Sunday, 18 April 2010

Book worm: March 2010 - part two

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This edition published by Penguin Books, 1974. First published in 1926.

I dashed out of the March rain into a second-hand bookshop down Charing Cross Road (what chance, you say. A bookshop? How extraordinary for you to have been passing!) and decided to buy this book on account that I knew the title but had no idea of the story. So what was so great about The Great Gatsby?

The story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, a young man home from the First World War, and who settles in a millionaire neighbourhood with a vague idea of ‘going into Bonds’. His rich friends drift through life with a weary cynicism and only a tenuous grasp on the real world. They party every night at the home of the rich Mr Gatsby, an enigmatic figure, and drink his wine and eat his food with gay abandon. Rumours abound about his background, his wealth… this just adds to the drama. But in reality Gatsby is not great at all, and only interested in his already married lost love, Daisy, and when he tries to win her back everything goes wrong.

The American dream here seems rather sour. I didn’t like the character of Gatsby and had no sympathy for him, so when things unfolded badly I felt no sadness on his behalf. Although the character of Nick is our narrator, because Gatsby is the centre of the book and because I dislike him, then already the book is flawed for me. Even worse, the other characters don’t endear themselves to me either, in the way that memorable characters good and bad stick in the memory. They are almost non-entities but that is how they are drawn – they don’t care much for living, they are shell-shocked, made stupid with wealth, as weighty as a rainbow.

As a portrait of 1920s America, of a rich 1920s America, it is an interesting slice of life to a manner of living that is alien to me. I have not seen the film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, but can see how this could transfer to the big screen – all those lovely costumes, the glamorous setting. But I might still be a bit bored. I don’t think I will read this again anytime soon – perhaps I missed the point. Anyone else out there read it? What do you think?

The Doll’s House, by Rumer Godden
This edition published by Mermaid Books (reset), 1955. First published by Michael Joseph Ltd, November 1947

I had been searching for this book for some time, and was delighted to find this edition, one of the first print runs for Mermaid books. It is a curious little hard-cover, with colour illustrations inside by Dana Saintsbury. I actually think I may have got a bargain – as I bought it for a fiver, and a little delve online turns up copies sold for five times that amount. Not that I am selling this beauty any time soon…

We are introduced to Tottie Plantaganet, a small wise Dutch doll that lives in an old-fashioned doll’s house. It has lace curtains, a sofa covered in red velvet, and a lamp with a white china shade that was lit using a birthday cake candle. It is also home to the varied collection of dolls that form her family – her ‘father’ Mr Plantaganet, still suffering from nerves after years forgotten in a dark toy cupboard; ‘mother’ Birdie, who is made of celluloid and is as light as her thoughts; ‘brother’ Apple, a small plush doll who likes causing mischief – chiefly tumbling down the stairs, and dog Darner, who has a backbone made of a darning needle. He also has an unfortunate habit of barking ‘prick’ when he senses danger – something that was probably seen as cute when the books were written, but now… well… doesn’t quite suit the story, shall we say.

So far, so pleasant. But then everything changes – a new doll called Marchpane is brought into the house. She slowly takes over and influences the girls’ that play with the dolls – the Plantaganet’s become Marchpane’s servants and Apple her son. But Birdie doesn’t understand why she has lost her son and Marchpane exploits this, as the candle is so hot, so deadly to small dolls…

I seem to remember being in floods of tears reading this book as a child, and returning to it as an adult there is still something awful and sinister about Marchpane. I swear her name is where my dislike of marzipan came from (when very young I thought the word was one and the same!) As a social commentary this book is very clever - the dynamics between the dolls and their hopes and fears reveal very human frailties. The characters are very compelling, but it is the small throwaway details that make this book really come alive, the little asides in the narrative. Brilliantly done, but be warned – your child will cry!


KM said...

THE GREAT GATSBY is one of my favorite "great American novels." It totally embodies the Jazz Culture - loose morals, lots of alcohol, and a desire to be "successful." Like other novels of its kind, Fitzgerald is making a comment on the society by offering us a single example. Such great characterization in this novel! And the way he uses the summer heat to push everyone to extremes is masterful, almost Southern in a way.

I love this novel! Sad you didn't like it. :/

Piedmont Writer said...

I don't think Gatsby was written for entertainment, I think it was more autobiographical in nature, what the times were like to an outsider and F.Scott was certainly an outsider at the time.

I also don't think the movie was all that, it certainly doesn't lend any cynism to Scott's voice in the book.

I liked the book for the writing, the prose, the esposition. You're right about the characters, you can't feel anything for them, and I honestly don't think you were supposed to. I think Scott was just trying to give us a glimpse into a world that he saw from the outside looking in.

Laura Marcella said...

I don't like The Great Gatsby either! It's supposed to be a wonderful classic though. It was boring and the characters are, like you said, flawed in such a way that they aren't endearing. I'm glad I'm not the only one! I always feel a bit guilty when I dislike a classic. I know that's silly, but I can't help it!

KarenG said...

Are these truly the photos of the books you bought? At that quaint little British book shop? Oh my, someone please kill me now and let me be born again as a Brit!

Anyway, The Great Gatsby isn't the best of Fitzgerald's work, don't even know why it's the one all the movies are made of.

Rose said...

Gatsby I do like but I do agree with where you are coming from- books with unsympathetic characters are harder. I think the point is to look into that world and perhaps that the old money can't buy you happiness thing was true from what he saw.

I don't know the Doll's House- it clearly passed me by completely as a child- I will look out for it from now on!

Charing Cross in the rain sounds so London romantic

musicobsessive said...

Thought I recognised The Dolls' House - my wife has a 1963 edition, reprinted by McMillan. But here's a thing, this edition has been re-illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I've never come across a book that has been completely re-illustrated. New covers yes, but not this. I wonder why?

Fran said...

I've read 'The Great Gatsby' but like others found it hard to like. I must read 'The Doll's House'. That sounds a good one.

Jayne said...

Hi KM. Don’t be sad! Some things just don’t work for everyone. I am delighted you told me why you like it though. I see where you are coming from about the summer heat.


Hi Anne. Maybe that is why I didn’t like it as I like to be entertained as otherwise it feels like I am studying (and by entertained I mean not ness humour, but just gripped, I guess). I can see what you mean about the outsider point of view – thank you for giving me a new angle to think about.

Jayne said...

Hi Laura. Oh phew – not just me! And oh gosh, I am the same, I feel horribly guilty when I don’t like a classic. I always worry I have missed some vital point, and it will show me up as a thickie. But I didn’t like any of the characters in Gatsby. I understood I wasn’t meant to, but it just meant I didn’t care less what happened to them.


Hi Karen. Yes they truly are! I do like choosing a good edition of a book, and will wait for the right edition to come along. If I cannot find as near to the original cover illustration then I like to choose a book that has the actors on it (if adapted for film or television). And thanks for letting me know your thoughts, I’ll look out for other books by Fitzgerald to make a comparison.

Jayne said...

Hi Rose. Yes that is a good take on it – Gatsby’s fortune definitely did not buy him happiness. The Doll’s House is a good one – it’s quite a sensitive little book. Charing Cross in the rain... haha, at the time I didn’t think of it as a romantic rain I must admit!


Hi Martin. Oh that is odd... I can’t find anything that says why that would have happened, either. Dana Saintsbury’s illustrations are very pastel and ethereal; perhaps MacMillan wanted a stronger image.


Hi Fran. I think you would like The Doll’s House. It has a light subtle touch – do look out for it!