The ‘Gatsby’ Platitudes

The Great Gatsby The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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One

So, I finished “The Great Gatsby,” again, and I was telling someone that I was struck by how much of it I remembered. I don’t think I had read it since high school, yet several times I was overwhelmed by almost ghostly memories of the plot. Things like the first big party and the drunk in the library who was remarking about how the books were real; the meeting with Gatsby’s lawyer and his nose; their encountering [spoiler! deleted] toward the end.

I was glad I re-read it, though it was much sadder than I remembered. Totally sad. Some of the conversations are so sad they are hilarious. The first time you meet Daisy, and she is all bored and asking, “What do people do?” I mean, that is a special kind of wealthy person.

It really stirred something in me. My overall reaction to it is that I think it somehow colored my reaction to mundane high school things. It might have been a kind of warped toolbox for me to see and assess things that happened. Nothing like car accidents and gay trysts. But, for instance, just how a Gatsby party seems to become a model for how parties are supposed to be judged.

The book raises expectations, I think, in life. In thinking. Not for how things actually are, but for the meanings they could possess. I mean, before you read Gatsby a green light at the end of a dock was just a green light. After Gatsby, it’s a whole thing. You start wondering why he was wearing a green shirt in a flashback, or why a witness first identified [spoiler! deleted] as being green.

Two

It is interesting that there are two, or maybe three, scenes in the novel that seem to describe incidents of gay sex, and there is not a lot written about it online. Well, that isn’t true. There are quite a lot of people who are asking, in various Web discussion groups, if the narrator (Nick Carraway) is gay, and quite a few college essay farms offering articles on “Sexuality in Gatsby.”

But it doesn’t come off (from an Internet search) like Mr. Carraway is out of the closet, so to speak. It still hits you like a matzoh ball in your lap when you read, for instance, in Chapter 2:

Taking my hat from the chandelier I followed.
“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Where?” “Anywhere.”
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
“Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . .
Brook’n Bridge . . . .”

I realize that is ambiguous. But I don’t it means that I am a pervert that “gay sex” is the interpretation I am going with. Consider this even odder chunk from Chapter 7:

My commutation ticket came back to me with a dark stain from his hand.
That any one should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart!

Does it matter? I think it does, if only because “Gatsby” is more properly seen as a love triangle.

My reading of the book starts with this premise: Nick Carraway, and not the more dashing eponymous character, is the protagonist of the novel. …My other premise is less obvious, but no more difficult to argue: Nick is a) gay and b) in love with Gatsby.

via Nick Carraway is gay and in love with Gatsby – Salon.com.

Three

The book begins with a kind of platitude. The narrator, Mr. Carraway, is recalling a piece of advice his father gave him.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

It is fitting because Mr. Fitzgerald basically spends the balance of the novel holding forth with similar bits of advice and observations.

The most famous is perhaps Mr. Gatsby’s incredulous reply to Mr. Carraway: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” That hopefulness, a theme of sorts, is expressed again in the novel’s probably famous closing line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

But there are others. The range of insight is fairly broad, the effects uneven. Sometimes Mr. Fitzgerald is profound, other times bemusing. And at least once, in Chapter 6, he seems to be making fun of himself:

I was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

I made a game of noting the others that Mr. Fitzgerald was able to give voice to:

  • Reach excellence at 21 and “everything afterward savors of anti-climax.” Chapter 1.
  • “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” Chapter 5.
  • “…most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning.” Chapter 3.
  • “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues.” Chapter 3.
  • “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” Chapter 4.
  • “It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.” Chapter 4.
  • “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” Chapter 4.
  • “It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” Chapter 6.
  • “…show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead. After that my own rule is to let everything alone.” Chapter 9. 

 

‘What Hath God Wrought’

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit that it took me awhile. But it defies your inclination to skim a page or two. It’s irresistible, absolutely packed with information and wit.

Toward the end, Abraham Lincoln makes a delightful cameo, his debut in American politics. Adding his voice to vehement Congressional opposition to the Mexican War was the man who would become perhaps this country’s the greatest wartime president. As Mr. Howe writes, referring to Mr. Lincoln‘s remarks about the then president, James Polk:

Polk should “remember he sits where Washington sat” and tell the truth about the origin of the war. “As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt to evasion — no equivocation.”

