:09 am

I just happened to see a few scenes of The Wizard of Oz in HD on tv a week or two ago, and it really was quite amazing! It really made me wonder what they made those flowers and trees out of in Oz – glass? plastic? rubber? Something very pretty and shiny and colorful though.


anitchang 01.12.11 at 12:15 am

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I am with Michael Bérubé on this one…And that is definitely my favorite last line of any novel I’ve read.


bert 01.12.11 at 12:36 am

Gatsby wears a pink suit and has a lot of lovely shirts.
Baz Luhrman would seem the perfect choice.
The latest leaks about the soundtrack (“… money money must be funny in a rich man’s world …”) only confirm this.


John Holbo 01.12.11 at 12:53 am

My brilliant plan worked! By being so outrageous I summoned the Fitzgeraldians (Fitzgeraldines? Fitzgeraldistas?) out of the woodwork. This is fine, because the fine bits are very fine. But the whole Gatsby business seems to me very patchy. I suppose that’s what you get for trying to write the really good stuff, per the above passages. Namely, you flub it. And then you’ve really flubbed it. I didn’t particularly like the novel, so my eye snagged on the snagglier bits, I suppose. Substantively, the issue is that Gatsby is patchy by design at the level of the characters, and the story flows from that very patchiness, so the story is patchy, too. I see this, and I agree with Yglesias that it is one of the things that makes trouble for the adaptations. Because the characters can just seem inauthentic in an unfortunate, artistically accidental way, rather than inauthentic in an artistically deliberate and altogether satisfactorily functional way. But I just feel that Fitzgerald’s foot slips. That passage Yglesias quotes is a very nice example. How could Gatsby be thinking this thought in particular? How could he have that much knowledge but no more? It just doesn’t ring true. And it doesn’t help to say that nothing about Gatsby rings true, so a thought that doesn’t ring true is Gatsby to a T.

Fitzgerald was originally going to call it the “High Bouncing Lovers”, or something crazy like that. The “Gold-Hatted High Bouncing Lovers of East Egg”, someone will pipe up and remind me what it was. The implausible thinness of the characters – when you peel back the plausible thinness of the characters, to see what’s underneath – would have suited that gonzo title better than the current, glamorous title suits the characters. I think Fitzgerald should have suited his whole novel better to that gonzo title, keeping the good bits but thereby making more artistic room for the bad bits, which wouldn’t have been ‘bad’ anymore but just … something in the great American tradition of Melville’s “The Confidence-Man” or something. Gatsby’s ‘platonic conception of himself’ (the narrator’s term, not mine) turns out to be this sort of pasteboard stage property. That’s great! The Form of the Good as a big ornament for your lawn party, nothing more. If Melville had written that thing about the divot coming in the window, that would have just been par for the course, after all. “Play through!” “Play through the mask!” Like Ahab.

But partially the problem here is, as Michael Berube says, that I read too many graphic novels. Or rather, my taste in novels runs more to metaphysical hyperbole, a la Melville’s “The Confidence-Man”. So I want Fitzgerald to be Melville, which is obviously not quite his grift. But I do see this Melville novel, winking in Fitzgeraldian disguise, in Gatsby’s ‘platonic conception of himself’, and I don’t really see a proper Fitzgerald novel winking out from behind the strayed Melvillean themes. I dunno.

I do concede that the novel’s fame and reputation and general, untarnished air of glamour is Gatsby’s – the character’s – long con, infecting the readership itself. Which is some kind of literary achievement, in the long con department.


John Holbo 01.12.11 at 12:57 am

“It really made me wonder what they made those flowers and trees out of in Oz – glass? plastic? rubber? Something very pretty and shiny and colorful though.”

