The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F Scott Fitzgerald
Publication date: 1925
Genre: Modernist fiction

What’s it about?The Great Gatsby

Narrator Nick Carraway chronicles the events of one summer in the Roaring Twenties, when his new neighbour, the wealthy and enigmatic Jay Gatsby, declares his passion for the rich, beautiful – and married – Daisy Buchanan.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was a Christmas present: a tiny ‘Collector’s Library’ edition, featuring the original cover artwork.

What did I learn from it?

I learned about the power of the visual image, from two different perspectives.

Firstly, as I was reading the book, I couldn’t shake the mental picture of (initially) Leonardo DiCaprio and (subsequently) Robert Redford. I recently saw the 2013 Baz Luhrmann film of the novel starring DiCaprio, which explains his presence in my head; but, oddly – as I’ve never seen the 1974 Robert Redford version – it was Redford who took over as my reading progressed.

Although I’m someone who generally tries to read the novel before seeing the film, this wasn’t the way it happened with The Great Gatsby. Usually I’ll find that a film version doesn’t match the image I’ve created for myself in my head; but doing it this way round, it was a little surprising to discover just how much the visual interpretation I’d already been exposed to affected my experience of reading the words on the page – and I’m not sure I liked it.

The second way in which I felt the power of visual imagery was, happily, the opposite of the above. Despite having actors’ faces in my head, I couldn’t remember every last detail from the film, so some of it at least was left to my own imagination.

Fitzgerald’s words paint a vibrant picture of the society and landscape he is describing. In particular, I remember reading his narrative about the excessive heat of a summer day, which I became so absorbed in that, when I looked up and saw the sun shining through the window, I was convinced that it was a boiling hot day – even though it was actually bitingly cold in the middle of February.

I’ve been tempted to watch the recent TV adaptation of War and Peace, but have now firmly decided to hold out until I’ve read the novel. My experience of reading The Great Gatsby has reminded me of the joys of interpreting a text for yourself before opening yourself up to someone else’s impression – and I believe this brings a new layer of interest and meaning to any adaptation you do subsequently take on board.

How did it make me see the world differently?

In a similar way to The House of Mirth, this book reminded me of the allure of wealth – and of how, although initially appealing, it is ultimately unsatisfying. The characters who live their lives based on the accumulation of riches are shown to be the emptiest and most dissatisfied; and, while abusing their perceived superiority in the appalling treatment of others, they cannot be said to be happy themselves.

It is not just affluent people who allow themselves to be guided by money. There are people who will never have the level of prosperity of the Buchanans, but who still desire it – for example in the form of a lottery win – as something that will solve all their problems.

I believe this is pernicious thinking. Holding out for some miracle of chance to magically improve your life disempowers you from believing you can take action to create change for yourself. While a serious lack of money does indeed bring genuine problems, it does not follow that having millions in the bank will cure every ill, especially if you’re in the habit of waiting for other people to change your life for you.

Learn to do what you can with what you’ve got, however, and many more things become feasible. It’s not a new message, but it is one that bears repeating.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

As I was reading the descriptions of Gatsby’s parties, with their full-on excesses of alcohol, music, dancing, costumes, jewellery, and conversation both earnest and vapid, I felt thoroughly exhausted. I am an introvert, but I still try to get out and about every now and then, to socialise with people. And while the parties I’ve been to in my life are nowhere near the scale of Gatsby’s, I’ve been reminded of just how draining I still find them.

This novel has reminded me of how much the social round takes out of me, and how much happier I am when I can simply be quiet and still, and recover from a hard week’s work in the peace of my own home. So the next time I am tempted out to a party, even a small one, even if it is with people I’d genuinely like to see, I will ask myself whether this is really the best way of catching up with them – or whether I can do things differently, such as arrange to meet for a quiet coffee instead.

I’ve also decided to dispatch with the comments section on these posts. It’s rare that anyone posts a comment, and keeping an eye open for what might never materialise seems unnecessary. However, if you feel at any point that you would like to comment on a post, I would be happy to see you over on my Facebook page, where I post links whenever I have added a new entry in the Book Diaries – and occasionally other stuff too.

Maybe I’ll see you over there?

A musical interlude

For some reason this song came straight into my head when I was musing on the book. I don’t think it’s about quite the same scenario, but the lyrics are – to me – surprisingly apt, and the melody very much conjures up an image of that lazy, wealthy, hot and lethargic lounging that we see so much of in The Great Gatsby.

