F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine

I don’t know what David Merrick will be sprinkling over himself to atone for Jack Clayton’s spiritless direction of The Great Gatsby, but I suspect it won’t be gold dust. For though the film’s probably the most elegant recreation of the Twenties since The Razor’s Edge, the most sumptuous clothes-opera since Funny Face or Lady in the Dark, it has neither Fitzgerald’s “promises of life” nor even the “divine romance” the ads suggest. And it hardly seems American at all. For a while I thought I was watching one of those dramas about wicked weekends at country houses around Surrey which used to flourish on the London stage. I almost expected Beatrice Lillie to emerge from among the guests at Gatsby’s parties and talk about Nounou and Nada and Nell. Would that she had.

Mia Farrow, a modest actress, affecting enough under Losey or Polanski, is simply an incredible Daisy. Fitzgerald thought of woman as sorceress, as minx who “meant no good” (a phrase he uses about Zelda in a letter to his daughter); but he also evoked “the spectre of womanhood that, for a little while, makes everything else seem unimportant.” He gave to Daisy a face “sad and lovely” with “bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth,” and a “tense gaiety” as well. These qualities, however, are beyond Mia Farrow’s reach. Her natural inclinations are to be always hiding her elbows, or pouting in the most winsome fashion, like Mary Pickford in Coquette. And if Daisy’s voice is “full of money,” poor Mia seems to have tasted nothing more corrupting than humble pie.

Robert Redford, of course, is physically apt: a healthy, handsome plebeian, with ginger hair and blue eyes, at ease even in Gatsby’s “gorgeous pink rag of a suit.” But he has the emotions of a telephone recording from Con Ed. Only Bruce Dern as Daisy’s husband, the implacable Buchanan, with his carbolic smile, bristly moustache, and string of polo ponies from Lake Forest seizes on something of the derisive superciliousness of the rich, and so seems appropriate. At least, alive.

The real trouble, though, and the folly of the film, lies, I think, in the damage done to the character of the narrator. Fitzgerald’s novel is one of the most romantic ever written, but its harmonies are classical; a graceful, courtly, faintly ironic tone sustains it almost perfectly from page to page. And it is that tone which defines Nick. Everything Fitzgerald wants us to know about Gatsby, Daisy, and Buchanan is seen through the narrator’s slow, steady, discriminating gaze. Nick is Aristotle’s virtuous man, the virtue that comes from always aiming at the mean. He preserves the balance, distributes himself neatly as Daisy’s cousin, Gatsby’s friend, Buchanan’s classmate at Yale; and though full of “interior rules that act like brakes” on his desires, as befits a bonds man from a city in the Middle West where his family has been prominent for generations, he’s still, nevertheless, a worldly fellow, subtly responsive to the defects and excesses of character with which the story deals. Indeed the intelligence |which Fitzgerald years later extolled as exemplary in The Crack-Up—=”The ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”—he had already achieved in Nick to a greater degree than he ever had before or would do again.

Clayton’s conception, however, is much too narrow: focusing on the plot, a “glorified anecdote” as Mencken rightly calls it, he loses the moral energy, the reverberating commentary Nick adds to the rush of events. And Sam Waterston’s performance is simply too awkward: an ingenuous young man who when not playing Cupid by day for Daisy and Gatsby one assumes is reading Thoreau in bed at night—an enfeebling of Fitzgerald as inapt as Yves Montand’s Popeye in Sanctuary, moodily wandering about through Faulkner’s Mississippi like a displaced apache dancer in search of a partner.

Rereading Gatsby—written when Fitzgerald was at his imaginative peak and thought himself a magician with words—I was struck by how often it seems a pageant of Fitzgerald’s sensibility early and late. For here we see, through the hero himself, youth and wealth and beauty as the familiar Fitzgerald divinities, but we also grasp them, through Nick, as the wasting illnesses the mature Fitzgerald regarded them to be later when he set about retracing his steps in his valley of ashes. And these contrary movements, these couplings and rendings, are at the heart of the novel: lives becoming entangled over the space of one summer and then at summer’s end abruptly being severed; a past and a present intruding on each other, and a future, Gatsby’s “incorruptible dream,” which will never be.