My experience exactly, Kenny. It’s just an amazingly improved visual experience.


bert 01.12.11 at 1:14 am

There’s a problem. The bits people are praising (the lyrical bits) and slating (the purple bits) exist only as prose. You can squeeze a tiny portion into voiceover, but essentially the very things that make a conversation about Gatsby worth having can’t make it into the movie version.
This is why I think the decision to turn it over to Baz Luhrman for an exercise in kitsch is a defensible one.


Western Dave 01.12.11 at 1:36 am

You guys have this all wrong. You give it to Robert Rodriguez, because Fitzgerald is blowing up a genre or two and who better to sock it to a genre than RR? Granted at the same time, he’d splice a remake of Moby Dick in there and perhaps some references to early Clint Eastwood movies and smack in the middle there’d be a trailer for On the Road/Howl the double feature…. But he’d make it work. And it would be a kids’ movie.


deliasmith 01.12.11 at 2:23 am

Fitzgerald wrote a set of short comic stories about Hollywood’s Heroic Age, all centred on the unheroic character Pat Hobby. The collection includes ‘Boil some water, lots of it’, which is a fine title.

It may be that Gatsby is actually a comic novel and most readers are missing the point; as already discussed, Godot is such a work, but there’s also ‘Don Giovanni’, which, I learned yesterday from Radio 3, is very funny but only if you are fluent in Italian; and, as George Orwell remarked, The Diary of a Nobody was very popular in Russia, despite the fact that it probably came over as a bitter fable of frustrated aspiration, hollow friendships and a thankless child – ‘probably very like Chekhov’, I think he said, thereby giving the problem another turn.


Michael Bérubé 01.12.11 at 3:05 am

Well, I didn’t cite the “grotesque rose” passage just ‘cuz it has some nice writing, though it does. There’s something else going on there that speaks directly to the “patchiness” of the characters, and it has to do with the way Nick romanticizes and practically apotheosizes Gatsby in the end. Look again at how totally hypothetical the whole thing is: “I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt…” and on we go, never leaving the subjunctive. Gatsby’s final epiphany, his moment of radical disillusionment, his feeling not-at-home in a world of frightening leaves and scarcely created grass, happens entirely in Nick’s imagination. Why? Because a Gatsby who finally realizes the vast nothingness that is Daisy is more tragic than a deluded stalker/ fool/ hayseed-turned-gangster who dies believing that his One True Love is really going to leave her husband and run away with him to Montreal.

But there’s no reason to believe Gatsby isn’t that deluded stalker/ fool/ hayseed-turned-gangster. The amazing thing about the novel is that even Nick, who almost laughs out loud at Gatsby’s first ludicrous attempt to relate his ersatz Tragic Past as a young rich man wandering the capitals of Europe, who says that Gatsby represented everything for which he has an unaffected scorn, winds up trying to believe that Gatsby is something more than he is … just as Gatsby has spent his life trying to believe that Daisy is something more than she is (even as he knows full well that “her voice is full of money”). It’s not just about the nice turns of prose. It’s also about the inevitability of that kind of self-delusion, the need to believe that we’re not just living in a world of Potemkin villages, mansions with spanking-new ivy, and mid-level bond salesmen. No, it’s not as dark as Miss Lonelyhearts, but it isn’t a love story and it isn’t about the goddamn “American Dream” either.

OK, I will stop now.


Mitchell Freedman 01.12.11 at 3:34 am

I’ve long said that Sinclair Lewis is the Dickens of America.

And also that Fitzgerald seems to get all the lit prof groupies’ attention, while poor Sinclair Lewis sits in a chair at the side of the gym waiting for someone to ask him to dance.

Yesterday was the 60th year since Lewis left us. His writings, however, remain extremely relevant in this latest Gilded Age in this decaying business civilization.


