As an immigrant, I figured that probably a good way to understand to nature of my adopted country was to familiarize myself with its literature, especially the ones that are asserted to be classics, since the books that a society values are the ones that reveal its sense of identity. So naturally as part of that exploration I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, often referred to as the great American novel.
It left me completely cold. I just didn’t understand its appeal. The characters were unlikable, the plot contrived, and the ending unsatisfying. I even watched the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, hoping that it would provide me with some insight. But the film was awful and I could not judge if the problem was the book on which it was based or just rotten film making.
I also discovered that saying that one did not like Gatsby would cause people to react with astonishment. I recall the former dean at my university who was a professor of English looking shocked when I told him at a party that I just did not get it. I think that he really wanted to set me straight but being the party host had to go and mingle with others. My own daughter rolled her eyes when I gave her my opinion since it provided her with further evidence, if she needed it, that I was a hopeless lowbrow, which is in fact true.
We now have a new Gatsby publicity blitz generated by the latest film version (see a review by David Edelstein) and I toyed with the idea of reading the book yet again to see if being older and more familiar with America would somehow enable me to see what I had missed before. But before I could do that I came across this review by Kathryn Schultz where she admits that despite heroic efforts to plumb the book’s depths with multiple readings, she still dislikes it. I was glad to see that I was not alone and so have decided to forego another reading and the latest film.
Of course there is no law that we all have to agree on the merits of a work of art, whether it be a book or a film or a painting or a piece of music. But when it comes to Gatsby, saying one does not like it seems to invariably evoke the same reaction, a quick intake of breath accompanied by a look that is equal parts incredulity and pity, as if one had said at a revival meeting that one does not believe in a god.