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Garbonzos I Have Loved

IMAG0281

The inspiration is one of my favorite snacks sadly, not shared by my assistant, yet, carrot sticks dipped in hummus and here I tried to deconstruct the two things only to reconstruct them better.

via carrot soup with tahini and crisped chickpeas | smitten kitchen.

I made this soup, which is delicious, if standard, and became fully converted to the camp of Chickpeas Make a Great Snack. There are not a lot of people in the camp, I know. But I am just saying, if you get a post card from me with a funny postmark, don’t get alarmed.

Roasting chickpeas on a cookie sheet can be a little tricky. The little guys can turn black in a hurry. But the end result, with just a little garlic and oil, is all kinds of potato-chip hearty. They are a perfect compliment to soups, as in the above excerpt; but it is enough to simply eat them by the greedy handful.

I am not making that up.

‘Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945’

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over all, worth it. There is little inside that is controversial, or novel. Indeed, Mr. Kennedy devotes not a little brainpower to debunking some of the controversial and novel myth-making that had preceded him. And he does so ably.

But you should realize that this is, as it says, a history of the New Deal and of the United States’ involvement in World War II. It is a big-picture view, with insightful and engaging big-picture analysis. And despite its being a part of the so-called Oxford History of the United States, it is only those things. The words Joe Dimaggio and Joan Crawford do not appear anywhere in its 800-some pages, for instance; “John Steinbeck” does, but only to add muscle to contemporary descriptions of real life. (It seems “Grapes of Wrath” was fairly spot-on.)

In other words, if I had to criticize this book, which was good fun and is much-recommended, I would say that I would gladly have read past 1,000 pages over all if Mr. Kennedy had discussed, you know, movies and radio and, I dunno, art. Possibly his editors would have laughed at that suggestion; probably that was farther than he wanted to go. No one asked me, I know.

In any case, it is not often that I enjoy a book that I wish was 200 pages longer, but I wish it had been.

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‘You Don’t Eat Chickpeas, Do You?’

Carrot soup with tahini and crisped chickpeas.

Carrot soup with tahini and crisped chickpeas. (Photo credit: Me.) 

[3:21 PM] Bob …all right….honey roasted chick peas

[3:21 PM] Me: You don’t eat chickpeas, do you?

[3:24 PM] Bob …well …no…you have me there…but…Super Saver had….ranch and bar-b-que….or dorito lookibg color…thought maybe since you can get anything…honey roasted…

[3:26 PM] Me: Chickpeas come in a sack. A can, maybe …not snack size bags.

[3:28 PM] Bob …so…no ….then…¿?…

[3:28 PM] Me: You, Sir, are a bit of a cad. Aren’t you?

[3:30 PM] Me: Sorry. I meant rube.

[3:31 PM] Bob ….no…I think not…your off about the flavored…peas, eh….

[3:32 PM] Me: What do you call a man who’s never had a chickpea, flavored or otherwise, but a rube?

[3:37 PM] Bob …its just if I were going to jump in ….I would go with honey roasted…thats all…

[3:37 PM] Me: And. For me, it’s just that THAT makes you a rube, Sir. That’s all.

[3:38 PM] Me: Here’s what you do. Get a can, add them to your next salad. Like croutons. Protein. Fiber. Bonzo. Good for you

[3:38 PM] Me: Then…

[3:39 PM] Me: Get a sackful. Soak. Roast on a cookie sheet, with garlic, coriander, whatever. Eat like peanuts.

[3:39 PM] Bob …well…if you say so…

[3:39 PM] Me: Then, Sir, and only then you can hold your head up. And be called not a rube

And Then the Sphinx Says…

Grilled Ham and Cheese Sandwich

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

[12:35 PM] Me: Now. Here’s a riddle. Why is it a grilled cheese sandwich if you fried it, not grilled it?

 

[12:41 PM] Bob: …why not saute….then…eh….broiled…

 

[12:41 PM] Me: Yes! Right? From now on, I’m calling them sauteed cheese sandwiches.

 

[12:42 PM] Bob: …cheese toastie….cheese melt….

 

[12:42 PM] Me: Cheese sneeze!

