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The Great Gatsby & Lyrical Style

 

I’ve always felt a resonance with the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. When he couldn’t get a job as a reporter in New York City, he became a copywriter. Been there. He moved to Hollywood to write scripts. I also tried that. He dated an unpredictable and mentally unstable woman who caused him great angst and suffering. Check. He also suffered a nervous breakdown and then wrote about it. I bought that t-shirt, too.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that I was attracted to Fitzgerald’s writing style, particularly to his use of lyrical prose that he deployed throughout his novel, “The Great Gatsby.” Fitzgerald’s prose is clear, direct and straightforward throughout most of the novel, but at times Fitzgerald produces lyrical prose, considered so beautiful by Hunter S. Thomson that he wrote out the novel by hand so that he could feel what it must have been like to write a masterpiece.

The story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, a young bond salesman. It opens in first person with no action. Fitzgerald uses foretelling here, flashing back to the time that Nick spent with the character, Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald uses lyrical prose as he remembers Gatsby. “There was something gorgeous about him [Gatsby], some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes gen thousand miles away” (6).

This poetic sentence gives me chills. Nick didn’t say that he admired Gatsby. Rather, he said was “gorgeous,” that he was “attuned to the promises of life,” and compared him to a seismograph, using simile to illustrate Gatsby’s sensitivity. This is showing, not telling in it’s finest form. Fitzgerald. Nick also observed that Gatsby had an extraordinary gift for hope, and set him up as a tragic figure by saying, “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 sorrow and short-winded elations of men” (7).

After this beautiful character introduction, Fitzgerald jumps into backstory. The narrator discuses the circumstances upon which he found himself living near Gatsby’s home. There’s irony in the narrator’s voice as he discusses his new home in a rural region, and the buying of books for his work in the bond business. “They [books] stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew” (8).

Fitzgerald uses a lyrical style to describe Daisy Buchanan: “Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth – but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour” (14). A few pages later, more lyrical prose: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened — then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk (18).

Such lyrical passages are spaced out between expository passages and dialogue. If the whole book were written in lyrical style, it might have been oppressive. By sprinkling these gems throughout the story they are like shimmering diamonds, little gifts for the reader. As I re-read them, I want to savor them. An author who had such insight, and could find the words to describe his observations so beautifully, lives at a higher consciousness, and I admire his perceptiveness.

Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald isn’t neutral with his use of language. He seems tremendously critical of the wealthy. It makes me wonder if he set out to craft a story to hit the rich with a sledgehammer. His style might’ve been an emergent property of that intention. Devoted to the truth, perhaps Fitzgerald had begun to see the rich as having life easy. Maybe he saw them, generally speaking, as liars, corrupted, careless. For example, the narrator does not think much of the wealthy character, Tom Buchanan, who referenced a book about how the white race is being submerged by the colored. Nick thinks “to a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to the call the police” (20). Earlier, Buchanan “compelled me from the room as through he were moving a checker to another square” (16).

Fitzgerald adeptly blends backstory and exposition with dialogue. Introducing Tom and his wife Daisy, he writes, “They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestful whether people played solo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it – had no sight into Daisy’s heart but I felt that for Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game” (10).

Much of the lyrical language is used around Gatsby, when Nick is thinking about or interacting with him. Nick romanticizes him, and it seems to be a creative choice to use lyrical prose when Nick is idealizing Gatsby. For example, when Nick first meets Gatsby: “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faces — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you had hoped to convey (52-52). He then simplifies the prose in the next sentence. “Precisely at that point it vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd (53).

 

The Pilgrimage & Commercial fiction

To study a work of commercial fiction, I was searching for an author who’s style reads almost like a screenplay. I found this in Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of the international bestseller, “The Alchemist.” As with many of Coelho’s books “The Pilgrimage” is a parable, a fictionalized account of his spiritual journey walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago, as many have done as a spiritual retreat.

Since this story is about Coelho and his personal journey, the choice of first person is a natural one, and gives the reader an intimate knowledge of the protagonists’ thoughts. Coelho is highly disciplined with use of point of view, never hopping into another character’s head or narrating the story from another perspective.

In terms of writing style, the following passage demonstrates Coelho’s straightforward, spare use of language with short, simple sentences. “I placed it in the hold I had dug, covered it with dirt, and smoothed the surface. As I did so, I thought of the many tests I had endured, of all I had learned, and of the strange phenomena I had been able to invoke because I had had that ancient and friendly sword with me” (2). There’s nothing stuffy or pretentious with his language. He’s just describing action in short declarative sentences. It’s unintimidating and easily digestible. It’s like watching a movie. With so many demands on readers’ attention in the 21st century, this is an appealing writing style.

“The Pilgrimage” is one man’s quest story about the journey from dissatisfaction to peace, from lost to found. As the narrator, Coelho takes the perspective of the striving initiate. With a beginner’s mind he takes himself, and the reader, from ignorance to self-understanding. In this way he is the mentor archetype. As such, his books read a bit like personal development. For example, “Try to find pleasure in a speed that you’re not used to. Changing the way you do routine things allows a new person to grow inside of you. But when all is said and done, you’re the one who must decide how to handle it” (43). Another: “We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body” (56).

One of the most appealing things about Coelho’s work is his use of simple language to handle “ancient wisdom.” The story and style have a kind of mystical quality. In a 1948 lecture, Vladimir Nabokov said, “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”

Coelho is the quintessential enchanter. He illustrates this in the following passage from “The Pilgrimage”: “Still, being fragile creatures, humans always try to hide from themselves the certainty that they will die. They do not see that it is death itself that motivates them to do the best things in their lives. They are afraid to step into the dark, afraid of the unknown, and their only way of conquering that fear is to ignore the fact that their days are numbered. They do not see that with an awareness of death, they would be able to be even more daring, to go much further in their daily conquests, because then they would have nothing to lose- for death itself is inevitable.”

Coelho’s books, including “The Pilgrimage,” appeal to the human spirit. They help us navigate our messy, mysterious lives. They address triumph and flourishing, as much as doubt and uncertainty. They help us answer the question first posed by Socrates, ‘How should I live?’ Coelho encourages us to slow down and examine our lives.