Friday, 14 February 2020

Re-reading The Great Gatsby

During my final years in Cambridge, my college would run a Great Gatsby themed formal dinner, which of course offered marvelous opportunities for dressing up. I even went to a costume party shop and asked for a suitable head band. But I wonder how many people at those dinners, students or Fellows, had actually read the novel. I had read it, I read it when I was very young, and I had vague memories of it. Therefore I included it in my 2020 re-reading challenge.

What I remembered was what anyone might know even without having read the book. It takes place in the 1920s, Gatsby is tremendously rich and gives huge parties, there is a romantic mystery, and he dies in the end. If you had asked me a week ago how he dies, I would have claimed with confidence that he commits suicide. (No spoilers, but he doesn't).

In many works of literary criticism The Great Gatsby is used as an example of witness-narrator: a first-person narrator who tells someone else's story. I have repeated this false statement many times. Nick Carraway is a highly self-centered narrator and occupies significantly more space in the novel than Gatsby. I was surprised to notice that Gatsby is only present marginally in the first third of the book, as a neighbour with a dubious reputation. Encounter with Gatsby shatters Nick's worldview, makes him abandon his career – Nick is doubtless the main character in his own story, while Gatsby is what narratologists would call a catalyst, a character who affects the protagonist's fate. A substantial bit of the plot also revolves around Nick's romantic involvement. In other words, Nick is in no way an objective biographer. It is his story, not Gatsby's. And as a narrator, he is totally unreliable, not least because he repeatedly admits that he dislikes Gatsby. What I did, however, notice and appreciate with my critical, narratological eyes, is how the narrator accounts for something that someone else tells him, but not in direct speech, and not in reported speech, but as if he really witnessed it, suddenly interrupted either by direct speech or abrupt temporal shift. There are also recurrent flashforwards of the type: All this I learned much later…

My memory of Gatsby was of a romantic figure. I think the reason is the unhappy love story. As readers we are conditioned to emphathise with unhappy lovers, and although I did not remember the details, I had the sense of his actions justified by love. Yet as it turns out, he is a liar, a hypocrite, a financial criminal and ultimately a murder accomplice. Nick has all the reasons to dislike him.

I had completely forgotten Gatsby's father who comes to his funeral. The pathetic funeral episode made me in a way reconcile with Gatsby; I felt genuinely sorry for him.

It is brilliantly written, and I enjoyed every page. I may re-read it soon again. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Re-reading Salinger

I have re-read The Catcher in the Rye dozens of times. I have taught it in every course I could squeeze it into, even in the USA where I soon realised it was just as controversial as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I re-read it for every course I taught, and I still find it one of the greatest novels ever written. But it does not fit into my 2020 reading challenge so I have chosen a different Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour, An Introduction. I read it soon after The Catcher in the Rye – once again, everyone I knew was reading it at the same time; we also read Nine Stories, and some of us read Franny and Zooey. I was, as many friends then, fascinated by Zen. My mother was a Japanese scholar, specialising on Zen gardens, so I knew quite a lot about Zen, probably superficially, but enough to at least start understanding Seymour Glass and his siblings.

I had vague memories of the first novella and none at all of the second; maybe I never read it then. Of the first, I remembered that it featured a cancelled wedding and started by stating that at the time of narration the bridegroom had committed suicide. I also remembered the scene in which Seymour reads a Zen text to baby Franny. I remembered that Seymour's brother Buddy is the narrator, and that their sister Boo Boo writes a message for Seymour with a bit of soap on a bathroom mirror: “Raise high the roof beam, carpenters...”

I cannot imagine what I could have appreciated in this little gem when I was seventeen. For it is a gem. It evolves in real time or even in a stretch (a temporal pattern in which it takes longer to tell an event than it takes place). Nothing, absolutely nothing happens. Buddy the narrator and a party of the bride's guests are riding a taxi in Manhattan, get stuck in traffic, go to Buddy's apartment. They have insignificant conversations, interrupted, discursively, by Buddy's reflections and memories. The characters are hilarious. The atmosphere is brilliant. I was sad when I finished because I wanted it to go on for a while yet. (I believe I will re-read it again soon).

Seymour, An Introduction was, if possible, the opposite. A long and rather pointless reflection by Buddy, many years after Seymour's suicide, ostensibly trying to create a credible portrait of his much admired brother. I was about to give up halfway when it suddenly turned more interesting, becoming what narratologist Seymour (coincidence?) Chatman calls “comment on discourse”. Buddy the narrator, by this time a published author, conveys the pain of writing, the very process of transposing memories on paper, addressing his potential reader. I guess it was a kind of self-reflection by Salinger, but I am not really interested in real authors, all the more in fictitious authors, and Buddy eventually turned out to be a fascinating storyteller, not least in contrast to the subdued narrator of the first novella. I probably won't re-read Seymour, An Introduction, but when I am finished with my re-reading challenge I might want to re-read more stories about the Glass siblings. 


Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude

My reading challenge for 2020 is re-reading twenty-five books that I read fifty years ago and never re-read again. I have chosen books that were important, life-changing, books I discussed with my friends. It's a mixture of very high-brow and trash (that at the time I didn't know was trash).

I recently re-read The Glass Bead Game, but I had re-read it between then and now, so it doesn't count. I decided to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude because I had been planning to re-read it for a while, and I had to start somewhere. It was, again, one of those books everyone in my vicinity read at the same time when it was published in Russia. Everyone talked about it. It was like nothing else we had read. It was probably one of the very first Latin American authors translated into Russian, and I wonder why.

I had very vague memory of the book. I remembered the old man sitting forever under a tree. I remembered generations of men with the same names. I remembered that the very last couple has a baby with a pig's tail. I also remembered the weirdness, the strange flow of time which we subsequently learned was associated with the concept of magical realism. I was obsessed with time then – as now – so it made a deep impression on me, precisely because it was seemingly realism, and still not quite, always with a twist.

I did not remember that so much of the novel is about war and politics. I did not remember that the characters died suddenly and their death was mentioned in passing as something insignificant. I did not remember that the baby with the pig's tail is eaten by ants. I did not remember that the town of Macondo is sinking into total decay.

I found the novel exceptionally boring. It took me several weeks to finish, and on many occasions I would tell myself that I was too tired to read. If it hadn't been part of my challenge I would have put it aside. I could not relate to the characters, possibly apart from a couple of women that at least had some personality. I don't mind novels where nothing happens, but then they need to offer something else. This novel didn't offer me much else. I wonder what exactly was so attractive fifty years ago. Maybe just that it wasn't like anything we had read before. I also suspect that I read it quickly, skimming rather than reading deeply.

There were, however, some aspects I enjoyed, few and far between. The characters dying casually is one. It is a powerful narrative feature. The reader gets invested in a character (well, to a certain degree in my case), and then they suddenly are no more. I loved the way the word "solitude" appeared every now and then, just to remind me of the theme. I loved the prolepses, flashforwards, like the opening of the novel, saying “Many years later...” I don't think I appreciated this fifty years ago, perhaps didn't even notice. I loved the ending, also something I had totally forgotten: metafiction, the book within the book. It was worth suffering through the endless boring pages.

It is not surprising that I read differently now from when I was seventeen, because I am now a professional reader, damaged by the analytical toolkit I cannot ignore as I read. Yet the novel is still praised at one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century. Why do I fail to recognise its greatness today? Of course, as I always tell my students, not all books are for everyone, and we should not be ashamed to admit that we don't like something that “everybody” likes. Still I wonder what I liked fifty years ago. Or maybe I didn't. Maybe I bluffed. Maybe everyone I knew bluffed.