Gap years

The gap between reality and our dreams is the key to understanding the enduring appeal of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell tells Femke Colborne

Sarah Churchwell can still clearly remember the first time she read The Great Gatsby. As a 16-year-old American high school student, she was instantly captivated by the book’s romance, glamour and decadence. But though she felt sure it was a hugely important novel, the 16-year-old Churchwell couldn’t quite put her finger on why. That frustrated her, and it wasn’t until she returned to the book years later, as an adult and academic at the University of East Anglia, that she began to fully appreciate what made Gatsby great.

“I had the sense that I was reading something very special and very beautiful, but I knew I didn’t fully understand why or what it was about,” she says. “The main points of the story are easy enough to follow and it’s easy to understand that there’s a love triangle and Gatsby wants to get Daisy back. But there are many passages that are very enigmatic, where Fitzgerald doesn’t come right out and say explicitly what he means, where he’s hinting and ironic and sly. Those were making themselves felt, somewhere in my brain, and yet I knew that I didn’t understand what they meant.”

Leonardo DiCaprio is the best screen Gatsby to date, says Churchwell
Leonardo DiCaprio is the best screen Gatsby to date, says Churchwell

Now, though, 43-year-old Churchwell has a firm grip on Fitzgerald’s mesmerising prose. She’s become one of the world’s leading authorities on Gatsby and recently published a book dedicated to the novel: Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. She’ll be talking about it at Matt & Phreds jazz club in Manchester this week, accompanied by the 1920s jazz band Alligator Gumbo, who will help to recreate some of the glitz and glamour of the  roaring twenties.

It was when Churchwell started paying closer attention to Fitzgerald’s language that she began to understand why the book had initially seemed so elusive to her. “Fitzgerald uses language to suggest something and then take it away at the same time,” she says. “So he often uses words like ‘incommunicable’ or ‘unutterable’. There’s this idea that there’s something out there but you can’t quite articulate it. That idea works its way into our brains as we’re reading the book without our even being aware of it.”

There is also minute attention to detail in the imagery, she says. “It’s very carefully patterned and there is a constant symmetry. One small example is the famous green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, which symbolises his hope in progress and love. At the very end of the novel, when Myrtle is run over and the witnesses at the accident are being interviewed by the police, the first one says that he thought the car that killed her was light green. Nobody even notices it, and you don’t have to notice it. But that little inversion is an ironic flip – the green light is a lie and is actually destructive.”

Fitzgerald’s clever use of language helps to evoke powerful images of glamour and indulgence, she says, appealing to all the senses. “It’s an incredibly glamorous novel, there’s no question about that, and Fitzgerald is really good at evoking that glamour. He gives you all the pleasure of poetry, all the beauty of the language and the lush, evocative images. The cocktails float; women also float; voices don’t speak, they glow; he has yellow cocktail music and blue lawns; the turkeys are ‘bewitched to a dark gold’. He uses the language of romance and enchantment and magic to create a party that everyone wants to go to.”

Churchwell believes this attention to detail is one of the reasons Gatsby has become such an iconic novel. Because it has so many different layers, she says, it appeals across the generations: young people read it as a romantic love story, but older people begin to see a darker side to the book. Instead of interpreting it as an idealised love story, they begin to see it as quite a dark novel about the futility of dreaming and the destructive power of hollow materialism. “It is a novel that 16-year-olds love, but then when you come back to it when you’re 26, 36 and 46, you keep finding different things in it and it grows with you,” she says.

Martha Leebolt as Daisy and Tobias Batley as Gatsby in Northern Ballet's production. Photo: Jason Tozer
Martha Leebolt as Daisy and Tobias Batley as Gatsby in Northern Ballet’s production. Photo: Jason Tozer

That universal appeal is one of the reasons the story of Gatsby has appealed to so many filmmakers over the years. The latest version, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, hit the cinemas earlier this year. But Churchwell is less than impressed with Luhrmann’s adaptation. “I think Leonardo DiCaprio is that best screen Gatsby to date and he comes very close to understanding Fitzgerald’s intentions – but I don’t think Luhrmann does. He doesn’t want Gatsby to be a failure, but in fact the whole story is about how Gatsby fails. He makes the film that Gatsby would have wanted to make.”

Churchwell believes that despite Gatsby’s cinematic appeal, it is a very difficult novel to film. “It’s about the way in which reality always falls short of our dreams and the superiority of our imagination over reality,” she says. “So by definition that’s a pretty hard thing to film. In particular, the novel inspires our imagination to work in exactly the same way Gatsby’s does. We all have our imaginary visions of Gatsby and Daisy and the parties and the houses, and the whole thrust of the novel is that nothing in reality is ever going to live up to what people imagine.”

In the end, she says, Gatsby leaves us with a feeling that although dreaming is futile, our imagination is still something we couldn’t live without. “That’s where Gatsby’s greatness lies, if he is great – in his capacity for hope,” she says. “It’s a cynical novel that recognises that romance is an illusion and a lie, but it also recognises that we can’t do without it, so it’s a necessary illusion. To put it in slightly crude terms, it’s a novel about the difference between what your head knows and what your heart hopes. That romantic hope is an illusion, and yet it is wonderful to have it.”

The Great Gatsby Uncovered: Sarah Churchwell and Alligator Gumbo is part of Manchester Literature Festival and takes place on 11 October at Matt & Phreds Jazz Club, Manchester ( Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby is published by Virago

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