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Great Gatsby: a story for the modern age


Old Sport: Leonardo DiCaprio stars in a new film version of one of the all-time great novels, written by Scott Fitzgerald

Old Sport: Leonardo DiCaprio stars in a new film version of one of the all-time great novels, written by Scott Fitzgerald

Old Sport: Leonardo DiCaprio stars in a new film version of one of the all-time great novels, written by Scott Fitzgerald

The trailer for the film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel dissecting 1920s America is released today and there are several stage productions planned.

A Gatsby moment is upon us. The Great Gatsby is by far the most popular novel of F Scott Fitzgerald; it embodies the 1920s, and has attained an iconic status, both for American novelists and for many readers. Still, the flood of adaptations about to pour over us is unprecedented. Is there something in the air? Is there something that makes this most glamorous of novels speak to us with especial resonance?

Later this summer, a new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby will be released, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (you can watch the trailer here) and the ubiquitous Carey Mulligan, as Daisy Buchanan. There are, too, a number of stage adaptations, some rather unusual. A musical version is being launched at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington in the summer, with music and lyrics by Joe Evans. An “immersive” version was staged in Wilton’s Music Hall in April, with dancing and cocktails throughout – the audience advised to dress in their 1920s best.

Most curious is a New York version, retitled GATZ, coming to London as part of the London International Festival of Theatre in June and July. The New York theatre group Elevator Repair Service has set the book in a drab office, where a worker finds a copy of the book and starts to read it out; his colleagues take on the roles and the action plays itself out. Remarkably, every single word is performed; it is not a long novel, but even short novels are longer than the longest plays, and this evening will last for eight hours.

The Great Gatsby has always encouraged this sort of reverence. It is true that the earliest surviving film version, a 1949 adaptation with Alan Ladd and a memorable Shelley Winters as Myrtle, takes some bold liberties, beginning with Gatsby’s crooked empire and purchase of the mansion, rather than letting him intrude gradually on the action. Modern viewers, however, will be astonished at the dutiful reverence of the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Gatsby and scripted by Francis Ford Coppola, which preserves many of Nick Carraway’s comments in voiceover and an amazing amount of the casual dialogue.

The idea of performing The Great Gatsby word for word is not new. The American alternative comedian Andy Kaufman was prone to torment his audiences with the promise of reading out the novel word for word when they were expecting a stand-up routine – one such occasion is recreated in the Kaufman biopic Man in the Moon. But why should Gatsby attract this sort of respect? No one, as far as I know, has ever proposed performing Vile Bodies word for word as an adaptation.

For many readers, The Great Gatsby is up there with Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn and As I Lay Dying as one of the half-dozen great American novels. A list of classic novels by the editorial board of the Modern Library in 1998 placed it second only to Ulysses. Many American novelists and film makers who concern themselves with social class have found Gatsby weighing heavily over their inventions.

From J D Salinger to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan to Gossip Girl, it has rarely been possible to examine class and money in America without drawing on Gatsby. Only this weekend, reviewing a new novel by Helen Schulman, Mark Lawson talked of its “Gatsbyesque” qualities. There’s something permanent about it, but also something rather current, too.

The Great Gatsby, strange to say, was not a huge success in the era it so embodies – the first two printings were not exhausted at Fitzgerald’s death 15 years later. Perhaps it saw too clearly: it is a novel about meretriciousness and a vast, backless façade published at a time when America was at its height of confidence. America, like Gatsby, believed in its power to get the money and get the girl, and didn’t quite like the delusion exposed.

Gatsby, with his terrible affectations (“Old sport”) of being a gentleman, his terrible servants and terrible parties is at the heart of this emptiness. In a novel where the characters are hardly described – the word “lovely” follows Daisy around like a puppy – Gatsby is really just a smile, like the Cheshire Cat vanishing. Where does he get his money from? From the Kaiser? Bootlegging? An early career as a gigolo? We finally discover that part of it is from stolen or forged bonds.

But there’s more emptiness and fakery around than just Gatsby. When Nick Carraway commends a “corky but rather impressive claret” – it could hardly be both – or saying in a semi-literate way “the caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo”, we hear someone else trying to put on a bit of a worldly act. There is something gorgeous but empty about much of the lyrical rhetoric – “Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine” – and even the epigraph to the novel is not quite what it seems. Fitzgerald had trouble with the title, trifling with Trimalchio in West Egg and Under the Red White and Blue. All of them were borrowed from someone else, whether Petronius, Fitzgerald’s cousin Francis Scott Key, who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, or, in the case of the final title, from Alain-Fournier, the author of Le Grand Meaulnes. The whole novel, as well as its world, has something second-hand and vacant about it.

It’s just the novel for us. Its world reflects on bubbles and gaudy display, and people whose magnificent social position conceals an obscure history. You don’t have to look far to find Gatsby-like figures in London today. Would a modern-day Gatsby be a property developer, selling glass-walled penthouses for tens of millions? Or would a modern-day Gatsby be a Russian oligarch, with origins lost in some Siberian village and sinister staff patrolling the outer rim of the vast Home Counties estate? What the real modern-day equivalent of a Gatsby would be hardly matters.

The novel, with its clear sense that money comes and goes, and that detachment from opulence is as empty a gesture as indulgence in it, seems to come to mind whenever we aren’t doing so well ourselves. It was a big hit at the height of the oil crisis in 1974, when plenty of people must have thought of the arrival of the sheikhs in Bayswater as rather Gatsbyesque.

But the novel indulges our dreams, and shakes us awake from them. The most haunting passages in the book are those of Gatsby’s youth, when he dreamt of the splendour to come. The dream is cryptic, sphinx-like: no wonder we want to hear not just a version of the novel, but every single word of it, as if this time it will yield the secret of the simultaneous enchantment and disenchantment.

And the dream of money that will come to us, unbidden, and let us do whatever we want, and not spoil us, is one that has even more resonance in an age of £100-million lottery wins, of property bubbles, of financial deals that nobody could begin to explain, like the sources of Jay’s wealth. The other day, a nice young couple won the world-shattering sum of £45 million on a lottery. The young man, a painter and decorator, said: “I have often painted these huge houses and wondered what it would be like to live in one. Now I can find out.” It was the voice of Gatsby himself.

When we are confident, and booming, and full of trust in our own splendour, The Great Gatsby seems like a curiosity, an anecdote as it did to its first readers. But when things are going wrong all round, and we are trying to remember what it was like to live within a magnificent dream – to be deceived by what we want – then it speaks to us. It buttonholes us, saying, not quite attractively or in a way that we can trust, “Old sport”.