So far so good on my 2011 reading challenge – one down, twenty four to go.
It’s quite a long time since I tried to talk intelligently about books, 16 years in fact since I did English at school. I’ve been to book groups sporadically, but they often tend to be more about the snacks and the wine than the books, plus you have loads of other people to bounce off, so you get more of an idea of the right thing to say.
However, I have resisted the urge to google The Great Gatsby for clever sounding things to say, and obviously I couldn’t be bothered to read the introduction, so I basically have no idea what the book is meant to be about. Instead I’m just going to go with how it made me feel. Don’t laugh…
The first thing I want to say is how true it felt. The idea that you can create your own version of reality, build a version of yourself, of someone else, or of the life you feel you should have with someone, resonated totally with me. It’s what we do all the time isn’t it? (It’s pretty much what I was talking about yesterday in fact). It’s why it’s always better to regret the things you have done, rather than the things you’ve not done, because the things you don’t do, the people you never have, can turn into something amazing in your mind – the potential, the dream of what could have been, is very powerful indeed.
It made me think of my relationship with Prince Not-So-Charming. I say relationship, but the reality of course was that there was never really a relationship, only the illusion of one, just words, just a vision of future possibilities dangled temporarily before me. The trouble in situations like that is that the love you have for someone isn’t based in anything real. It is just a version of the future that you imagine might be possible, without the real experience of what loving that person would really be like. When you grieve a relationship like that, it is not so much the loss of the person you grieve, as the loss of what might have been.
Gatsby spends years chasing his dream, his vision of what he imagines life with Daisy could be like. He turns himself into the kind of person he thinks Daisy wants and needs him to be, setting her up on a pedestal so high he cannot fail to be disappointed.
The illusion of the life that Gatsby creates for himself is a potent one. His father is intoxicated with it, and clings to this image of his son after his death – ‘His pride in his son and in his son’s possessions was continually increasing and now he had something to show me…It was a photograph of the house, cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands. He pointed out every detail to me…He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself.’
For the first few chapters, I did find it quite hard to concentrate, hard to follow events. Even though the narrator seemed to be going to a lot of trouble to tell me what time it was, I still felt a bit like I was suspended in some sort of weird parallel universe, where weeks were passing, but somehow it was never night, always approaching dawn, always ‘filling the house with grey-turning, gold-turning light.’
I loved the way the weather was used to add to the atmosphere too – when everyone was sat around in the suite in New York towards the end, when Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship was being brought out into the open, I could feel the heat bearing down on me, on everyone in the room. The extreme weather – the oppressive heat, the pouring rain turning Carraway’s lawn to ‘muddy swamps and prehistoric marshes’ – added to the feeling of unreality, it felt more like a caricature of the weather, an exaggerated version of events, just as Gatsby created an exaggerated version of himself for Daisy.
I’m sure most of us at some point have, like Gatsby, tried to change or sell ourselves in a particular way, tried to be what we think someone else wants us to be, but The Great Gatsby reminded me just how futile this is. Ultimately Gatsby’s illusion is just that, and when it starts to fall apart it does so quickly and brutally, revealing just how flimsy and unsustainable the lives we make for ourselves really can be.
So there you have it. That’s what I think about it. The Great Gatsby is a poignant reminder of the both the allure and the danger of confusing illusion with reality. Discuss.