Friday 24 May 2013

The profound shallowness of The Great Gatsby

I’m still not sure what to make of The Great Gatsby, though I must have read it half a dozen times over the years for different reasons. It’s hard not to be distracted by the noise. For such a delicate thing it seems to be burdened with an awful lot of cultural clutter. Is it, for example, the Great American Novel? I’m not sure what kind of beast that would be, but if the phrase suggests anything other than a great novel that happens to be written by an American, I suppose it must be some sort of national epic. 

It seems to me that to fit that definition a novel would need a wider social range. I get that there’s a distinction between Old Money and New Money in The Great Gatsby, but No Money doesn’t get much of a look-in. The narrator Nick Carraway isn’t in the Tom Buchanan class, with the spare cash to transport a stable full of polo ponies at a whim, but he’s able to support himself in New York while he learns the bond business: “Everybody I knew was in the bond business,” he explains. “All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep school for me.”

Nick is ironic at his own expense here, as he generally is about Tom and Daisy and the rest of moneyed class.  But that ironic tone is itself a mark of privilege, a style of slightly bored detachment that he shares effortlessly with other members of his narrow social set.

So if not the Great American Novel, is it at least a novel about the American Dream? Well it’s certainly about an American who has a dream. But it’s a peculiarly impractical dream that’s obsessively resistant to forward motion. Gatsby, in case you’ve forgotten, has made himself wealthy by unscrupulous means and bought himself a mansion, which he has thrown open to the whole of New York’s high society, all for the purpose of attracting Daisy, who once rejected him because he was poor. 

The only representative of that class of Americans who work hard in the pursuit of prosperity – or “happiness” as the Declaration of Independence has it – is the utterly hapless George Wilson, husband of Tom Buchanan’s mistress. Wilson struggles to run a garage, a business enterprise in which neither Fitzgerald, nor his narrator Nick Carraway, show any interest. Wilson and the other inhabitants of the “valley of ashes” that lies between Manhattan and New York’s Long Island suburbs are described as “ash-grey men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” They hardly register as people, let alone as individuals with their own dreams and aspirations.

The other candidate for American Dreamhood is Gatsby’s mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim. Wolfsheim is definitely a self-made man and, judging by his accent, an immigrant, which makes him a representative of the old world’s huddled masses, who have been drawn over the centuries to make a new life in America. But Wolfsheim is also a gangster who wears cufflinks made from human molars, a grotesque, shadowy figure who needs Gatsby – “an Oggsford man”—to put a semi-legitimate face on his crooked deals.  Fitzgerald is uncomfortably complicit in this and other stereotypes accepted by the privileged insiders.

Of course Fitzgerald can see that his rich characters are indifferent to the lives of the working people on whom they depend. How else could he construct a sentence as brilliantly pointed as this: “There was machine in [Gatsby’s] kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.”

But Fitzgerald is no more interested in the Butler than Gatsby is. Work is not his subject. He’s fascinated by wealth, not by the pursuit of wealth, and certainly not by its creation. Class in The Great Gatsby is a static condition and to rise socially seems to depend on a kind of fraud. I think this is why I find references to the novel’s American-ness so unhelpful.

I’m more conscious of its European connections and, behind that , its archetypal resonance. I think of Great Expectations. Gatsby is a cousin to Pip, with Wolfsheim as his Magwitch, the criminal who has made him a gentleman. Pip too harbours the delusion that his social rise will allow him to win the beautiful rich girl who rejected him in his impoverished youth.

In his obsession with the past, Gatsby is related more distantly to Dumas’ Edmond Dantès, who escapes from wrongful imprisonment, acquires fabulous wealth and returns as the Count of Monte Cristo to haunt the lives of those who have injured him, including the beautiful Mercédès, now married to his enemy.

Gatsby’s story is a variation on Wuthering Heights, another tale of an impoverished and low-born lover who is rejected in favour of an aristocratic rival, but returns a wealthy man to brood in his desolate house, across the moor from where his soul-mate endures a life of decorous boredom.

It’s also a version of Beauty and the Beast, with Gatsby’s house as the enchanted castle. And it’s the story of Tam Lin, who lures Janet to his magic forest and then instructs her how she can liberate him from his captivity by pulling him from his horse as he rides with the fairies on Halloween, holding him while he shifts through many fearful shapes, until finally he will appear in his own person as a naked knight.

My guess is that for most people who love The Great Gatsby what they love is Fitzgerald’s ability to capture such a sense of enchantment. And when they talk about his style they mean his ability to spin one outrageously sumptuous sentence after another and most times get away with it. He’s a poet of the fleeting beauty of youth, a master of the melancholy cadence, always more than half in love with the life of careless indulgence that is the object of his satire. He exposes all that’s frivolous about the flapper generation, but it’s when he’s describing their frivolity that he’s at his most characteristically seductive:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor. Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.

Nick Carraway says of Gatsby that “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him.” Out of such gestures as this sketch of Daisy’s youthful life, in all its fragility and yearning, is constructed the gorgeousness of Fitzgerald’s novel. 

Footnote: For a bright and elegantly written review of Baz Luhrmann’s film, see the website of friend and colleague Claire Dyer, who liked it much more than me. A fan of the book, Claire confesses to reading it through rose-tinted spectacles, but doesn’t say whether she wore red and blue ones to see the film.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Wandering the back streets of Budapest

Leni has a few days’ work in Budapest and I’m joining her because the hotel room is paid for and so why not? I’m glad to be in a city I don’t know and get a brief glimpse of an unfamiliar culture. 

