"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 10, 2013

"The Great Gatsby" (1922) by F. Scott-Fitzgerald (Book Review)

No, I haven't seen the latest Gatsby film (which doesn't seem such a big deal anyway if the first reviews got it right), but all the GG noise in the ether motivated me to try the novel, which I hadn't read before. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott-Fitzgerald (1896-1940) of course is a constant bestseller of which millions of copies have been sold, although I guess that most American readers have forcibly encountered it on their reading list at school. It also sits high on lists of the best books of the 20th century, but then again, such lists are usually uncannily similar to those school reading lists.

But enough of this introduction, what did I think about The Great Gatsby?

In a few words: a medium quality, fast read; well-written and attractive for its image of the decadent Jazz Age of the 1920s, but also seriously flawed in several respects.

There are two major flaws:
(1) the sodden melodrama (though hidden under the narrator's lightness of touch) - The Great Gatsby is the story of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby who owns a lavish mansion on Long Island where he hosts extravagant parties. As later becomes clear, his only purpose is to come into contact again with his former flame Daisy, who lives across the Bay, exactly opposite him, and who is now married to another very rich man, Tom Buchanan. This Tom, by the way, is an ugly fascistoid white supremacist; he also has a mistress, Myrtle, the disgruntled wife of a garage owner on the outskirts of New York. Although Daisy is a vapid and spiritual empty shell who only floats where the money is (she was brought up in a rich household herself, how could it be otherwise), we have to believe that Gatsby has been madly in love with her, even though she jilted him for $$ five years ago when he was still poor. The present fortune of Gatsby, by the way, has been obtained through bootlegging and other illegal pursuits - he is hand in glove with several gangsters. The crisis comes when Gatsby openly professes his love and tries to pry Daisy loose from Tom. Then Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, inadvertently runs over and kills Myrtle in a hit-and-run traffic accident (a plot twist that is rather too coincidental to be believable); the garage owning husband, who knows the car, goes after Gatsby - thinking that he was the driver - and kills him in his swimming pool to take revenge for the traffic accident before committing suicide - and yes, he also confused Gatsby with Tom Buchanan as the lover of his wife. Final curtain. Isn't this a cheap soap opera? Of course, Gatsby's funeral is a very lonely affair as all the partying people have already forgotten about him and anyway, they hate contact with death. The Great Gatsby is, if anything, aesthetically overrated, with a plot that is just silly. (Between brackets: that is why the plotless stories of, for example, Chekhov are so great - too much plot is just ridiculous. Life doesn't have a plot, either).

(2) the unnatural characterization - this is not a realistic novel, but a fable. The love of Gatsby for Daisy is not made plausible in the book, probably also because Daisy is only a piece of fluff. It is Scott-Fitzgerald's fault that he does not fill in the attraction or the psychological motivation between these two main players. It now seems that Daisy doesn't really return Gatsby's feelings but only plays along with him out of boredom, or to take avenge on her philandering husband - the novel certainly is not a "love story" as many people seem to believe (again due to reading the book as a teenager, I guess). When coming to Gatsby, I had just read John Updike's Couples and kept comparing both books - after all, both novels tell stories of adultery and love for a married woman. I found Updike vastly superior. His characters are just as ugly - in different ways - as those in The Great Gatsby, but they are real. His protagonists also behave like grown-ups do in the real world - no coincidental deadly traffic accidents, no convenient murders and no suicides here. But the attraction people may feel for the partner of another and the complex emotional problems such behavior engenders, are only properly addressed in Couples, while The Great Gatsby skims the surface by opting for cheap melodrama. In the end, neither Gatsby nor Daisy are believable characters. I don't mind that the characters are not likeable (unlikeable characters populate the greatest novels of the world) but I object to their being not real. The book is psychologically vacant.

There is also one plus point:
Not everything is bad in The Great Gatsby, and I probably would like the book better if it was not so overhyped. The descriptions of the parties Gatsby hosts are immaculate, Scott-Fitzgerald here demonstrates clearly the decadent, empty spirit of those times - in a most enjoyable way. And the style is beautifully polished, without calling too much attention to itself.

