And in Paris, I read so many great ones. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler, which I found in the $3 bin outside Shakespeare & Co. The copy was disintegrating, so I paper-clipped the pages together and read them while sitting on the bench outside the store. The Children’s Hospital**** by Chris Adrian (oh, and I read A Better Angel****** and The Great Night this year, too), which was probably my favorite reading experience. I spent thirty minutes or so every morning reading it, before the city woke up, sitting on the Seine and eating a pain au chocolat. There are probably still crumbs in my copy. I also read The Great Gatsby and A Moveable Feast and reread Wuthering Heights.
But when I next read the book, in my thirties, having lived in New York for a while and seen the strange mix it has to offer — and an uglier mix it was back then, for the city was badly run down, and I’d run into enormous disappointment myself while there and ultimately left — I read that line about power and beauty again, and when I did I sat up with a shock. Fitzgerald, or Carraway, rather, doesn’t look at the skyline and say that it represents all the beauty and power in the world. He says the skyline offers “the promise of all the power and beauty in the world.” The promise. Much different than the real thing.
To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us.
- Joan Didion in 1961, spelunking terrain that may or may not remind us exactly of the way we function online and cope with the bizarreness of being followed, unfollowed, blogged, reblogged, retweeted, flamed, liked.
The passage comes from Didion’s essay called “On Self-Respect.” It’s in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a book I owned, partly read, purged, and now have out of the library.
I’ve typed out some other passages, meaning to add them to this post. One includes a Gatsby reference. Since a Gatsby reference has become one of the cheapest, best ways to appeal to me, I don’t trust my love of the passage. I will cheat by keeping this relatively short and posting the other quotes elsewhere. Here, specifically.
After seeing still more people pre-hating on the specter of Baz Luhrmann filming a 3-D version of Gatsby, it seems worthwhile to step back and realize what sort of novel can be ruined by a movie version that’s garish, inept, unfaithful, or in any other way bad. It is a novel like my novel.
My novel could be ruined by a crap movie version because even unnervingly attentive readers of this blog probably do not know that my novel exists. My novel could be ruined because it’s not even published. My unpublished novel, unsurprisingly, is not taught in high schools and colleges. Revered writers don’t mention my unpublished novel when they list the one or two books that they’ve returned to again and again — yearly, as a sustaining ritual, in some cases.
Gatsby, in these respects (and possibly a couple of others), is pretty much the opposite of my unpublished novel. Gatsby comes as close as any novel that I can think of to being indestructible. Make a porno version of it; doesn’t matter. Distill it down to a nine-minute rap and compel mildewed finger puppets to spit the rhymes; doesn’t matter.
Nobody — literally nobody — who blames Gatsby itself for a lousy movie version ever stood even the slightest chance of becoming a loving reader of the novel.
So this whole 3-D thing is going to be OK. Right, Mr. Fitzgerald?
… Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
So, in conclusion, simple marching orders for Baz Luhrmann: Don’t be what preyed on Gatsby; don’t be foul dust.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is shaking his head about word that Baz Lurhmann may film a 3-D version of Gatsby. His readers have posted a bunch of smart, passionate comments. Anybody who fears that people don’t care about books anymore should go look. Here — with the addition of juicy bits of mostly self-referential hypertext — is the comment I just posted:
It never would have occurred to me to wish for a 3-D Gatsby, but the idea has real potential — especially if it’s a use of 3-D we haven’t seen before. Based on five minutes of “workshopping” this within the confines of my mind, my ideal 3-D Gatsby would be one where we never see Nick, where the whole film is an immersive experience of seeing East Egg and West Egg and the "enchanted metropolitan twilight" of New York City through Nick’s eyes. Think of a graceful cinematic rendering of this Gatsby paragraph:
"The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor."
I think all this and type all this while admittedly under the influence of a 1961 Updike quote that I blogged last night: “… the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”
The quote comes from a mostly critical review of Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” and maybe some similar quote will be needed if ultimately we end up with some mess of a 3-D Gatsby. But the quote is also a road map. We should hope Baz Luhrmann is obsessed with Gatsby. We should hope he risks excess of behalf of that obsession.
Updike’s “Franny and Zooey” review, incidentally, offers up a critique of Salinger that might help Luhrmann calibrate his excess and that those of us who love Gatsby might do well to mull if we’re dead set against adaptation:
"In ‘Hoist High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ (the first and best of the Glass pieces: a magic and hilarious prose-poem with an enchanting end effect of mysterious clarity), Seymour defines sentimentality as giving ‘to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.’ This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation. ‘Zooey’ is just too long; there are too many cigarettes, too many goddams, too much verbal ado about not quite enough. The author never rests from circling his creations, patting them fondly, slyly applauding. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given."
Any thoughts on all this?