Sunday, April 28, 2013

In which I turn into The Great Gatsby

For some time now, the first site to come up when you Google “The Great Gatsby” has been the one heralding the much-delayed movie version rather than anything directly related to Fitzgerald’s novel per se. It’s easy enough to be sniffy about this, but at the same time it’s almost certain that Baz Luhrmann’s version of the book will prompt many people to read it for the first time; and the experience may well nudge some previously reluctant readers into a better appreciation of the written word overall. As such, there’s a new paperback edition available, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and the other stars on the cover; but at the same time, a version with the original cover art is also selling very well. As the New York Times reports, there’s a neat socio-economic divide when it comes to which version is stocked where: indie stores in SoHo only stock the old style; WalMart restricts itself to the Leonardo variant; Barnes & Noble has both. Reaction to the new cover has been a little vociferous; as one bookseller squawks:
It’s just God-awful... ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a pillar of American literature, and people don’t want it messed with. We’re selling the classic cover and have no intention of selling the new one.
Well, that told us, although I think his definition of “people” could do with a little examination. And remember that the original cover (the disembodied face of which, I’ve long maintained, is a nod to Aubrey Beardsley’s hovering Oscar Wilde caricature in The Platonic Lament, but maybe I overthink this stuff) divided opinion when it appeared in 1925; Hemingway hated it, for one. But the tension does remind us that, Kindles notwithstanding, buying a book is often about far more than a simple desire to peruse the text within. Some people will be nervous about even purchasing The Great Gatsby and the appearance of DiCaprio et al reassures them that, yes, this is the book of the film you saw and enjoyed at the weekend. Others of course want to make it quite clear that their choice of reading matter has absolutely nothing to do with Hollywood and they were aware of Gatsby’s centrality to the American literary canon well before the movie was even contemplated; although if they know this, shouldn’t they be sporting the battered, scribbled-upon copy they’ve been reading and re-reading for the past 15 years, rather than some spanking new simulacrum of the first edition? Nevertheless, both purchasers may want to use their respective covers to communicate their choices and feelings to others; and to demonstrate the fact that, whatever their differences, they both feel superior to desperate journalists who think that one of the most melancholy tomes of the past 100 years is just an excuse for a party or a way to sell hair care products. Hey, whatever the cover looks like, at least the words inside are the same. Unless you pick up this version by mistake.

I don’t have a dog in the fight, if there needs to be a fight. I’ve said for some time that I came to Gatsby relatively late in the day, as its literary significance wasn’t so crucial in the rather Eurocentric environment in which I was educated. But is that really the case? A browse of this blog’s archive reveals that at the end of 2007 I was shouting about having read it for the first time that year, although I was aware how tardy I’d been. And yet, a mere six months before that I’d written:
For some reason, I’d convinced myself that I’d never actually read The Great Gatsby. So I picked up a second-hand copy and, of course, the point at which I realised that I had actually read it was the sentence that made me think “wow” the first time round.
Apparently I did read it at some point (the earlier post makes a couple of references to the age of 19, so maybe that’s it) but forgot the fact, then remembered, then forgot again within a matter of months. Or maybe one of those states – the having-read or the not-having-read, I genuinely don’t know any more – began as a lie, an affectation, that I somehow came to believe in. Maybe, like Gatsby, I’ve invented a whole identity for myself, although I’ve gone one further and started to think it was all true, getting lost in my own creation. Remind me never to pretend to be driving; talking of believing your own stories, do you think the Huhnes ever read Gatsby? That may not make any sense to you, of course; you’ll just have to read the book. One of them, at least.


Martin said...

You know, Tim, I had this on my bookshelf for years, probably decades, and never read it. Time to get to grips, or at least come up with an invention that will convince me, somewhere down the line, that I have read it.

Brian Busby said...

A new cover means a book as been "messed with". That's a new one.

I'll agree with our bookseller that The Great Gatsby is a pillar of American literature, but he surely must know that most editions have not used the first edition image. Indeed, it's not been two decades since it was revived by Scribner's.

But what of "the classic cover"? The font is different, as are the positions of author name and title. And what are those red lines doing in the bottom left hand corner?

I wonder whether there were similar sniffles over Bantam's tie-in to the 1974 movie.

I suspect not.

Michele R. Strüb said...

I recall a story [don't know if it's true] that Maxwell Perkins insisted Fitzgerald change the title "Trimalchio" [FSG's passionately preferred title], saying that people wouldn't understand the title and that sales would be affected. Anyone here have a different take on the story?

savannah said...

american woman that i am, my first exposure to gatsby was in high school, followed by a college american lit class, then the movie in '74. skip forward a few years and it was re-read every year once my children entered high school. i'm not too sure about this new movie, i've heard bits of the soundtrack. *sigh* xoxo

Tim F said...

Under normal circumstances I'd suggest the latter, Martin, but it's a pretty short book.

Indeed, Brian. But it helps him distinguish his indie shop from WalMart, which I guess is the whole point.

Even better, Michele: "Trimalchio in West Egg".

I'm intrigued by the position it has in the the American psyche, Savannah - I don't think there's one single book that occupies the same role for Brits.