Revisiting friends

I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby. It’s a book I read for the first time in high school, maybe in my junior or senior year, I no longer remember which. I saw the book recently at a used bookstore and had to have it; I just wanted to experience it again. It’s one of those books that comes up a lot in conversation. It’s one of those books that comes up in other books. It was one of those books that came up a lot in my MFA workshops. In those discussions I nodded and smiled as though I knew what we were pointing to in the book that made it relevant to whatever piece of writing we were reading that week, but honestly, I couldn’t remember much about The Great Gatsby. I remembered the eyes on the cover, that there was a lot of 1920s excess, and that there was a character named Daisy.

I did remember that it was one of the rare books assigned in high school English classes that I liked. I wondered if I would still like it these years later. In fact, I do. I’m loving it. I love the writing, which is perhaps not why I liked it in high school — I was less interested in good writing then than I was in good stories. It seems now an odd book to give to high schoolers: There are a lot of illicit love affairs going on, and a lot of drinking and partying. Which is probably why I liked it.

But, now, the writing! It’s at once careful and over the top and I’ve been copying bits into my notebook to savor. (p. 125: “Her voice struggled on through the heat, beating against it, moulding its senselessness into forms.”) I don’t do this often, copy sentences into notebooks, though sometimes I think that I should. I once had a writing teacher say that to become a better writer you should copy down the words of writers you admire. The idea being that the act of writing out good writing in your own hand will eventually impact your own writing; that you will channel the voice of the admired author as you write.

It’s an old-school idea that doesn’t account for computers and makes writing longhand seem quaint, but still, it’s an idea that has some merit. Yet I don’t copy Fitzgerald’s words because I hope to channel him; I just like some of the phrases and I want to remember them. (p. 26: “…I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”) I do this occasionally and am always grateful when I return to the quotes much later, when the details and the emotion of the book are faded.

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8 thoughts on “Revisiting friends

  1. I taught The Great Gatsby last year when I took over a Great American Novels class, and I fell in love with it all over again too. And so did my students… what a wonderful novel.

  2. Will be interested as to what you think about Great Gatsby now that you re-read. I recently read Watership Down out loud to my 11-year-old. I couldn’t remember much about it from high school, which was part of the appeal of reading it again. I loved it the second time around, and my daughter loved it, too.

  3. My partner and I went to see Gatsby at the Guthrie here in Minnesota last year. Amid great controversy, the infamous Guthrie tore down its beautiful and historic building inside the Walker Art Center (and near where Louise Erdrich lives) and rebuilt a towering monument by the Mississippi designed by Jean Nouvel. I was inspired to write a piece about the changes I saw to the area when we saw The Great Gatsby last year.(http://redravine.wordpress.com/2006/11/28/natural-wonders-a-pentagram/)

    But what I want to say is that I LOVED seeing the play. I’ve never read the book but the first quote you mention above is sensual, as I found the play to be. I do the same thing you are talking about with quotes from books – they inspire me and my writing. We can learn a lot from other writers.

    I’m heading to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul tomorrow night to hear a poet read. I’m always amazed at how everything is connected!

    Thanks for your post,

    QuoinMonkey

  4. I’ve taught the book quite a few times over the years in high school classes, and I also reread it in the last year, just put it in my bathroom and read a bit every time I took a bath. More than 10 years ago I had a student who, after reading it, went on to write and put on a musical play about the Great Gatsby story, but from Daisy’s perspective. He cast kids from the school in it and put it on in the big main hall. Later he went to NYU and majored in musical theater direction. That novel can inspire so many, many things. I remember he had nice touches, like a very brief scene at her wedding. She mentions in the book that someone fainted at her wedding, so he put it in: the lights came up, showing the wedding scene, someone fell over in a faint, and the lights went down again!

    I have so many, many favorite lines from that novel, particularly about Tom and his change from libertine to prig, and also the way he bulges out of his riding boots and seems to say that he won’t hold it against you even though he’s more of a man than you are. (I don’t have the book in front of me to consult.) I also like the idea of privileged glimpses into people’s lives, and the dancers at the party, how was it? “old men pushing young girls backwards in eternal, graceless circles.” And the tray of drinks that floated at him at that party.

    But the best bit is at the end, when he thinks of those Dutch sailors contemplating the fresh green breast of the New World. I spent a fair bit of time asking my students what did that mean, and why was it in there. That’s a wonderful line about man facing something commensurate with his capacity for wonder for the last time. Not true, of course, since when the sun rises every morning I greet a lovely world commensurate with my capacity for wonder, but still a lovely bit of writing.

    I like everything about the book, even the little descriptions like where Nick’s ragged grass meets Gatsby’s smooth turf.

    I’m glad you read it again.

  5. There are some lovely sweeping passages at the end about the New World, and settlers moving across America and into the Midwest, aren’t there? I didn’t remember all that from the first time I read it. It’s amazing how much this novel seems to impact people still.

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