Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember that in the summer of 1973 close to 1,000 men and women signed up to be Gatsby “extras” for the over-the-top party scenes shot at Rosecliff in Newport as well as at Linden Place in Bristol. That adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, which came out in 1974, starred Robert Redford as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, his unobtainable love-object.
Within the past couple of weeks, movie audiences have had the opportunity to see yet another attempt to translate the novel onto the big screen. This time around, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, while Carey Mulligan plays Daisy. Once again, critics have been underwhelmed by the translation.
One of the reasons it has been so difficult to make “The Great Gatsby” into a movie is that the novel itself is almost perfectly realized as a work of literature; it seems to me that the more a work of art is wedded to its original form of expression, the harder it is to bring that work across the border, as it were, into a different art form. Very few great novels have been turned into great movies.
Fitzgerald has created a masterpiece of lyrical writing. His very first sentence, spoken by the 30-year-old narrator, Nick Carraway, is elegant in its simplicity: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
The story gracefully winds its way through twists and turns of plot to the poetry of its final words: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
To supply detail to his scathing criticism of the blind and empty lives of America’s super rich in the year 1922, Fitzgerald invents two exclusive communities on Long Island’s north shore: West Egg, home of the nouveau riche, where Gatsby stages his lavish summer galas; and East Egg, home of the “old money,” where Tom and Daisy live their life of luxury. Both the East Eggers and the West Eggers work and play in Manhattan, which Fitzgerald portrays as the embodiment of capitalism run amok.
Fitzgerald is especially harsh in his criticism of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, whose unreflective sense of privilege echoes through the decades to infect many of the “one-percenters” of 2013: “They were careless people … they smashed up things and people and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made ...”
Yet another expression of Fitzgerald’s immense talent is his ability to capture the essence of his characters with just a few well-chosen words. Of Gatsby, his “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person.” Of Daisy, as described by Gatsby, “Her voice is full of money.” Of Tom, the bigot and the bully, “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke [his mistress’s] nose with his open hand.”
All the pieces of “The Great Gatsby” seem to fit together into a work of consummate artistry; and yet, at least for me, the novel is deeply flawed by Fitzgerald’s profoundly anti-Semitic cartoon caricature of the gambler/gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, the man with sufficient criminal “smarts” to avoid prosecution for “fixing” the 1919 World Series. Fitzgerald’s first words regarding Wolfsheim: “A small flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.”
Within the next three or four pages, we have four more direct references to Wolfsheim’s nose: “…[he] covered Gatsby with his expressive nose.”
“Mr. Wolfsheim’s nose flashed at me indignantly.”
“His nostrils turned to me in an interested way.”
“… his tragic nose was trembling.”
Within these same few pages, Fitzgerald pokes fun of Wolfsheim’s nose by emphasizing its being permanently stuffed so that “business connection” becomes “business gonnegtion” and “Oxford man” becomes “Oggsford man.”
Worst of all, towards the end of the book, Fitzgerald adds a gratuitous note that I find obscene: The sign on Wolfsheim’s Manhattan office reads, “The Swastika Holding Company”!
I feel somewhat ashamed to confess that, despite the stain of Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitism, I find his novel as a whole to be both brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed; I have enjoyed reading and rereading it. I suppose that part of me agrees with the concluding lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Another part of me affirms that beauty is by no means always truth, that beauty cannot be equated with truth when the artist, succumbing to his inner demons, distorts the truth about who we men and women are in all of our human diversity.
RABBI JAMES B. ROSENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, the Reform synagogue in Barrington.