There’s the past, of course, Gatsby shared with Daisy, his “month of love” in Louisville, when he was a doughboy too poor to plight his troth; and there’s the present redolent with “the promises of life,” Gatsby in his bootlegger’s paradise, his feudal estate at West Egg, with its Normandy turrets and Restoration salons, its moth-like phantasmagoric guests floating between the cocktails and the flowers at his endless parties, the enchanted setting through which he hopes to redress wrongs. But there is also a different past, too, in Nick, his memories “of street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadow of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow,” the graces of the old order under eclipse; and a different present, as well, in Nick’s musings on “the promises of life,” the exhaustion of America as a continent to be settled and explored, and the emergence of the America of the postwar years, the scramble for revelry during the boom, the wealthy Western families flocking East. “Oh I’ll stay in the East,” says Buchanan in his “white palace” at fashionable East Egg. “I’d be a God damned fool to live anywhere else.” A movement capped, of course, before the Twenties were out by the flight of Lindbergh across the Atlantic.

These historical patternings lend credence, finally, to Nick’s mournful coda about the idyllic island first glimpsed by Dutch sailors, the famous evocation of the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” and the dream’s demise, its pathetic end symbolized for him in the landscape’s “vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house.”

But there are psychological patternings too, for instance the observation that there’s no difference so profound among men and women as the difference between the sick and the well. And this is a thought Fitzgerald returns to again, whether in his own life or his life with Zelda or in his subsequent fictions: indeed the observation could easily stand as an epigraph for Tender Is the Night. But here, in Gatsby, it is more acute than even Nick suggests, for the trio of characters he writes about are, each in his way, quite sick—sick and foolish, at least by Fitzgerald’s later standards: “To suggest a state of affairs which doesn’t exist,” he wrote his daughter, “merely stalls off the final reckoning.”

Though Gatsby, rapt in his memories of “the freshest and the best,” his “immeasurable bliss,” tilts more drastically with fate than the others (“Can’t repeat the past?” he cries incredulously when Nick cautions him about his affair with Daisy; “Why of course you can!”), Daisy is equally bewitched in her expectation that she’ll carry her charm with her from age to age, that like Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned her beauty will always be there as “a gift of roses,” while Buchanan himself, beneath his cruel, sour complacency, is at heart as much a dreamer as Gatsby, an unrestful aging athlete “forever seeking,” as Nick says, “for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”

Against these characters, and against the fabled setting of the novel itself, stands an actual madman, one who precipitates the chaos with which the book ends. He is, of course, Wilson, the garage proprietor, who inhabits a sort of arid, demonized stretch of road between West Egg and New York, “a fantastic farm where ashes grew like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens,” and who goes berserk when his wife, Buchanan’s mistress, is run over by Daisy in her hysterical flight from the city. Wilson is the proletarian of the story (as Gatsby had once been in Louisville), the cuckolded little man, but he’s also the simp as ogre, carrying with him the hallucinatory portent of his powdery surroundings, eventually delivering the coup de grâce to Gatsby’s “enchanted life.”

Images of flight, of journeys, of roads bringing people toward us or sweeping them suddenly away, of good crossings or bad crossings are frequent in Fitzgerald, and certainly no theme sounds so strongly in his letters to his daughter as that of the misery ahead, the terrible accounting, “the price to pay” if one fumbles the “right changes at the main corners.” So often in his tales years of fortune are followed by years of the plague, the “enchanted objects” becoming curios, as elusive as “crack’d basilards, and splinter’d cockatrices, and shatter’d talbots.” And in the famous “Babylon Revisited,” we have obsequies of the Jazz Age, Charlie Wales, a Twenties hero stranded in the Thirties, modeled on Fitzgerald himself, remembering the “thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab,” and realizing “the meaning of the word ‘dissipate’ “—to disintegrate into thin air, “to make nothing out of something.”


Gatsby of course is Fitzgerald’s most imponderable, most quixotic creation. At first, one hardly knows anything about him. His fan mag background—a penniless “young major just out of the army” who is rescued from oblivion through his association with Meyer Wolfsheim of the underworld—suggests the apocrypha of a star. And yet to Gatsby, the story is simple: he’s garnered the world’s goods, risen from rags to riches (“Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” as Buchanan calls him), to reclaim a crown, resume his tryst. For to Gatsby that’s what “romantic readiness” means. Those who love don’t just survive, they triumph—and triumph in a timeless realm.

His “practical measures” are equally simple: After Daisy was free “they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.” Ironically the sense of the timeless—the limitlessness of Gatsby’s expectations—would deny Daisy her past—at least part of it. For he wants nothing less than that she go to Buchanan and say: “I never loved you.” But to want that, as Daisy later tells him, is “to want too much.”

