I was in the south of France when I read The Great Gatsby for the first time. Settled in a lonesome cottage, fifteen minutes drive from a remote town, and looking over a foggy canal. I was trying to make use of the free time and winter fire. If this sounds like the ideal place to read one of the greatest novels of all time, it was. I must admit, I read the book under a little duress. I had made myself a holiday reading schedule, and The Great Gatsby was one book that I knew, as a writer, I was meant to read. I knew this was a novel that would make impact. It did, but like most influential things in my life, it grasped me slowly, not taking hold until long after I finished the last page.
There was something about Gatsby. He niggled at me. He pulled at my inquisitive brain parts, slowly gnawing at my core. I became obsessed with him, like I did numerous other characters. The damaged ones, the ones who were fighting for an inexplicit meaning in life, the meaning that we—as inferior creatures—were either unknowing or undetermined. I guess there was a part of me who enjoyed coming across characters who made me feel like they were making sense of the world—organising the chaos by making it more chaotic. For some reason, these characters died just before I felt like they were coming to some kind of resolution, their faults then forgotten. Gatsby was ultimately a fake, but even when his story was over, in my mind and in many others, he became an enigma. Was I just disillusioned by the discourse of these “hopeful greats”, who breezed into my life embodying the same complexities as I harbored, yet they died, leaving theirs suspended in the air?
The most moving aspects of art are often the parts left unsaid, missed out, the pauses between words. The Great Gatsby suspended dramatic happenings in an almost subdued way, letting me bring my own wisdom to these situations, colouring the gaps within my own mind. In my numerous attempts in trying to make sense of these pauses, I came across a somewhat apt insight by Matthew J Bolton in, “A Fragment of Lost Words” – Narrative Ellipsis in The Great Gatsby. Bolton discusses these omissions in the novel, and how they’re both, “concise and elliptical” allowing for exhaustive interpretations.
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 then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
This infamous last line left me suspended, wondering what I was hoping for and what I had missed. Nick, the narrator of the novel, uses a long dash in this line of the book; Bolton suggests that this is a break away from the present, reaching out to an idealised future, he is caught between, “an elusive future and an irredeemable past”. Maybe it was these pauses that inspired me, leaving me introspective, caught somewhere between the past and the future. Maybe, these pauses were what attracted other people to The Great Gatsby. The last line was wondrous, leaving endless possibilities—making me ask questions. It left so much unsaid, but represented more than I could comprehend.
I began to think about representation generally. The Great Gatsby and The Obscene Word by Barbara Will quotes an earlier draft of the novel where Nick Carraway makes this observation about Gatsby; “He was provokingly elusive and what he was intrinsically ‘like’ I’m powerless to say.” I couldn’t agree more. What created this elusivity, which made Gatsby an inevitable enigma, even to the point where the narrator himself, couldn’t find the language to describe him?
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.
Richard Lehan discusses this quote of Fitzgerald’s in regards to personage. He says that, “personage moves beyond personality to a more essential form of self—self as a process, an accumulated sense of what one can become.” This goes beyond representation then, to something unspeakable—a feeling of infinity. This “infinity” is a feeling I have felt only a hand full of times, it’s the feeling that anything is possible, and it’s the same feeling I feel when I think about Gatsby.
Through Will’s explanation of the “obscene”—beyond the terms of representable, and “the abject”—”a place where meaning collapses”, Gatsby is described as a “signifying void”, a character that cannot be represented. Maybe this is why Gatsby is imbrued with such an elusive quality, and why I’m so enamored by him.
Shortly after finishing the book, I realised that Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic attempt at The Great Gatsby was coming out in six months. If Nick Carraway couldn’t find the language to describe Gatsby, how could Luhrmann translate this to in a movie? Wouldn’t any representation of Gatsby be rendered meaningless? Before seeing the film, I read Jason Bailey’s article, Why Cant Hollywood Get ‘The Great Gatsby’ Right? Parallel to the narrative ellipsis I mentioned earlier, Bailey says—“Fitzgerald’s words paint the pictures and play the scenes so vividly that most readers have already seen the movie, in their heads”. I felt the same, there was a whole “Gatsby” world inside my head, and I really didn’t want anything disrupting it. I wondered, if some of us were at least mildly aware of The Great Gatsby’s use of ellipsis, and the inability to represent a novel perfectly, how then, did Baz Luhrmann have a chance in hell in representing this ideal?
Going through a year of an Arts degree had put me in a position of being a little less closed minded in regards to artistic attempts at representing art. Perhaps, this movie would be a good thing, allowing me to indulge in contemplating this elusive character further.