Josh 01.12.11 at 5:27 am

Michael, beautiful exegesis: wow. It makes me wonder how much post-WWII U.S. novelists’ attitudes toward class and idealization owe to people thinking that Fitzgerald’s novel was about the goddamn American Dream. Your invocation of West, while perhaps inspired by John’s love for the guy, reminds me that Rob Seguin did a good piece a few years ago suggesting that Gatsby is not that different from Day of the Locust. But I’ll have you know I’ve read a truckload of comics and like The Great Gatsby (and love The Good Soldier, ftm). I think there’ve been stories in the comics medium from which one can learn about the drive to idealize people, unheimlichkeit, pompous narrators, and the like.


CharleyCarp 01.12.11 at 6:42 am

Gilligan’s Wake enjoyably intersects with TGG.


Niall McAuley 01.12.11 at 10:56 am

John writes: But I do see this Melville novel

I misread that as Miéville novel, and now I want to read about Nick and his fellow Infantry vets clashing with Gatsby’s bootleggers as they try vain to stop Tom’s occult secret society from hatching the squamous Thing from the West Egg.


John Holbo 01.12.11 at 11:59 am

That’s a great idea, Niall. It reminds of a totally different F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, “Tendril is the Night”.


Michael Bérubé 01.12.11 at 1:12 pm

Oh, and The Confidence-Man is brilliant beyond measure. Also too. One of these days I’ll post one of those amazing passages that practically unwrites itself line by line, just for the hell of it. But lately I’ve been on an extended Philip K. Dick binge. It’s been fun.


ajay 01.12.11 at 1:51 pm

53: which reminds me that HP Lovecraft was also living in New York in the mid 1920s, and didn’t think much of it either. Too many immigrants. (See “The Horror at Red Hook”, which is where he was staying at the time.)


ajay 01.12.11 at 1:52 pm

The way is surely open for “The Great Gatsby and Elder Gods”. Or is it not out of copyright yet?


John Holbo 01.12.11 at 2:06 pm

That’s funny ajay, I was just listening to “The Horror at Red Hook” two nights ago, on audiobook. Racist, even by Lovecraft standards!


ajay 01.12.11 at 2:49 pm

The rich are different from you and me. They have bulging eyes, and gill slits.


Henry (not the famous one) 01.12.11 at 3:38 pm

I checked Aljean Harmetz’ book on TWOO to see what it might say about flowers and trees; I didn’t find the answer to the specific question about those flowers, but here is what she does tell us:

The Construction Department encompassed the studio’s 500 carpenters, 150 laborers, 15 plumbers, and 50 plasterers; the 20 scenic artists who painted the muslin backdrops; and the ordinary house-painters who painted the sets. The rule of thumb was simple: if you helped to build, decorate, or tear down the sets, you belonged in Construction, a fact which left Construction crowded with esoteric specialties. The Nursery was in Construction, a unit that was inappropriately named since the nurserymen were much more likely to dress the set with artificial bushes or flowers than real ones; and most of their time was spent wiring artificial leaves or blossoms onto real tree stumps. It was the nurserymen who would wire the artificial poppies to Stage 29.

The Prop Shop was in Construction too. The men in the Prop Shop were responsible for building the monsters devised by Special Effects. They made the talking apple trees out of chicken wire and foam rubber, with liquid latex added to the chicken-wire frames layer by layer. They hung the finished trees from the grids on piano wire. Then some of them climbed inside of the structures they had made to act as the animated souls of the trees.


Henry (not the famous one) 01.12.11 at 3:39 pm

Yes, the second paragraph should be in italics too.


bianca steele 01.12.11 at 3:51 pm

Not about the American Dream? A novel about a poor country boy who makes a lot of money and (almost) gets a beautiful girl, and does get a big house, isn’t about the American Dream? The green light isn’t that dream? That Nick concludes the dream is a myth doesn’t mean he hasn’t been talking about that dream throughout the book. If you’re right, it’s even more hackish than I’ve been beginning to suspect.


Alex 01.12.11 at 4:31 pm

the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us

Orgiastic? Orgasmic? Organic?


roac 01.12.11 at 7:54 pm

I was going to recommend the Harmetz book, but non-famous Henry beat me to it. A wonderful read. And impeccably sourced, because the author’s mother worked at MGM (in the costume department, IIRC).