It’s the Kinks, and Sunny Afternoon

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

Title: Metamorphosis (original title: Die Verwandlung)
Author: Franz Kafka
Publication date: 1915
Genre: Modernist fiction; absurdist fiction; magical realism

What’s it about?Metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa wakes one day to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect, and his life changes drastically as he and his family try – with varying degrees of failure – to come to terms with this.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I borrowed this from the local university library.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that the urge to find meaning in even the most surreal of narratives is very strong indeed. As I was reading this story, I kept trying to figure out if Kafka intended it as an allegory of some kind. He may well have done, but I have deliberately not attempted to find out, as the purpose of this blog is to find my own meaning in the texts I read and translate that into action in my own life.

However, as I read, I found that I kept pausing to ‘try out’ one interpretation after another. Was the story about how we treat the disabled? the lack of direction felt by anyone who is not a breadwinner? the ultimate selfishness inherent in even the closest human relationships? Every time I tried to pin one of these theories down, it took something away from the story I was actually reading and enjoying – and yet at the same time, the uncertainty made me feel a little adrift.

Most of the books I read for this blog are fairly clear in their intent and themes, while at the same time being completely open to multiple alternative interpretations and personal epiphanies. Even The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which dealt with similarly existentialist themes, didn’t leave me feeling quite as bemused as Metamorphosis.

I think this is the first story I’ve read where I’ve been uncertain as to what I’m ‘supposed’ to have taken away from it. In theory this shouldn’t matter, as I am not attempting to write a critical appraisal – but it has certainly been disconcerting to realise just how much I still expect the author’s intention, at least, to be relatively clear. But I have to admit: it has made me keen to read more Kafka, to see if any further enlightenment comes my way!

How did it make me see the world differently?

I guess as I was trying on my different interpretations for size, I started to see a little more of life from those perspectives. For example, what happens if someone we love becomes disabled, through no fault of their own, and is reduced to having to be cared for utterly by the family? I recently saw the film The Theory of Everything, about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife and the development of his illness, and it raised similar questions.

I’ve no idea how I would act in such circumstances, and I don’t know that I’m any the wiser for having seen that film or read this book. However, it has made me consider what choices I might have to make if this happened in my own life, and maybe this will serve me at least a little bit if that time ever comes.

One other interpretation that I found particularly interesting was the view of the Samsa family and the ending of their financial dependence on Gregor. As a freelancer, I’m aware that it’s entirely possible that at some point my work may dry up and I will be reliant on my husband’s income. While I am sure we would manage, the idea of not being self sufficient is pretty unpleasant for more reasons than purely monetary ones.

Gregor’s family are shown as being listless and next to useless all the while he is in work – but as soon as he becomes incapacitated, they force themselves to go out and find employment, and in the end prove themselves surprisingly capable of it. How much could they have done for themselves before? How much was Gregor himself to blame for keeping them in a dependent state? Or were they merely taking advantage of him?

All of these questions leave me with the firm certainty that I want to be able to continue earning my own living for as long as I can possibly manage it – because who knows what might swoop down one day to change things completely?

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

This is perhaps the second time since starting this blog that I’ve made a decision and taken action even before writing the post (the first was The Three Musketeers).

Once I’d pondered on the above issues for a little while, I realised that if I am to remain independent for as long as possible, I need my health. I am pretty sedentary and, being an introvert, don’t get out much except for limited, carefully chosen activities that don’t over-exert my social nerves. This means that I am probably (OK, definitely) not as fit as I would like to be.

So I decided that this had to change. I need to start taking more exercise, so I have joined my local gym and will be trying to go there regularly, in a serious attempt to improve my health and fitness. I’ll probably aim to do some cardio work in the gym before hitting the swimming pool for some relaxation and a wind down; and maybe the odd yoga class.

In addition to the physical benefits, I’m hoping this will also improve my mental health. I’ve been ridiculously busy recently, and last weekend in particular I had real problems switching off and getting my brain to calm down after a long work session. So by getting out and about to do something physical, fingers crossed it’ll give my mind something else to focus on other than the next ingenious idea I have to turn into reality.

That’s the plan, anyway. And in three months I’ll be writing an update to report back on whether I’ve stuck with it! (Not for publication on the blog – you’ll have to buy the book next year to find out for yourself…)

A musical interlude

There was no competition for this week’s music video. It’s a celebration of the late, much-loved David Bowie – who, as luck would have it, just happened to write a song about Ch-ch-ch-changes…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Ulysses

Ulysses

Title: Ulysses24-book challenge
Author: James Joyce
Publication date: 1922
Genre: Modernist fiction

What’s it about?Ulysses

Ulysses chronicles a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, Dublin resident, as he goes about his business and pleasure. The novel employs a variety of writing techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness, playscript, and biblical style; and draws parallels with Homer’s Odyssey, for example in the characters of Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus) and Molly Bloom (Penelope).

