Out of a lifetime of reading – or at least my lifetime so far – how is it possible to choose just one book that stands out from all the others? One novel that remains tethered to particularly poignant memories or pulls me back to a specific time or place? Eight novels – a sort of book version of Desert Island Discs – would be a hard enough task. But one – just one…
It has to be The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s novel is the one that I’ve read and re-read too many times to count. Not always the whole thing, cover to cover – sometimes I just dip into it, relishing the wonderful rhythm and cadences of the opening page: “In my younger and more vulnerable years…” Or I turn to the final few sentences that I can never get enough of: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The brevity of the book – a mere 180 pages – is so astounding and impressive too. How does Fitzgerald do it? How does he manage such economy of style while conveying a powerful and affecting tragedy through beautiful language, lyrical yet lucid?
Now, it’s time to confess that it’s not only for its literary merit that The Great Gatsby sits at the top of my favourite novel list. There’s a distinctly personal connection for me too.
Many decades ago, when I was a teenager and heavily involved with an amateur drama society, a group of us were asked if we would be interested in spending two days as paid extras for a film being made at the local Pinewood studios. It was the summer holidays and half a dozen of us (all adults apart from me) duly turned up very early on a hot July morning, ignorant of the title of the production, but a little intrigued to be part of the film-making process and get paid within the bargain.
Or arrival, we were whisked into an enormous costume department and fitted out with beautiful authentic 1920s dresses, jewellery, seamed stockings, wigs and shoes. No detail was overlooked. Casually, one of us asked, as we were being accompanied to the main lot to begin our day’s shooting, “So who’s starring in this film, then?” In the context of the 1970s, to my teenager’s impressionable and romantic mind on that blissfully sunny summer morning, the answer did not fail to impress. “Oh, it’s Robert Redford,” the answer came, “We’re shooting The Great Gatsby.”
Robert Redford. The man’s photographs, cut-out from some teenage magazine, adorned the walls of my bedroom. His pale blue eyes, sandy, ruffled hair, freckled face, those lips, stared down at me from faded, flowered wallpaper, watched over me as I slept. I was to be in a film with Robert Redford! Not only that, but as we arrived on the set, an enormous re-creation of a wedding breakfast at the Plaza Hotel, New York, I was whisked off from the rest of the extras and told that I was to be “the bridesmaid” and placed at the end of a long main table at the top of the ‘room.’ Well. This was obviously the turning point of my life, I decided. Stardom, fame, riches – all clearly awaited me. I had been spotted. Discovered. Launched. Forget studying for A-levels and dutifully writing essays about Paradise Lost and Coleridge’s opium dreams and handling the subjunctive in French. Hollywood – and Robert, obviously – awaited me!
And there he was – the man, the idol, the delectable American version of a Greek God, dressed in a pale pink suit advancing across the set towards me. Admittedly, he was merely following the instructions of an assistant director and a couple of cameramen and was accompanied by Mia Farrow, petite and beautiful in layers of lacy lemon, but the destination was the same. He stopped within close touching distance, placed his hand on the back of my chair and stood at my shoulder. Entirely, of course, ignoring me. But it didn’t matter. He held the back of my chair! While I was sitting on it! These were far more innocent times, the 1970s. Our teenage dreams were naïve, our expectations limitless.
Filming went on all day. At lunch time, unlike the other stars who swiftly disappeared for civilised dining, RR snacked off the hefty ham rolls and urns of tea provided on trolleys for the extras. He ate with us ordinary mortals! The afternoon and into the evening was spent still recording the same scene: Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchannan and Tom, Jordan and Nick have taken a room at the Plaza to escape the intense heat of the New York afternoon. Gatsby has just challenged Daisy to say that she never loved Tom. “You want too much!” she says to him. “I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past. I did love him once – but I loved you too.” In the novel, the scene continues and eventually Daisy and Gatsby leave, driving in his car with Daisy at the wheel for the drive which precipitates the ultimate tragedy of the story. In the film, a far more dramatic departure took place with Daisy and Gatsby running away from the others, escaping through a wedding reception taking place downstairs at the Plaza, pursued by irate Tom Buchanan. The scene occupies only seconds on screens. We filmed for twelve hours. But it was twelve hours spent in the company of pink-suited Robert Redford. And we were being paid!
The next morning, we turned up again at dawn for our second day of extra work. It was raining. It was cold. The hours hung on our hands and by mid-morning it was clear that the scene we were to film did not involve Jay Gatsby. It was the scene towards the end of the novel after Gatsby’s death when Nick confronts Tom on Fifth Avenue, a scene transposed again to the Plaza Hotel. Suddenly, our flimsy authentic costumes felt foolish, the boredom became intense and we could not wait until the end of the day to return to our jeans, our t-shirts and our normal suburban lives. The absence of Robert Redford suddenly made film-making seem a lot less glamorous.
And I was not, of course, ‘discovered.’ My bridesmaid role mutated on the cutting-room floor into a brief view of the back of my head clad and concealed in a cloche hat.
But I had discovered Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I went out the very next day and bought my first copy of the novel. I still have it. Over the years, I have read it, taught it, analysed it, loved it. I have resorted to its poignant beauty and haunting tragedy at times when life has seemed just too complex and overwhelming.
There are, of course, so many other fine novels and writers I love and revere. Jane Austen’s flawed heroes and heroines, her wonderful wit; George Eliot’s wisdom and perception in Middlemarch; the final paragraph of Lord of the Flies; the last two pages of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.
But The Great Gatsby trawls me back always to that young, romantic and ingenuous girl who, one enchanted summer’s morning, set eyes upon her beau, dressed in a pale pink suit. Forever after, the novel has been for me potent with nostalgia and memory.
Jude Hayland is a writer of fiction who has recently published her second novel ‘Counting the Ways.’ Born in London, she now lives in Winchester, but also spends a great deal of time in north west Crete. You can visit her website here.