Friday, January 24, 2014

Revisiting the Jazz Age

As I noted in my review on BookLikes, The Great Gatsby was never one of my favorite novels. I read it too young, before I had much clue about life or people or much of anything, and under the wrong circumstances—as a “classic,” according to my eleventh-grade school curriculum. After I grew up and began writing my own novels, I kept encountering passages from it in the craft books I was reading. I kept thinking I should go back and give it another try. It was short, it was beautifully written, and most of all, it was an American classic. Alas, even after I downloaded it to my iPad, I still could not make myself give it a go. Those teenage wounds strike deep.

That was true until last year, when I was scanning the Algonquin catalogue and saw the entry for Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth, the subject of last week’s post and my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. Guests on Earth deals with the last years of Zelda Fitzgerald, whom I—like many people—knew only as the template for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. I had no idea Zelda ended her days in a mental hospital, still less that she was a talented writer, dancer, and painter in her own right.

So, when the Dead Writers Society decided to pick The Great Gatsby as its group read for January, the very month in which I was scheduled to interview Lee Smith, the die was cast. I had to stop procrastinating and tackle Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, classic or not.

And … I was pleasantly surprised. No, I was amazed. Fitzgerald describes the privileged, money-obsessed, emotionally twisted world of his imagination in prose so lucid and exquisite that it haunts me long after I have set aside its 150 pages and moved on to other, meatier tomes.

The book is not perfect. It suffers from the racism and antisemitism that were endemic in the 1920s, as well as a sexism so deep that it is not even openly expressed (although Zelda, consciously or otherwise, rebelled against it) but simply lingers in the air like a miasma. Yet it also contains gems like these, with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby speaking of Daisy:

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of—” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…. High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl.

This tells us something, not simply about Daisy—perhaps least about Daisy—but about Nick and Gatsby and the society they live in, in which money rules, and old money especially. This image, of the princess in a white palace, also had a special resonance for Fitzgerald in his courtship of Daisy (and annoyed Zelda no end), as Lee Smith explains in her interview. It is great writing, and it deserves the designation of “classic.”

All of which goes to show that sometimes age does bring, if not wisdom, at least a new appreciation of things that at one time went unremarked. I’m glad I revisited Fitzgerald’s world. Perhaps I’ll stop by again sometime.

Challenge Update

As of January 24, 2014, I have read four books for History Challenge 2014: A Sail to the Past (Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the Lost Muse; Nancy Shields Kollmann, Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia; Ian Mortimer, A Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England; and Christina Ezrahi, Swans of the Kremlin). You can find my reviews on GoodReads and BookLikes. So I have attained the level of Scholar (my grad school professors would be proud). Next up is Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe, as I start to think about the plot for my next novel, The Swan Princess.

I owned those four before January 1, 2014, so they also count for the Reduce the TBR Challenge, together with Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom and Death of Kings. So I am one-quarter of the way toward the Mont Blanc level of 24 books. And I'm tearing through Behind the Shattered Glass—by a perennial favorite author of mine, Tasha Alexander, which is another from the TBR pile. If you'd like to know more about this series, check out her interview from this time last year.

Lots of books to go, but I have hope that I may actually make it through!

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