F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was released on this date (April 10) in 1925. It was a critical success, but not a big seller. The second printing left thousands of unsold copies in the warehouse. How this must have discouraged Fitzgerald, who was likely hoping for a commercial success to help with his mounting debt. Why wasn’t it popular in its own time, and what about this novel has earned it a place in American literature and on every High School’s mandatory reading list? I’m sure volumes have been written on the answers to these questions, but now I wonder about a new one. How would Fitzgerald fare in today’s publishing environment? If Gatsby failed to sell, would he have been dropped by his publisher as a commercial flop? Would he have turned to self-pub in order to find an audience? How many undiscovered Fitzgeralds are there out there now with a story that is not considered “commercially viable”?
Tag Archives: books
I learned that a friend of mine, Faith, died this week. She was abroad, so the last time I saw her she was healthy and full of plans for things she wanted to see, places she wanted to visit, and plans for her family. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the Spring, and despite a valiant battle, passed away almost seven months later. Too soon. Faith was an intellectual, with a keen understanding of the world and an ear for the rhythms of popular culture. She was a brilliant linguist who knew French and Russian and who knows what else. She could take on a discussion of Jane Austen or J.K. Rowlings with the same measure of seriousness and analytic acumen. Faith was the one who introduced our book club to “The Hunger Games” when it first appeared, because she had a sense of these things, and recommended it as a good story with a lot of potential. She wasn’t an elitist or stuffy in her reading–she could take on the heavy lifting as well as the “commercial fiction” with the same measure of enthusiasm. Throughout this blog, Faith made comments about the posts with insight and a sense of humor. I miss her comments. I’ll so miss her at our meetings. This Christmas, like every holiday season, we meet for a holiday high tea, we exchange gifts (books of course!) and review the previous year. We’ll set a cup for Faith, who will be with us there in spirit.
Alice Hoffman has always been a favorite writer of mine. Her prose is a delicious combination of stunningly visual scenes from nature against sometimes shattering personal experiences. Magical realism is woven through the tapestry of all her stories, and The Third Angel carries on this tradition. The tale in this case centers around three different women who have fallen in love with not only the wrong man, but a man so terribly wrong as to send their lives into a headlong tailspin, and take a few family members with them. First, there is Madeleine Heller, who finds herself freakishly attracted to his sister’s fiance, then there is Frieda Lewis, who throws herself at a drug-attled rock star wanna-be, and lastly Bryn Evans, headed to her wedding, while at the same time already married to another man. What is curious and genius about the book is in the telling: the story moves backwards. We meet the first star-crossed lovers in London at an run-down hotel, and learn about a ghost haunting one of the upstairs rooms. As that story winds down, we meet the mother of a character, who as a girl also worked in the same hotel, so we move backwards in time to learn more, until we finally come upon the central character of the whole novel, the twelve-year-old named Lucy green, who blames herself for the tragic event that happens at the hotel, spurred the hauntings, and launches her on a decades long search for the Third Angel–not the angel of death, or the angel of life, but the angel on earth who can renew her faith. Overall, I enjoyed the book because of Hoffman’s lyrical writing, and the clever structure of the story, weaving time backwards with related characters who meet and become intertwined, but I did, however, grow tired–exhausted!–by the end of the novel from the endless stream of destructive and desperate people in the story– preternaturally beautiful and stunning blondes, willfully self-destructive drug addicts, self-absorbed and vain men, who only wanted to satisfy their own desires. So, Alice Hoffman, having brought me as a reader down this path of woe, unrequited love, longing, and death, I really wanted a bigger bang at the end. No spoilers here, but I felt that the story ended with a sort of philosophical shrug at most, after opening the reader up for much more.
As evening approaches and house darkens with the approach of a summer thunderstorm, I am inspired to share with you a book I just finished, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. This book will scratch your spooky English gothic itch with its tale of an aristocratic family in decline, the rapid decay of their ancestral home, Hundreds Hall, and the paranormal goings-on that haunt them. The family doctor, Faraday, happens upon the last family members living in the Hall: mother, daughter, and son and heir, struggling to get by in their gentle poverty. Faraday quickly becomes enamored of the family and the charm of the once grand estate. As the story’s narrator, he is always on hand to calm a hysterical maid or offer a scientific explanation for the increasingly bizarre and dangerous events which plague the Ayres family. The (spoiler alert!) mental undoing of the son can be logically explained by his war experiences, the apparent suicide of the mother from her grief over the loss of her child…but the strange fires, the mysterious writing on walls, the tapping and noises all contribute to a crescendo of fear and “nerves” on the part of the inhabitants, which could, maybe be explained as mass hysteria or delusion…or, perhaps, something else. The ending is not satisfying for those of us who want an explanation, damn it! but instead leaves the reader to make his/her own conclusion. But aside from the ghost story is another, which touches on class. The narrator, Dr. Faraday, is keenly aware of his lowly position in the community and in the eyes of the elitist Ayres family. Dr. Faraday, nonetheless, ingratiates himself with the family and becomes indispensable, eventually winning the daughter’s tacit affections and agreement to marry him. The interesting twist is that Dr. Faraday is every bit as much in love with Hundreds Hall as he is the squire’s daughter, and is aghast when he learns she may not want to live there. The common man marrying the house as well as the Lord’s daughter brings to mind a much more well-known version of this theme, as it played out in Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh). The narrator in that novel, also a man of common birth who observes and comments on the great family with whom he has become swept up with, eventually convinces the daughter, Julia Flyte, to leave her husband to marry him. In one scene, he is horrified to learn that she wants to leave Brideshead and never return. The house in both these novels is nearly a character in itself. It certainly has a powerful draw for the outsider narrator, and an almost repulsive energy to the family which has grown up in it.
Other novels have featured the great house almost as a character in and of itself in the novel. The looming importance of the house is mentioned in the famous opening lines of Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Manderley becomes as much of a ghost as Rebecca as the novel unfolds. In Gone With the Wind, Tara becomes a force which changes and shapes the fate of Scarlett. There are many novels set in great houses, but when the house itself becomes an entity able to exert influence in those who inhabit it, you have to wonder if there really is such a thing as ghosts.