Orchids in filth
by Satyajit Sarna | November 19, 2010
When we meet Meyer Wolfsheim in New York, the narrator Nick Miller is fascinated by him, especially when Gatsby tells him that Wolfsheim had “fixed the world series” in 1919 and Nick is taken aback, commenting “The idea staggered me… It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
Something about Meyer Wolfsheim holds true for us, something about his character fascinates more than the doomed optimism of Gatsby or the temper and riches of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. It is the sour and pungent smell of corruption, of fruit spoiling, of wine that has gone bad in the heat. What is Meyer Wolfsheim, with his cufflinks of human molars and his sordid “gonnegtions”, if not a Lalit Modi character, a man whose venal crimes amount to notable achievement? If it was a uniquely American fascination then, it now belongs to all of us. When we identify the stench of the sewer, our nostrils flare and we hold our breath.
But The Great Gatsby is not about Meyer Wolfsheim. It is the bathetic story of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby, nee Jay Gatz, of middle-west via Oxford (which Wolfsheim pronounces “Oggsford”). Gatsby, who comes into money and spends it conspicuously, in an endless Indian summer, a shower of affluence. From the champagne-soaked parties in the lawns, where few of his guests can recognise their host to the car which stretches for miles like a factory on wheels, we are treated to Gatsby’s wealth. When Daisy Buchanan visits for lunch and Gatsby throws open his closet to show his shirts “shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue”, Daisy breaks down, sobbing into the fabric, saying “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before”.
Image above and on article thumbnail originally published on zzellers' photostream on Flickr.
But we’ve all seen shirts like that, worn them, wanted them, assessed their worth on the bodies of other people. The reason I write of The Great Gatsby here is because this is the world that is given to lawyers and bankers, who handle wealth and observe wealth and dip their cup occasionally into the rivers of wealth that enterprise produces. Wealth fascinates us; even as we worry about its cannibal appetite, we are soothed by its whispering. Nick Miller is like us – he too works in an office and tries with good intention to learn about securities and investments, and eats at lunch counters in the city. When Gatsby tells Nick about his time in Europe, he is reassured by the opulence; “Then it was all true. I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart.”
But Gatsby would be a poor book if it were merely a catalogue of the possessions or conceits of the rich. The seed out of which the narrative grows is the dream of Gatsby, who rose from nothing through hard work and legally dubious means. When Gatsby was nothing and no one, he fell in love, and because he was just that sort of person, his love was everything to him; an all-encompassing religious belief – “and the incantation was complete”. But his love did not wait for him, and while he fulfilled every condition that she had set him, he waits and wishes and hopes. Gatsby expects, in fact, he knows, that the world he has built for himself, the foundations of which lie in his dreams and which are only frescoed in reality. He waits patiently for it to blossom, give shoots, sprout fruit, in his childlike belief that everything he has imagined must come true.
You the reader, and Nick the narrator are rooting desperately for Gatsby, urging him on to cross the tiny distance between his present and the great golden future guaranteed him. But even then, we like him but cannot believe him. The forces opposing accuse him of never having been an “Oxford man” and he agrees – your heart skips; is he a fraud – but then he clarifies that he was at Oxford after the war as part of an army programme – and you breathe a sigh of relief. As does Nick: “I wanted to get up and slap him on the back. I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before.”
Fitzgerald does not create characters like Dickens did. They are not three-dimensional and complete. Like some modernist artwork, the object is unimportant, but for the disfigured shadow it casts over the narrative. The reader itches to know something for certain, any undeniable truth. Is Gatsby old money? A bootlegger? A gambler? Has Daisy been unfaithful for years, or does she at all love Gatsby anymore? The disquieting question that the reader finds himself asking – and hundreds of Ph.D. dissertations have drilled dry – is, how much of Jay Gatsby is Nick Miller? Is Nick such an incurable romantic that he has elevated Gatsby into the last symbol of his own innocence and belief?
Ultimately, Gatsby is about the power of illusion. As the end of the book approaches, the pace picks up rapidly, like a car crash waiting to happen. You feel all the lies coming together irresistibly, and only the truth will remain. But where no lies grow, the soil is not fertile enough for dreams either.
Like orchids growing in filth, there is a shocking contrast between the beauty of the creature Gatsby and the circumstances in which he lives. At the end, we find out that Meyer Wolfsheim had more to do with Gatsby than we thought, but was also a lot more human than we could have guessed. In fact, Wolfsheim disgusts us a lot less than Tom and Daisy Buchanan, with their survival instinct, the way their boat stabilises while others sink in their wake. The end of the dream for Gatsby is the end of a way of life for Nick, who moves back to a part of the country he imagines to be less corrupt, younger, less full of broken mirrors and tainted swimming pools. But in leaving, Nick sums the shattered dream of Gatsby in one of the literatures greatest epiphanies:
“I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
The Great Gatsby is a dispiriting book for an aspiring writer to read because it marks territory permanently. In an elegant 50,000 words, Fitzgerald wrote the great material novel, stamping his mark on wealth, innocence, and corruption forever; he devoured the suckling pig whole and forced everyone else to nibble on the potato wedges and the salads. You get a sense of the old prep chuckling, martini in hand: you will never write a book this good, and even if you somehow do, remember, Fitzgerald got there first.