My big read

25th July 2003 at 01:00
Continuing our dip into the BBC's Big Read top 100 books, Adele Geras looks at F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

I first read this novel when I was in my late teens, and was enchanted by the atmosphere of glamour and tragedy; captivated by the love story at its heart and devastated by its ending.

After almost 40 years, none of that has changed, but I notice other things now, the most striking of which is the language. Fitzgerald achieves astonishing visual effects using little description. Daisy is spoken of in terms of her white dress or her car, or we hear her words. We're not told what she looks like, but we know and would recognise her anywhere.

Gatsby's house, his parties (the marvellous beginning of chapter four, where the people who visit the mansion are listed); his world. All these are evoked briefly, but completely.

As a contrast to this gilded universe, we have the ash heaps that Nick, Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Gatsby pass on their way into the city. They're dominated by a surreal advertising sign for an optician, Dr T J Eckleburg: a pair of blue eyes behind spectacles, hanging above the road, detached from any face. It's not hard to bestow on these a symbolic significance, for they witness some of the worst events in the book.

Greater length or more detail would add nothing to the novel. Movies of it have never quite succeeded. Part of its attraction is that we don't discover the entire truth about anything and are left with unanswered questions. The main themes are wealth and how careless it makes you, the relative unimportance to the rich of the lives of the poor, the wonderful impossibility of Gatsby's love for Daisy and what it leads to at the end.

All these are as enthralling today as they were when the book appeared in 1926. It also has the best final sentence I know: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Adele Geras's latest novel, Facing the Light, is published by Orion. See www.bbc.co.uk\arts\bigread for the full list, resources and details of related programmes. Details of British Library Big Read events on 020 7412 7332l Talkback, page 26

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