Books

The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that  I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.

I have been fortunate in the recent past to have read books of such magnificent literary quality that I am still grappling with a sensation akin to breathlessness long after the moment has passed, the last page turned. It may be a “mere” hundred and eighty pages, but the Great Gatsby is almost poetic in its prose. Quite unlike other American novels that I have read and curiously similar to Mahfouz, Shafak and Hamid.

Not a word seems out of place, the actions are meticulously crafted to reveal character more than words or descriptions and each symbol, from Gatsby’s ‘circus wagon’ to T.J. Eckleburg’s ominous bespectacled eyes glowering down on the Valley of Ashes, leaves a lasting impression on the reader. It reminds me of R. K. Narayan and his delicious description of “the fire-eyed Vedanayagam”  in Malgudi Schooldays, though of course the symbolism isn’t quite as psychologically thrilling as Gatsby. There is a haunting quality to them much like the green light on Daisy’s dock.

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.

Perhaps what I enjoyed about the novel is New York. For a city that is so fascinating and rewarding, it was a pleasure to read about how it came to be what it is today. And that description of the first sight of it from the Queensboro bridge is probably one of my most favourite quotes in all of literature.

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

It’s true. Every time I see the rise of the buildings, the Empire State, Chrysler, Freedom Tower, the glow of the tip of the Statue of Liberty – the lights, the magic of New York: it’s in the air and especially, especially, on that bridge where the entire vista reveals itself all at once.

And then there is the man himself, Jay Gatsby, and for all his incredible antics shrouded in mystery, he was but human, swept up by the hopeless optimism of falling in love. Through the novel, Nick’s ambivalence bordering on suspicion, Gatsby’s melodramatic flair and half-truths, even outright lies, make you wonder whether he deserves the appellation of greatness presumed by the book’s title. And yet, by the end of the novel, I understand why this selfish, affected rich man with questionable morals  is “great”. It’s undefinable, like something that you can’t quite put a finger on, but true nonetheless. Clearly, Nick has the same dilemma.

When I came back from the East last autumn I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life — it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

The end is as beautiful as the beginning, and perhaps even more so. It speaks of the hope for unbounded happiness that we strive towards with unrelenting optimism, often not realizing that the moment we seek is long past. If we did realize it, would we then still be brimming with the starry-eyed longing with which we chase down our dreams?

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 – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning–

 

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