 

[12:51 PM] Bob: …believe it came from the 1920’s use of a grill to describe a dinner type foods…and the sandwich…cheese melted on bread with all manner of meats and salads layered on…where concocted using the ….grill…the term used for the Viking g1140 model range which included a flame grill, flame broiler, griddle (which in its self is often refered to as a gril) , convection oven and warming oven….to this day the flat griddle type cook surface in a Dairy Queen is refered to as a grill…even though it truely is a large hot plate…which things are fried…

 

[12:52 PM] Me: You really are a scholar!

 

[12:55 PM] Bob: …I think it is frying that got us in all this confusion…when have you ever prepared …one inch deep or more container of oil …heated to around 370 degrees …then plopped a pattied burger into …well…to fry a burno frying is the problem…my burgers from a pan…are browned and heated through…in a pan I just finnished carmelizing onions in…not fried…

 

 

 

‘The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands’

The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean IslandsThe Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part travelogue and part ethnographic study, which climaxes in a weekslong, torch-lighted trance of voodoo drums and dancing.

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I am not making up the part about voodoo drums.

“Traveller’s Tree” (1950) is in its DNA an erudite traveler’s diary, but it reaches an emotional peak — a feverish dream may be more apt — in the dusty fringes of Port-au-Prince. Fermor and his companions apparently spent most of their time in Haiti waiting for the nocturnal thumping that signaled a voodoo convocation. They would slip quietly into the background of these spectacles like the late arrivers at a movie theater, their white faces conspicuous in the firelight.

Not for nothing, Fermor devotes several pages to a disquisition on voodoo and related mystical practices. He is earnest in an attempt to assess these artifacts as part of Haiti’s culture, hearing out an exasperated priest before indulging in his nightly field trips. He conjures an interpretation, heavily tinged with (medieval European religious) history, of zombielike possessions. He observes a host of rituals, including not the first chickens in the islands he has seen dismembered. But he fails to satisfy himself; voodoo is “impatient of explanation,” he writes.

A small section of one of the author’s already-groaning bookshelves.

This is Fermor’s first book, and it makes the last of his eight real books that I have read. An odd reading plan, perhaps. But, interestingly, “Traveller’s Tree” contains the seedlings of his next few titles, notably the eruptive plot device that convulses his only novel, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques” (1953); the admiration for monks and monastic life that colors “A Time to Keep Silence” (1957); and the unquenchable curiosity that branches “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966) into so many welcomed tangents.

I do not consider it his best. In my view, that is “A Time of Gifts” (1977), the first volume of his famous-but-never-finished memoir of a trip (mostly by foot) across Europe in 1933-34. Fermor is never better as a writer, if you ask me (which I know you didn’t), than in the first half of “Gifts.” It fairly bursts with a romantic longing for the Europe before World War II, as Fermor recalls tramping through the snow, teaching himself German with a paperback edition of “Hamlet,” and describing, chillingly in retrospect, an embrasure stacked with Nazi military caps.

Neither do I consider this a good place to start. The novice should check out the anthology “Words of Mercury” (2003).

But it is heartily recommended.

English: scenes from a Voodoo seen in Port au ...

Voodoo, in Port au Prince (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What interested me most of all about “Traveller’s Tree” was its ethnic studies, if only because these seem so fusty — perhaps understandably so — with the passage of time. Travelling in places populated mostly by black people (and by scant few tourists), Fermor takes great pains to describe what was unusual to him. Naturally, this was most things, and in many cases — as in his description of the distinctive, old Harlem dress of Trinidad’s Saga Boys — passages remain vital and engrossing. But in others, the tone of his opinions and his continual description of skin color can be jarring.

I don’t mean to suggest Fermor is a racist. But I am not the first reader to make such observations.

The book’s introduction, for one, casts some of Fermor’s racial views as “hopelessly naiive.” Last year, in The Boston Globe, Katherine A. Powers wrote that Fermor’s obsession with “the various kinds and degrees of black and white mixtures is unseemly.” (To be fair, he applies the same queer interest in racial and ethnic provenance to the peasants of the Balkans and the shopkeepers of England.) In 2004, James Ferguson, in a magazine called Caribbean Beat, noted in Fermor’s words a “tone of slight snobbishness.”

Moss and Leigh Fermor pictured in German unifo...

