“… Without a doubt, the most beautifully written novel of all time,” the mini-review placard in the Colchester branch of Waterstones promised of The Great Gatsby when I went in the other day to find something to read. Hysterical hyperbole, I thought, surely. But then: what if it isn’t? And finally: maybe it’s worth a go, just in case.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The Great Gatsby is the tale of Jay Gatsby, a man consumed by the pursuit of a doomed dream. It is narrated by Nick Carroway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbour, whom Gatsby befriends at one of the numerous parties held at his Long Island mansion, where he lives a seemingly glamorous life, surrounded by socialites and celebrities. Underneath the glitter and the gold, however, Gatsby harbours a secret longing that motivates his every action and which he enlists Carroway to help him fulfil.
It is, at heart, a simple story and, at less than 200 pages, a lean book, with not a single word wasted. Through the shallow and largely selfish lives of his cast of affluent characters, F. Scott Fitzgerald exposes the moral vacuum at the heart of a society obsessed with wealth and status. He highlights the disillusionment of post-war America, the irretrievability of the past and the failure of the American Dream.
Though narrated by Carroway, it is, unsurprising, Gatsby himself who lights up the pages of the novel. He is the embodiment of the self-made man and has fashioned his life for a singular purpose; he has refined, cut and polished it such that every facet reflects his indefatigable dream; and, though flawed, there is something intensely likeable about him as consequence. He is a romantic and an idealist; and his instinct and capacity for wonder – his belief that “the rock of the world was founded on a fairy’s wing” – is incredibly charming.
Gatsby is a complex and enigmatic character, however. Perpetually surrounded by a whirl of gossip and rumour, he is a fascinating tangle of apparent contradictions: at once a hopeful, hapless dreamer and a shady, sinister criminal; a ruthless social climber and a sentimental romantic; a flamboyant socialite and a self-consciously anonymous observer. Even Carroway seems incapable of making up his mind about his friend, but this ontological vagueness is part of the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s novel and contributes to the vacillating allure of Gatsby because, even at the novel’s tragic conclusion, you’re never quite sure where the real truth lies.
Though funny and, at times, both violent and dark, The Great Gatsby is above all a profoundly moving book, full of pathos and pervaded by a deep sense of yearning and loss. However, thanks to Fitzgerald’s mastery of understatement and his wonderfully ambivalent characters, it never feels mawkish or sentimental. It is thought provoking, haunting and sumptuously written, with almost every page containing a paragraph, a sentence, or a phrase of such overwhelming beauty that, for a moment, you will forget to breathe.
Is it the most beautifully written novel of all time? I don’t know about that; I still have a few left to read. However, you could do an awful lot worse than giving it ago and deciding for yourself.