Bloom leaves his home in the morning, and as he goes about the city he engages in a variety of appointments and encounters – placing an advert in a newspaper; visiting the local baths; attending a funeral; buying soap; eating dinner; enquiring after a pregnant woman; visiting a brothel – before returning home to his wife in the early hours.

The novel is around 265,000 words in length and extremely experimental in nature. Regarded as a challenge by even the most dedicated readers, it has a reputation for being impossible to finish. I’m therefore very proud at having managed to not only finish it but also enjoy it!

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This came from my local university library. Interestingly, after finishing the book I discovered that some editions feature episode headings that draw the parallels with the Odyssey (e.g. ‘Circe’) – but this was not true of the edition I read. I wonder how much it would have added to my reading experience if this had been the case.

I should also point out that I had to renew it not once but twice! Fortunately I’d completed my previous two books (Mary Poppins and Anne Frank’s Diary) well in advance, so I had plenty of time to spend on Joyce’s masterpiece.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that you should never be put off trying a book simply because it has a reputation for being difficult! Give it a try and you might be pleasantly surprised.

I really enjoyed reading Ulysses and, oddly, found it quite refreshing. Usually, when I read a book, I take a long time mulling over all the different nuances in the sentences, not wanting to move on to the next bit of action until I’ve sucked every possible atom of subtext out of the phrase I’m currently reading.

With Ulysses, I realised from the start that this wasn’t going to be possible. I knew that if I wanted to make it through to the end, I was going to have to abandon my perfectionist tendencies and just let the words wash over me, trusting that I would pick up the general sense as I went along.

Amazingly, this is what happened. I’m not quite sure how – I look back at individual sentences and am not entirely sure of the detail of what they’re saying – but somehow I picked up the general gist, and realised that I knew at any given point (more or less) where Bloom was, what he was doing, who he was talking to, and what he was thinking and feeling.

‘Difficult’ doesn’t have to mean ‘impossible’. And that’s a great lesson to learn.

How did it make me see the world differently?

This book has been a salutary reminder of the possibilities and options we have in life, even when we think we are stuck in a rut. This realisation has come not from the content of the story, but from Joyce’s innovative use of style and structure.

Since starting this book challenge, I’ve explored a range of texts, from non-fiction to literary fiction to high fantasy; but this is the first one that has used language in such a radical manner. It’s shown me that there are always new ways of approaching life, whether overall or in one select aspect (such as literature).

No matter how familiar the world feels, no matter how much our lives seem to be running on set paths already trodden by millions, no matter how little choice we feel we have in our destinies… every now and then, something comes along that makes you realise it can all be ripped up and rearranged in a totally new way.

This is precisely what Ulysses has done. If you are looking for evidence that we can change the world, this is it.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Firstly, I’ve become much more aware of the stream-of-consciousness thoughts passing through my own head, in particular the negative and disparaging ones. It’s so easy to be our own worst critic, and I’m sure I’m not alone in constantly berating myself for perceived faults, or telling myself no-one will be interested in my work.

So, having been made aware of this stream of negativity by reading the inner workings of someone else’s mind, I’m going to actively make an effort to stop the condemnatory thoughts whenever I catch myself indulging in them. We wouldn’t say these things to a friend, so why say them to ourselves? I’m seeing some benefits already, and I’m hoping it will free up space in my head for more productive, creative thoughts instead.

Secondly (and perhaps connected to the above), I’m going to stop worrying about these posts becoming longwinded. I’m conscious that they have increased in length as I read more and more, probably because my brain has got fired up and there is a lot I want to say. However, I need to ensure that this doesn’t descend into verbal vomiting, as this isn’t always interesting to the reader; although I love words, I am very appreciative of the need to edit them as I go.

But Ulysses has made me realise that ‘long’ doesn’t necessarily have to equate with ‘boring’. I won’t be using this as an excuse to waffle on regardless, but I have come to see that ‘editing’ means a lot more than merely ‘cutting’. So I’m going to stop worrying about whether my posts are too long – and start trying to make sure that, regardless of length, they are as interesting and meaningful as possible.

Essentially, these posts are about me finding my own way, and I will therefore write what I feel drawn to write, edit it so that my message is clear rather than clogged – and trust that it will find its audience in due course.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!