Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lessons From the Prose - The Great Gatsby

I'm taking liberties with this edition of Lessons From The Pros to point you to Roger Ebert's recent post about reading literacy, the power of prose, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's mastery of literary style with his classic novel, The Great Gatsby. There's something to be said here about what makes a good story into a great novel. Ebert introduces his piece with a bit of compare / contrast:

I noticed the particular beauty of its conclusion. After the whole doomed scenario has played out, Nick looks once again across the waters of the Sound:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an ├Žsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

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.

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--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Evocative. Poetic. Perfect. Too good, in fact, for the "intermediate level" readers of the Macmillan Reader edition of the novel, as "retold by Margaret Tarner."*

Read her closing words:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?
About the novel - that work is widely considered to be one of the quintessential examples of the Great American Novel, and is ranked second in a list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. Fitzgerald was a master stylist, and crafted his tales in a unique fashion. "Literary opinion makers were reluctant to accord Fitzgerald full marks as a serious craftsman. His reputation as a drinker inspired the myth that he was an irresponsible writer; yet he was a painstaking reviser whose fiction went through layers of drafts. Fitzgerald’s clear, lyrical, colorful, witty style evoked the emotions associated with time and place."

And so, knowing all that about this singular writer and his incomparable novel, who would try to rewrite Gatsby? A novel is more than just the journalistic recording of a story, it is about the craft and artistry and singular voice by which the novel is rendered.

"I learn that the Margaret Tarner "retelling" employs an Intermediate Level vocabulary of "about 1,600 basic words." Upper Level students can feast on 2,200 basic words.

There are so many things I want to say about this that even an Upper Level vocabulary may prove inadequate.

The first is: There is no purpose in "reading" The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.
There is a place for style, for artistry. I love looking at how novels are started. Consider the difference between "I am a lonely sailor" and "Call me Ishmael." Contrast "It was a cold, hard winter" versus "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Literary prose is more than just the telling of a story, it is also how that story is told.

We were talking about this among ourselves recently, noting that readers are smart and don't need nearly as much hand-holding to understand a story as you might think. Part of the brilliance of the original Star Wars novel (which we now know as Episode Four, A New Hope) was how George Lucas plopped us right in the middle of a much larger story without explaining all the back story. Lucas (and his ghost writer for that novel, Alan Dean Foster) introduced the desert planet of Tatooine and its binary stars. It was not necessary to detail all the history leading up to that moment. Without prologue, Lucas started right off with a fleeing cruiser being attacked by a pursuing Imperial Star Destroyer. In the first five pages, he introduces the two droids, the massive Dark Lord of the Sith, and the mysterious Princess.

It is enough. We're hooked. And if you can cultivate the unique voice of an F. Scott Fitzgerald, you not only have the events of the story, but also the artisty of the author and his prose. Tell your own story. Develop your own voice.

* I'm as quick as any to point out the need to be aware of one's audience, and context is important. Roger amended his post to reflect that Tarner's book was written for students of English as a second language. He adds "If it is, my question would be: Why not have ESL learners begin with Young Adult novels? Why not write books with a simplified vocabulary? Why eviscerate Fitzgerald? Why give a false impression of Jay Gatsby?" Fair question.
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  1. Great post, Johne. Very thought provoking.

    Personally, I had difficulty reading "The Great Gatsby" but recognize its place as a great novel. But, that's just me. ;) And, it had nothing to do with vocabulary.

  2. The Great Gatsby has been on my list for quite a while now, and I'm slowly inching closer to it in my pursuit of the classics. It's cited so often that I feel I probably know the whole plot by now, but I'm still looking forward to reading it. Good post.

  3. I should mention that I'm neither defending nor judging Gatsby - I'm Mr. Genre Guy, after all - but I am saying that we should read the work as it was written, not as it was re-written.

  4. Amen, Johne! The classics are just that...the classics! Leave them alone! I've been wanting to read it also. Such an interesting post. Thanks, Johne!

  5. 'Literary prose is more than just the telling of a story, it is also how that story is told.' This is why we agonise about opening lines, and in fact all the other ones that follow. It's why when we write a synopsis it seems to have no soul, because every syllable of the journey is as important as the events. Terrific post, Johne. Hear, hear.

  6. I agree completely. If ESL said students aren’t fluent enough to read The Great Gatsby, why can’t you prescribe them a book they actually are equipped to read? Why would you rewrite and effectively ruin a classic when there is a plethora of perfectly appropriate and beautifully written books out there? And if you want them read The Great Gatsby, why won’t you allow them to actually read The Great Gatsby rather than a butchered, simplistic mockery of it? Using tools like Shmoop, high school students- ESL and otherwise- can read the actual text, look it up, understand its significance, the literary devices employed, the underlying meaning, etc. So why resort to rewriting and ruining a classic?