With all of this in mind, I was apprehensive when the time came to watch The Great Gatsby. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for, maybe just a little more insight into Jay Gatsby himself.
After two and a half hours, I walked out surprisingly feeling that Luhrmann did an admirable job, managing to include integral elements of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, modernising the iconic story, without losing its magical romanticism. Leonardo DiCaprio was charming, exuding many of Gatsby’s wondrous tendencies. I can’t think of anyone else who could have pulled it off quite as well. Carey Mulligan captured Daisy’s whimsical femininity amazingly, but also her confusion and weaknesses. I left the cinema feeling the same curiosity and confusion as I had when I finished the book. But…I hadn’t found Gatsby. I was still asking the same question—“Gatsby? Who is this Gatsby?”
Once home, I still had an insatiable appetite for this wondrous man. I couldn’t get enough. I searched for more reviews. I was interested to see what the critics had to say. Not surprisingly, many of them were negative, but I guess that’s what film reviews do—critique, but something didn’t sit well with me. The word “authentic” was thrown around like confetti. What would make this film more authentic, what were we trying to capture here? Would it be more authentic if Luhrmann cut out the special effects and filmed with a scratchy lens, in the hope to represent nostalgia for a time passed? The reviews seemed to serve something elusive themselves, this obsession with authenticity, which in many ways didn’t exist. The Great Gatsby definitely brought out the “purists” amongst us, the ones who were concerned with preserving timeless literature, and against exploring ideas any further. I empathised with this way of thinking, but I also felt these views served elitist attitudes rather than anything constructive. Most reviewers felt that Baz Luhrmann didn’t get it “right”, that he missed the “mark”. They all had one common, underlying message, something was lost in Luhrmann’s adaptation, and something integral about The Great Gatsby wasn’t represented right. Leonard Maltin in his Gatsby review on Indiewire said, “But in the end, no filmmaker has been able to capture the elusive qualities that have made the book an enduring masterpiece.” Yes, but even Nick Carraway couldn’t put his finger on the iridescent qualities of Jay Gatsby—the reason he’s so magical.
I wondered if this incessant hope of creating an adaptation which somehow managed to “pull off” what the book did, was similar to the hope of Gatsby, the re-creation of his nostalgic idea of his past with Daisy? When I read the book and later watched the movie, I wanted more. I felt like I was grasping for the same thing Gatsby was. Something that was neither here, nor there—like the green light, flashing at the end of Daisy’s dock. Edward Watson Howe says that good music makes us homesick for something we never had, and never will have. But, we continue to yearn for it, this…unknown “thing”. Gatsby never had Daisy, not really, and when he supposedly got close to having her back in reality, the power of the green light faded—something was lost. Like nostalgia and hope—the power is behind these words—it’s an intangible ideal. What we are looking for is Gatsby’s idealised version of reality, and what Wills describes as satisfying the, “evanescent and the intangible…the confirmation of “the unreality of reality.” If this reality is intangible then, what chance do we have to represent this idea of authentic realism in a movie?
A.O Scott said in his New York Times review, “ ‘Gatsby’ is not gospel; it is grist for endless reinterpretation.” I agree; The Great Gatsby is bound up in countless discourses that dupe us into feeling certain ways. It’s a classic, and yes we must treasure it, but I think it’s a wonderful thing to reinterpret the text in different ways, even if it doesn’t feel “right” at times. I also disagree with Scott’s statement; if it were true, it would be to say that The Great Gatsby is without wonder, and that this character doesn’t affect us. He does, or we wouldn’t be spending so much time theorising him. Caryn James speaks of this “ineffable sense of wonder” that has made it almost impossible to translate the novel to another form. Almost, but not impossible, right? There goes that undying Gatsby hope again, critics hoping for a miracle translation of this ellipsis of feeling. James says that, “For dramatists, getting ”Gatsby” whole, in all its glory, may be the most elusive dream of all.” Maybe this is the elusive dream, to represent Gatsby “whole”. But that would assume that Gatsby was “there” from the beginning, that he was real. Gatsby is neither in the past, nor in the present. I think he is as real as the green light he stared at every day. He was, and still is, an ellipsis—the space between, the elusive and the indescribable enigma. Barbara Will words it like this; “Gatsby ultimately represents a glorified version of ‘us’ ”, like the unreality of nostalgia, this glorified version of us is intangible. This determined banging on representation’s door and hoping for perfection is pointless. Yet, I don’t detest this hope, besides, it’s only asking; “Who is this Gatsby? What does he represent? What does it all mean?” And what wonderful questions to ask, wonderful questions that only end in ellipsis…an ellipsis that serves no purpose, no purpose but hope, and a version of reality that we may never know.