Yesterday I attended my monthly photo club meeting. Our leader is a lovely man in his eighties, fortunate enough in life to have had two spouses, one of each variety, and he has been a photographer since 1960 or so.
He has a good eye – as one would expect – and has an interest in the philosophical qualities of photography. There must be more than just a record of a scene to be a good picture; there must be harmony of colour and tone, a concise arrangement of objects, a natural flow and order that transcends any one reading. Simplicity and elegance are his watchwords.
But he also has respect toward the new styles of photography evolving. Where clutter and gritty light tell a richer, more complex story. The old rules are broken and that sort of stuff seems to be popular nowadays.
All arts evolve and change. The artists aim to shock and impress with their mastery of a new paradigm. Mondrian must have been wildly avant-garde once upon a time. Likewise Jackson Pollack, and even Banksy.
Perhaps so too with literature. We all know the classic novels, because they are set reading in high school. The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and so on and on.
Perhaps we as students find them stuffy and irrelevant to our teenage lives. Why read about what a bunch of Yanks were doing in the 1930s? The words are long, the language archaic, the characters forever maundering about this and that.
Jacinta Horgan is a writer I admire – a writer who is younger than I, and writes with an authenticity and power I can only dream of – has started off a YouTube channel, where she talks with charm and passion about things to do with writing and her life. Well worth watching, and subscribing for more instalments.
Writing is life. I firmly believe that. The reader must connect with the characters and what they are doing to be caught up in the story. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter did it for me. High fantasy, to be sure, and well removed from my own teenage life where Plato and Monier-Williams held as much power over me as did popular entertainment of any kind, but I was there in that fantasy world, following along as the characters found adventure and glory, tragedy and despair, in a complex and sometimes unfathomable universe.
The classics perhaps don’t entertain quite so readily as does the latest YA series, but they are taught in high school for a reason. And that is that they embody the acme of literature. They encompass all of the things that English teachers love. Plot, characterisation, description, a mastery of the language down to good grammar and perfect spelling.
Huckleberry Finn aside, I suppose, and even there the author goes to some pains to explain that the American dialects he uses are authentic and diverse. They have their own rules.
There’s another reason why classics are taught. They can get us out of our bubble. Like taking a holiday in another land, we can be taken to far places and times, get a feel for what they do, how they speak, what their environment looks like. And tastes and smells and feels, if the writer is any good.
We can put our own time and place in context. One point I always take note of, and that is how much progress has been made in things like gender equality and human rights. A century ago in the world of Jay Gatsby, women were all but property. Someone like the golfer Jordan Baker was a figure of near-scandal, with no family to hold her back, travelling the country, and doing what she liked. Or who she liked.
I’ve read the book a time or two, and seen both versions of the movie, both the old one from 1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, both looking impossibly young, and the more recent version with that Leonadro di Caprio chappy.
I don’t see it as boring. Nick Carraway is hardly an intrusive or entertaining narrator, but he is overshadowed by the larger-than-life characters around him. The image of Gatsby standing forlornly on his dock trying to grasp his lost love in the form of a distant green light over the water is so poignant and romantic that I can never let it go.
The doomed love of Jay and Daisy reflects the times. The Twenties might have been Roaring, but Prohibition and the Great Depression were just around the corner, with the rise of totalitarian dictators ready to threaten everything that the heedless flappers held dear.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the rise of the coloured folk that Tom Buchanan feared so much. The greatest threat came from the Nordic people he counted as having given the world science and art and all things good.
Classics might seem a world away from our own, but they hold up a reflection for us to compare our lives and culture against. If I were an American, I would be worried not about the coloured people crossing the border, so much as the rich and shallow New York millionaires, ignorant of the golden gossamers they possess, and think will endure forever.
There is much in The Great Gatsby to contemplate. It might seem slow-moving and pointless, but it is a mirror held up to our own selves. Are we the brash yet worried Tom, the dreaming Gatsby, the anodyne Nick? Or one of the three main female characters: Daisy trapped in a gilded cage, Jordan exploring the limits of her freedom, or the doomed Myrtle, escaping her world of ash-heaps for brief and sordid interludes?
Or do we have the gall to think that we are somehow different, somehow free of all this?
Francis Scott Fitzgerald had a way with words, and I found it no struggle to read through the book. For me the hard part is putting it down after that poetic, thoughtful ending.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”Excerpt From: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. “The Great Gatsby.” Apple Books.