My final judgement:
But, when we make up the final reckoning, the positives are by far not enough to save this book as a superb novel, let alone the Great American Novel it has been made out to be. It can't compare with anything Henry James has written (surely, The Wings of the Dove is much better!), nor with Moby Dick, or Huckleberry Finn, or The Adventures of Augie MarchRabbit RunGravity's RainbowAmerican Pastoral, and many others. Perhaps it is so popular because it is short and easy to consume.

May 4, 2013

"Couples" (1968) by John Updike (Book Review)

John Updike (1932-2009) was the chronicler of American small town life among middle-class WASPs, most famously in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy (Rabbit Run, 1960; Rabbit Redux, 1971; Rabbit is Rich, 1981; and Rabbit at Rest, 1990), but not less incisively in the 1968 novel Couples. This last book was even a succès de scandale because of the for that time explicit love scenes. Due to its frankness, the novel is often paired with two other literary landmarks of the sexual revolution, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge.

Couples tells the stories of ten young married couples living in the "post-pill paradise" (two decades of promiscuity, until the AIDS scare put an end to it) and sleeping with each other in various combinations. Discreetly swapping partners, coming together for parties, sports and outings, they use adultery as a tool to relieve the boredom of small-town life. Sex seems their only refuge, almost like an emergent religion.

We could also turn things around and say that all these vigorous and constant couplings are a means to hide a state of inner emptiness, where the cure proves worse than the disease because nothing is as vapid as such mindless rituals. The newly won physical ease and freedom of the 1960s seem to make the couples forget that we remain always responsible for our actions. Great social change brings new moral choices with it.

That is brought home to Piet Hanema, a home remodeler with Dutch ancestry and a rather rough type who seems to "know" all the women of the town, and the tall and winsome Foxy Whitman, the wife of a stiff academic researcher and newcomer to the community. Piet is married to the sublime but unapproachable Angela. The old home of the Whitmans requires extensive remodeling, giving Piet and Foxy the opportunity to start a complicated relationship. When Piet and Foxy reject caution in their affair, which has some grotesque aspects (Foxy is pregnant with a child from her husband), they manage to shock the other couples and are finally ostracized. Decayed from within, the community then also falls apart. Piet is described as a regular churchgoer, but he proves himself totally lacking in moral consciousness, like most of the characters in the book. They just float like flotsam on the surface of life. It is Updike's greatness that he never resorts to preaching, but tellingly, in the last pages of the novel, the local church is hit by lightning and burns down.

The plot evolves against the background of historical events, such as the Kennedy assassination, in the years 1962-64. The book is rich in social and historical detail and has been called a time-capsule of the era. There are detailed descriptions of the homes and the furniture, of party games and party talk. John Updike writes a beautiful, even poetical prose, his lyricism stands in sharp contrast to the banality of the characters and the goings-on.

But it is not a grim book, on the contrary. Despite snaps of stream of consciousness prose, it reads as fast as a soap opera and contains much humor, not only in some situations such as when Piet and Foxy are almost caught in the bathroom by Angela, and Piet has to escape via a narrow window, but also in the larger story. It is possible to read the final events as irony, by interpreting Foxy's breaking of the news of her affair to her husband as a willful act, so that she can get a divorce from the man she abhors and at the same time wreck Piet's marriage in the hope that he will marry her. She succeeds and in this way, the serial adulterer is caught and finally tamed.

John Updike was born in Pennsylvania, went to Harvard and spent most of his life in Ipswitch, a small town in Massachusetts - like the fictional Tarbox in Couples, within commuting distance from Boston's academia. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and wrote more than fifty books, among which over twenty novels. He was one of the greatest American fiction writers, a true man of letters with a far-reaching influence, generally praised for his intellectual vigor and the excellence of his powerful prose style, a writer also who was at home in many genres. Like Chekhov for Russia, he was the realistic chronicler of American life in the broadest sense, as he expressed it himself: "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due."