The best part is the story of Professor Marvel’s jacket. The costumers picked it out as the most seedy-magnificent from a number of candidates in Frank Morgan’s size bought at L.A. thrift stores. When they looked inside, they found a label showing that it had once belonged to . . . L. Frank Baum! (When the publicity department put the story out, absolutely no one believed them, because all studio press releases were known to be lies and this one was especially far-fetched. But Harmetz was satisfied that it was true. Baum’s widow authenticated the coat.)


MR Bill 01.12.11 at 9:31 pm

But lately I’ve been on an extended Philip K. Dick binge. It’s been fun.

If you’ve not gotten to his ‘upbeat’ comic novel Clans of the Alphane Moon, you have missed a treat. If the Cohen Bros. want to do a scifi flick, this is it.

I too wondered what the fuss was over Gatsby in college. As a farm kid who had actually read the books, I thought Jay loathsome, and Daisy a progenitor of Hall and Oates “Rich Girl”.
As a adult I resolved to give the books I had rushed through in college a chance: I so enjoyed David Copperfield I read all of Dickens, some sort of turning point. Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice were actually funny, if in wildly different ways. And Gatsby is a good, and probably unfilmable book.
Annoying, with purple passages certainly, but the best of Fitzgerald.
And Sinclair Lewis is certainly underrated.


Lawrence L. White 01.13.11 at 3:55 am

Times were leisurely then in the finance business.

In the insurance business also. Wallace Stevens got whole books of poetry written while on the clock.


Lawrence L. White 01.13.11 at 3:58 am

Apparently Hunter S. Thompson loved Fitzgerald so much that he’d type out page after page in the hope that he’d adopt the style.

Supposably Fear and Loathing emulates the structure of Gatsby. Thompson made it as his Gatsby.


Lawrence L. White 01.13.11 at 4:09 am

I do concede that the novel’s fame and reputation and general, untarnished air of glamour is Gatsby’s – the character’s – long con, infecting the readership itself. Which is some kind of literary achievement, in the long con department.

In a lecture at Berkeley, sometime in the middle 80’s, Stephen Booth made exactly this point. He said everyone that enters the novel takes on the moral midgetry of the characters. He claimed folks liked the novel because they wanted to be like Fitzgerald. He also noted that no one reads Vanity Fair because they want to be like Thackery.

I’m not saying I agree w/Booth, but that’s what he said (as far as I can remember).


John Holbo 01.13.11 at 4:56 am

Hey, thanks for that, Lawrence. (How’s by you, these days?) I took Stephen Booth’s “Shakespeare” course in the 90’s. He was great! But prickly.


Phil 01.13.11 at 9:19 am

Oh, and The Confidence-Man is brilliant beyond measure. Also too.

And crying out for comic adaptation. The exchange about “a certain loss” is practically written in speech bubbles.

But this is the thing. I came to American Literature, at college, fresh from the English social novel of the 19th century; I did my undergraduate dissertation on Wilkie Collins. Now, Collins wrote some seriously weird stuff, although at this distance the plots are a bit hazy in my mind – there’s one where a blind woman is courted (without knowing it) by two twins and her skin turns blue, although I can’t remember why; I’m not sure if that’s also the book with the legless megalomaniac. You get the picture. But when he wasn’t trying to give you the fantods he was always trying, quite earnestly, to reflect contemporary society back to itself, and very often the most socially realistic parts of the novels were also the most shocking (there’s one where the hero saves a child prostitute from the streets, takes her home and eventually marries her – wrong on a number of levels, then and now).