Few heroes, I suppose, are so presumptuous as Fitzgerald’s, so full of “the sense of being somehow about to inherit the earth,” which Fitzgerald later thought to be the predominant characteristic of every American generation since the Civil War. And yet, too, few are so fragile. Hemingway’s heroes have a tough piratical instinct, a familiarity with danger, and a natural bent, after catastrophe strikes, which they expect, which, in some sense, they cherish, for building character from scrap. But of course they’re far more clandestine emotionally. In Fitzgerald, the rising of an emotion, the flutter above “the stream of life,” is irresistible.

Much of the famous early appetitiveness—the spoiled competitive Wunderkind, the parvenu among the rich—is certainly there in Gatsby, only in a more gallant guise. Just as it’s there in Rudolph Miller in “Absolution,” the “beautiful little boy with eyes like blue stones,” who reserves a corner of his mind where he can feel safe from scrutiny, from God, where he can prepare “the subterfuges with which he often tricked God,” meditate on “the ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God,” and yet, of course, feel he’d always be numbered among the specially favored, rewarded by a heaven blue as his eyes.

But what is remarkable, though, about The Great Gatsby is that Fitzgerald could so eloquently create a contrary temperament, a character as modest and circumspect as Nick, for surely no “touch of disaster” will ever graze his brow, and no touch of glory either. (Nick does have a sort of spiritual cousin in Monroe Stahr, the haunted Hollywood producer of The Last Tycoon, who set himself to learn “tolerance, kindness, forbearance, and even affection like lessons.”) Yet it’s precisely through Nick’s critical, if sympathetic, appreciation that the “secret extravaganza” is revealed, that Gatsby’s quest is saved from bathos, that his attachment to the past, his ecstatic expectation, appear as a commitment “to the following of a grail,” that he emerges as a sort of knight who comes looking for America, a “fabled world,” and who meets defeat, becomes instead the sport of the gods. If Nick scorns Gatsby’s “appalling sentimentality,” he senses nevertheless the terrible delicacy, the vulnerability behind his hope of returning to a “certain starting place,” of retrieving perhaps some idea of himself “that had gone into loving Daisy”—gives us, in other words, the real Gatsby as against the false Gatsby, mockingly echoed by Fitzgerald in the title of his book—and the only one suggested, incidentally, in the glossy presence of Robert Redford on screen.

Nietzsche says somewhere that the man unable to achieve his ideal lives more frivolously or desperately than the man without an ideal. And that’s surely less true of Gatsby than of the brilliant young analyst Dick Diver, Fitzgerald’s most introspective hero, whose dreams desert him and who loses respect both for himself and for the world. Living on the Riviera, detached from America, drenched in “the diffused magic of the hot sweet South,” Diver becomes detached as well from the past, the values of his clergyman father which he cannot fit in the present. He meets Nicole, the schizophrenic heiress, “flowering under a stone on the Zurichsee,” dispels the cloud hanging above her head, and then, in one of those reversals of fortune so recurrent in Fitzgerald, watches as it slowly descends on his own.

The power of the novel beautifully captures Diver’s malady in that irreversible movement, with Nicole growing stronger, turning outward, Diver growing weaker, more and more depleted, reaching toward the “old interior laughter.” So that before, in his bright clarity, he had been fascinating to others, now in his decline, his “process of deterioration,” he becomes fascinating to himself. He’s another of Fitzgerald’s disabled knights, a knight whose “spear had been blunted,” no longer capable of performing “the tricks of the heart,” consumed in passivity. Fitzgerald was perhaps not far wrong when he wrote Maxwell Perkins telling him he regarded Tender Is the Night as his “woman’s novel.”

In the same letter Fitzgerald spoke of the “purely masculine interest” of Gatsby, and that’s true in so far as the coupling on which the drama pivots is the contest of wills between Buchanan and Gatsby. So long as Gatsby can parry with Buchanan at his estate, amid the innocent vulgarity of his parties, he’s safe. Buchanan seems no fit adversary. It is at his estate, too, that Gatsby is able to continue his affair with Daisy. But when he leaves his fabled world, jousts with Buchanan at the Plaza, he becomes his victim. He attempts a raid on reality—and loses. One of the most touching moments in the novel is when Gatsby is unexpectedly introduced to Daisy’s three-year-old daughter and keeps looking at the child as if he had never really “believed in its existence before.”

The same eerie sense of disenchantment pervades the rest of the novel. Gatsby retreats to his estate, but the grace is gone, a pall hangs over everything, as he and Nick go hunting through “the great rooms for cigarettes.”

We pushed aside curtains that were like pavilions, and felt over innumerable feet of dark wall for electric light switches—once I tumbled with a sort of splash upon the keys of a ghostly piano. There was an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere, and the rooms were musty, as though they hadn’t been aired for many days….