But I’m an awkward tourist. I’m too conscious of the futility of gawping at the approved novelties. If there’s snobbery in this, it’s the kind E.M. Forster pokes fun at in Adele and Mrs Moore searching for “the real India”.

There’s another kind of snobbery, of which I’m not guilty, that expresses itself in a desire to preserve high art for those with sufficient knowledge and refinement to appreciate it (I once heard it suggested that tourist visas to Venice should be issued only to those who pass a test). I’m afraid I’d too often fall on the wrong side of that divide and am, in any case, suspicious of the class distinctions we’re sometimes encouraged to impose on culture. 

I'm inclined to think that one man’s schlock is another man’s objet d’art, and it’s all subject to commodification anyway in the kind of tourist route that leads you from ticket booth, to museum, to gift shop, to café serving typical local dishes and accepting euros.

As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to submit with better grace to the role of tourist. But I’m happiest when I have a project. For Leni, visiting the Jewish quarter is definitely a project. All four of her grandparents migrated from Eastern Europe. There's some interesting vagueness about where from exactly – they were Yiddish speaking Jews who had left the old country behind and the hardship of life in the ghetto or the shtetl – but they all came from somewhere in Lithunia, Poland or Hungary.

Leni is pleased to discover that in Budapest more evidence of that old world survives than in Warsaw or Vilnius, including the Great Synogogue, the largest in Europe. Bombed by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party shortly before WWII, and later by the Allies, it’s been extensively restored, partly with funding from Estée Lauder (born Josephine Esther Mentzer).

Its troubles aren’t over, however. In 2012 the Jobbik party burnt an Israeli flag outside, thereby crossing the line between demonstrating against the policies of a foreign government and intimidating a local minority. As a Hungarian friend succinctly explains: far right parties in Western Europe are anti-Muslim; in Eastern Europe they’re anti-Semitic (a deceptively symmetrical formulation that perhaps raises more questions than it answers).

Visiting the Great Synagogue is top of Leni’s to-do list, but so far we’ve failed to get inside. Our first attempt was on Sunday morning and the queue was round the block. We checked the guide book for opening times and decided to return on a weekday.

We were back first thing this morning but found it shut. A young security guard in a black baseball cap said it was closed for two days. We crossed the street and ordered some breakfast. Then I went back to speak to the guard again. You’re closed to tourists, I said, but what about worshippers? He gave me a challenging look and said, “What festival is this?” I certainly hadn’t mugged up for a quiz on the Jewish calendar. I’m not Jewish, I told him, but my wife is. “Six o’clock” he said. “You’re wife only. No bag, no camera.”

I’d considered using the word pilgrim. It would have been more accurate. Leni has no intention of worshipping a patriarchal and sectarian god, but is legitimately responding to an impulse to stand where her ancestors may once have stood. But I was afraid the word might sound too Christian for my purpose. I needn’t have worried. Wikipedia informs me that Shavuot, which falls this week (according to the kind of arcane calculation that determines such movable feasts), is one of three Jewish festivals of pilgrimage, when in ancient times Jews were expected to travel to the temple in Jerusalem. 

I also discover that it’s associated with the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the eating of cheese blintzes. If I’d taken the trouble to learn this in advance I might have offered a cheese blintz to the guard.

Denied entrance for the time being, we explored the backstreets, paused outside the forbidding façade of the orthodox synagogue, and then turning down the narrow Rumbach Sebestyen Street found a third synagogue, derelict and neglected, where we were free to wander for three-quarters of an hour with two or three other visitors. Who knows, we probably had an experience that was, in its own way, more culturally rich, spiritually engaging and authentically atavistic than the one we’d planned. And we didn’t have to pass a test to get in.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Vicious but not very funny

In 1965, Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) began to make their weekly appearance on the BBC radio comedy show Round the Horne.  In whatever role they were inserted into the narrative, they always announced themselves with the same mincing line: "Ooh ‘ello! I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy!"

The brilliance of the script (by Barry Took and Marty Feldman) was its ability to smuggle outrageous references past the BBC censors and into the consciousness of those who had ears to hear. When the pair turned up as lawyers, Julian said, "We've got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time". On another occasion, Sandy spoke of Julian’s piano-playing as “a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright".

These were subversive jokes. Private homosexual acts were still punishable by imprisonment. Most gay men had no choice but to stay in the closet. Did Julian and Sandy promote a stereotype? Of course. But a camp manner and a language of sexually charged double-entendres was the only style in which a gay identity could be made visible, or (for the radio audience) audible. Portrayals of gay life were either outrageously comic or suicidally grim. Normal was not yet an option.

Now a crack team of writers and actors are, for some reason, recycling a dismal version of the same old stuff – gay with all the gaiety knocked out of it. In Vicious, a new ITV sitcom, revered classical actors Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi play a couple who have been living together for 48 years, which means they must have met the year Julian and Sandy made their first appearance. Coincidence? Probably. But if we imagine them as Julian and Sandy grown old, they’ve also grown mean. Judging from the first episode, they’ve sunk into a state of mutual loathing and are reduced to addressing each other in carping put-downs.

In this case, context is all. Julian and Sandy were a force for progress. They were part of the cultural climate that made it possible for the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 to decriminalise homosexual acts in private. Who was offended by Round the Horne? Daily Mail readers, perhaps. Half a century later, I find myself harrumphing at the telly – screaming queen jokes just aren’t that amusing any more – while the Daily Mail declares the new show “an instant classic”.

I don't blame the actors. Actors have to work and must make the most of the script they're given. The writers are Mark Ravenshill, a respected playwright, and Gary Janetti, who was executive producer of Will and Grace. Both of them are gay, so I have to assume they know what they’re doing. I don’t.