So then I start on Melville’n’Hawthorne, writers of the great nineteenth century American novel – not the American Wilkie Collins in stature, more like the American George Eliot or Dickens – and… WTF? The characters are grotesque, the plotting flickers from bizarre to non-existent and back again, the social setting is thin to the point of translucency, the language is arch and overdone, and the narrative voice will not shut up. And, I learn in tutorials, it’s all about the language and the narrative voice: this garrulous narrator who may or may not see things more clearly than you, and may or may not be aware of his own absurdity, isn’t just a comic creation (an Oswald Bastable or Billy Fisher) but a deeply serious philosophical enterprise which is at the heart of the entire novel. Possibly, even, at the heart of The Novel in its local form.

As I said earlier on, a light and amusing story with something grotesquely horrible lurking in the middle of it, as told by a witty and intelligent self-regarding bore (who may or may not be aware that he’s a self-regarding bore) … I think I’ve just defined American literature. Discuss.


ejh 01.13.11 at 10:04 am



ajay 01.13.11 at 10:31 am

66: Kafka too, IIRC. (Well, he may have waited to get home before writing.) And he (apparently) invented the workman’s hard hat! What a guy!

71: fantods = the creeps, the shivers, the heebie-jeebies.


Zamfir 01.13.11 at 10:53 am

Wiki says:
“Management professor Peter Drucker credits writer Franz Kafka with developing the first civilian hard hat when he was employed at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (1912), but this is not supported by any document from his employer”

AKA, the kind of BS you expect from management gurus.


ajay 01.13.11 at 12:05 pm

73: hmm, good point. A quick google finds no sources apart from Drucker for this. Drucker also says that he won a gold medal for it in 1912 from the American Safety Society, which doesn’t seem to exist. There is an American Society of Safety Engineers, which existed in 1911 (under a different name) but I can’t find any link between them (under either name) and Kafka.

What a strange thing to make up!


mds 01.13.11 at 3:30 pm

But lately I’ve been on an extended Philip K. Dick binge. It’s been fun.

I tried that once in college. Then I decided I should just stick to reading his stories.

This is fine, because the fine bits are very fine.

This is indeed the very nub of the gist. Are the very fine bits enough? <trite>One can often forgive a great many weaknesses in exchange for the elevated moments. But obviously, the acceptable ratio varies from person to person. For that matter, what counts as elevated?</trite>

E.g.: On balance, I greatly enjoyed Cryptonomicon, but many genre enthusiasts did not. Some because it was too uneven for them, and others because passages that I delighted in (such as the Cap’n Crunch scene) they considered crap.

I suppose one might still wonder whether so many of those who label it a classic are doing so despite its flaws, or out of a default sense of the “Great Books.” Similarly, Cryptonomicon was nominated for a Hugo Award, which assigns it a certain speculative fiction imprimatur that perhaps it doesn’t deserve, given the love-or-loathe divide.

(Yes, I primarily wanted to make Neal Stephenson look up from his breakfast and exclaim, “Someone on the internet is comparing me to F. Scott Fitzgerald.”)


Wax Banks 01.14.11 at 1:57 pm

This is indeed the very nub of the gist. Are the very fine bits enough? One can often forgive a great many weaknesses in exchange for the elevated moments. But obviously, the acceptable ratio varies from person to person. For that matter, what counts as elevated?

‘Elevated moments’ are not textual features; they’re states of mind. The prose is what gets you there – all the prose. Can’t flip to page 35, get ‘elevated,’ shut the thing, as if the mountain were merely a peak suffering the nearness of its steep faces. Good writing works. History tells us that Gatsby works. Bored the shit out of me in high school. Well, so did high school. History tells us I’ve got some problems as well, though.


ajay 01.14.11 at 3:33 pm

Are the very fine bits enough? One can often forgive a great many weaknesses in exchange for the elevated moments.

This is irresistibly reminding me of the preface to “Cold Comfort Farm” where Gibbons explains that she has marked particularly good bits of writing with one, two or three stars, in order to help readers and reviewers appreciate them.


roac 01.14.11 at 4:06 pm

Ah yes: “The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away.” Three stars for that one, IIRC.

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