Later, the famous scene at the pool, Gatsby lying on his mattress looking at an “unfamiliar sky,” the present frozen in the raw sunlight and the “frightening leaves,” and the past a venomous idyll, so that, as Nick implies, Gatsby’s real death occurs before the “ashen, fantastic figure” of Wilson, the madman with a gun, comes “gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”

Fitzgerald was loving and loved. But he was also, I think, one of those who cannot really share a life with another, can only identify with others—identify with the education of his daughter, with the youth of Lois Moran or Sheilah Graham, with a friend’s smile, a friend’s wit. But when these others, as happened, moved beyond his interests, had his or her quest, he became baffled, felt betrayed. (In The Crack-Up he outlaws what he calls a useless “giving of myself.”) And felt betrayed most, of course, by Zelda, because her sense of a “fabled world” was closest to his own: Zelda he identified with the most, so loved the most.

He told his daughter that the trouble between them was that they “belonged to different worlds,” that for Zelda it was “always people and circumstances that oppressed her,” that she was a guest on earth, one of the “eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” In fact, though, I think they were too much alike. When well, they could touch the same heights, the same triumphs. When ill, the suffering was the same. They couldn’t complement each other, like the blind who can walk, the lame who can see. So Fitzgerald felt like “a man divided.” And though he would write Zelda and say: “You are the freshest, tenderest, most beautiful person I have ever known,” and perhaps meant it, there was always to be the old regret, old complaint: “She wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream.”

And when the dream could not be kept or not be made good, when Fitzgerald no longer felt, as in youth, that he had a destiny; a star, when the sky became empty of the “symbols of ambition, struggle and glory,” when he could not hear those “high white notes for which he always listened,” when instead, after thirty-five or his “catastrophe at forty,” he seemed, to himself, distant and frail and slight, and had a fate, he kept taking plunges, doing himself in—with alcohol, with illness, and then when the real illnesses weren’t enough, with imaginary ones, or attempts at suicide, followed by restraints and resolutions, or drudgery in Hollywood. And always the ghost of his wife, in one sanitorium, out another, or visiting friends, becoming hysterical, soothed by Fitzgerald, each soothing the other with tales of princes and princesses, or elsewhere, being reassured that they weren’t really to blame, that in their lives cards had begun “falling badly for us much too early.”

His great gifts, it seems to me, were always for a lyric concentration in a mythic autobiographical mold—Fitzgerald has none of the mysteriousness of poetry but lots of the melancholy music Poe thought the most legitimate of poetical tones—and for impressionistic fragments, settings and situations caught in tight bright detail. In Fitzgerald there’s always a transfiguring moment: the chrysalis beginning to quiver, then a sharp sudden thrust, and the butterfly is free. In Tender Is the Night, for instance, at the Diver dinner party, that aura of forlorn sensuality which he can create better than any other American novelist, as the festive candlelit table seems to be rising and tilting upward toward the sky as if it were a “mechanical dancing platform,” above “the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below.”

He moved beyond the charmed states he celebrated in the most famous of his works—the fantasy of power, the poignancy of defeat—to the bare bones of his later observations, the wintry sketches of “Afternoon of an Author” and “The Lost Decade” and “The Long Way Out,” the wry tranquility of The Last Tycoon. He wrote in one of his last letters: “Autumn comes—I am forty-four—Nothing changes.” He died confounded by age, in ruined reverie, haunted by the sympathetic magic between himself and the world, by which he had lived, like Gatsby, when looking for America he thought the quest had ended, that it lay before him, across the bay.

A word about the script, lauded by everyone as “remarkably faithful.” That’s so only in parts—elsewhere characters, scenes, cadences are trammeled, reversed, regurgitated, deleted, botched. There are meretricious additions (“Rich girls don’t marry poor boys!”), inexplicable changes (How long is it that Daisy and Gatsby haven’t met? “Five years next November,” says Gatsby. “Eight years,” says Redford), a bizarre moment when Redford actually speaks a few sentences from Nick’s concluding paean about the “old, unknown world,” a giddy moment when Redford and Farrow exchange information taken from Jordan Baker’s narrative, and saddest of all, those lines, strategic and beautiful in print (“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” could have come out of The Waste Land), which sound on screen simply alien or inane. One remembers from this opulent film twilights streaked with tinsel, afternoons gleaming in peach syrup, white frocks and white flannels and white shaker sweaters. “Good clean trash,” as someone remarked leaving the theater.

This Issue

May 2, 1974