Patrick Fermor, right, on Crete in German uniform. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his part, at frequent points in his book, Fermor acknowledges the difficulty of being who he was (white, Anglo-Irish) and trying to write about race in a place like the Caribbean. Still, he forges ahead. His vagabond sojourn in the years before World War II, as recounted in “Gifts” and “From the Woods to the Water,” and his experiences during the war, as a leader of the resistance on Crete, probably impregnated him with a sense of being a citizen of the world. Fermor, as he lolled about in a sequence of island paradises, wistfully yearning to have been witness to the past — whether it be Carib raiding parties or aristocratic French soirees — was certainly not blind to some of the racial injustices of the time. But he was perhaps not fully equipped to write about them.

To be sure, his well-attested curiosity and experience — sharing “wisdom weed” with angry Rastafarians, to name but one from the book — are persuasive of an enlightened, catholic outlook, even if it is slightly raffish and wrapped in worn English wool. As Powers wrote, Fermor found in “the varieties of race and racial mixtures” an “exhilarating vividness and dash.”

Nevertheless, a modern reader will first have to tune the ear to monotonous discussions of skin color and a liberal use of words like negress.

Consider this a mild warning.

‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’

Portrait de Carlo Levi by Carl Van Vechten, ph...

Carlo Levi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a YearChrist Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year by Carlo Levi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three unrelated commentators encountered over the past year in my Web surfing recommended this book, and for different reasons. I recommend it to you.

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[Pause.]

Charm abounds. To wit: The following excerpt, an anecdote told to the author, follows his observation that he had the only toilet in town.

“There were eight or ten of us… all of us from the same town and acquainted with each other since we were children. Life is depressing there among the skyscrapers, where there’s every possible convenience, elevators, revolving doors, subways, endless streets and buildings, but never a bit of green earth. Homesickness used to get the better of us. On Sundays, we took a train for miles and miles in search of some open country. When finally we reached a deserted spot, we were all as happy as if a great weight had been lifted from our shoulders. And beneath a tree, all of us together would let down our trousers . . . What joy! We could feel the fresh air and all of nature around us. It wasn’t like those American toilets, shiny and all alike. We felt like boys again, as if we were back in Grassano; we were happy, we laughed and we breathed for a moment the air of home. And when he had finished we shouted together: ‘Viva l’Italia!’ ”

‘The Last of the Mohicans’

The Last of the MohicansThe Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a classic, of course, and it might interest fans of the period. But it says here that Mr. Cooper veers uncomfortably close to the cartoonish when he is not flat-out ridiculous.

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I confess that I was occasionally charmed by the scenery and buckskin-covered whatever. Having read a great deal about the time in which the book is set, I found more than a few things of incidental interest. But I won’t bother to detail my complaints; anyway, Mark Twain has already blazed the trail. He is particularly dead-on with this point: “14. Eschew surplusage.” Even in tense moments, Mr. Cooper’s characters are verbose to the point of preposterousness. If you had a nickel for every time a native character answers a question with another, longer question, you could afford to buy a whole set of books that will go down much easier.

James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Cooper is one of the few authors who provoked me nearly to chuck a book out of a subway car. My near-breaking point came during a conference late in the book between the famous protagonist, Hawkeye, his little British buddy, Duncan Heyward, and the chief Tamenund. The chief asks which one of them is La Longue Carabine, one of Hawkeye’s tediously numerous nicknames. Stubbornly, Hawkeye doesn’t answer right away, eventually explaining that since no one asked him if it was O.K. to give him such a nickname he did not feel obliged to answer. Never mind that it is the whole point of nicknames that they are bestowed by other people. Similar arrogance displayed by a city dweller, during a pause on the always-sun-dappled trail, would not go long without a wordy and snarky comment from Hawkeye himself.

Anyway, the point is that because Hawkeye does not initially answer to a nickname well known to him and his companions (and everyone else, for chrissake), the reader is subjected to a drawn-out tangent: first Hawkeye’s own haughty explanation of why he kept his mouth shut (including, “my gun is not a carbine, it’s a smoothbore”, and then a shooting contest between Heyward and Hawkeye designed to suss out which of them — a pale Englishman entirely new to the country or a well-bronzed woodsman — is the aforementioned Mr. Carabine. It goes without saying the contest is utterly devoid of suspense.

The reader is left to ask, What was all that for? I already knew Hawkeye could shoot, I knew that he had a long history with the indigenous tribes and I knew that he had a surplus of pride and peculiar notions. All I really know now is that I am five pages farther from the end of the book than I should have been.

No wonder Michael Mann rearranged the whole thing before he made his movie.