Thursday, 9 February 2012

'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Synopsis: The Great Gatsby is set in the summer of 1922. The narrator of the book is a man called Nick Carraway, who has recently left his home in the Midwest for a job in New York City. Nick rents a small house on Long Island, which is just across the bay from his cousin Daisy and her wealthy husband Tom Buchanan. Nick is soon pulled into their glittering world and is even introduced to Tom's mistress Myrtle. Nick is both shocked and fascinated by the Buchanan's lifestyle. But what fascinates Nick even more is his wealthy and mysterious next-door neighbour Mr Jay Gatsby. The man throws lavish and boisterous parties at his mansion night after night and everyone in New York and Long Island seems to know who he is. Yet, no-one seems to know anything about Gatsby himself. However Nick is then informed that Gatsby and his cousin Daisy were once romantically involved - but Daisy chose to marry Tom when Gatsby went to Europe to fight in WWI. Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting between himself and Daisy. Nick agrees but this meeting has deeply tragic consequences.

I really wasn't sure if I was going to like The Great Gatsby when I first started reading it but I was very pleasantly surprised. One thing that surprised me about it was its length. Classic novels always seem to be huge - well the ones I read always seem to be huge anyway. But if The Great Gatsby was only a little bit shorter it would have to be classed as a novella. It's short and accessible and would for a really good introduction to classic novels. Also, Fitzgerald's prose is beautiful and is so descriptive and evocative. I absolutely loved his writing style and there are such gorgeous quotes from it:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

‘Whenever you feel like criticising any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic 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 then one fine morning-
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Usually I also enjoy books that have a lot of likeable and endearing characters as well but The Great Gatsby isn't one of those books. There are very few likeable characters in it. Most of the characters are lacking in morals and some  of them you even hate. But then most of these characters aren't meant to be likeable or endearing. It would go against the whole point of the story. Fitzgerald is mourning the decline of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby and it's a scathing social commentary of its time. Fitzgerald is bashing the moral emptiness and decay of upper-class, east coast, 1920s' America - so almost all of the characters are superficial, shallow, selfish and completely lacking in self-awareness (ooh, look how many "S" words I managed to get in there!)

No character embodies these qualities more in the book than Daisy Buchanan, the love of Gatsby's life. She's so incredibly shallow that she actually cries tears of happiness when she sees Gatsby's elegantly tailored shirts because she's never in her life seen clothes so beautiful. She's just a total bitch to be honest. She and her philandering, racist scumbag of a husband deserve each other in my eyes. There are only two likeable and sympathetic characters in this story - Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway. The Great Gatsby is one of those books in which a "normal" narrator tells the story of a more mysterious and eccentric character. Other examples of books that do this are Breakfast at Tiffany's, Brideshead Revisited and the Sherlock Holmes stories. When Gatsby is first introduced he comes across as polite, charming, intriguing, mysterious and charismatic. But as the story goes on you begin to see that Gatsby is actually an extremely lonely and deeply flawed character. His naive, misplaced devotion in a girl who is completely unworthy of him make him a very tragic and sympathetic character and I really felt sorry for the poor guy. Nick Carraway is a very sympathetic character in this book too. He values honesty and compassion and has a good sense of morals. He's also regarded as being one of the most reliable narrators in literature because there's never the sense that he's hiding anything and because he actually says that he tries very hard not to judge people.

Some readers won't be able to get past the mostly unlikeable characters of The Great Gatsby and I can see why it wouldn't be to everyone's taste. Yet despite the rather sad and bleak ending, I really loved this book. It's beautifully-written and is a brilliant morality tale. I'm sure I'll read it again some day - although not for a long while. Having read two books with sad endings in a row I definitely fancy reading some more cheerful books! I'm looking forward to the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio/Baz Luhrmann film adaptation. I'm not too thrilled about Tobey Maguire playing Nick but apart from that the cast looks pretty solid.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831)

Synopsis: Notre Dame de Paris is set in Paris in the year 1482. The sinister, twisted, lust-filled priest Claude Frollo has become obsessed with the beautiful, young gypsy dancer Esmeralda and will stop at nothing to have her. He then attempts to kidnap her with the aid of the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame, Quasimodo. The plan fails due to Esmeralda being saved by Phoebus, the handsome Captain of the Guards. Esmeralda becomes instantly infatuated with Phoebus and dreams of marrying him. Quasimodo is then taken away by the guards to be publicly tortured. Whilst being tortured he cries out for water. Esmeralda, who is there, takes pity on him and offers him water to drink. Quasimodo is so moved by her compassion towards him that he falls in love with her and becomes completely devoted to her. He then attempts to save her from Frollo's lecherous advances later on.

I refuse to call this book The Hunchback of Notre Dame even though that's what most English-language editions of this book (and film adaptations of the book) translate the title as. And no, I'm not being pretentious or snobbish! It's not like I go around calling Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera "Le Fantome de l'Opera". It's just that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a misleading and inaccurate title. Quasimodo isn't the main protagonist of the story at all. It's the cathedral itself that is the main focus and setting of the story. Almost every single major event in this book happens inside the cathedral, on top of the cathedral, or is witnessed by a character who happens to be inside or on top of the cathedral. Also, although it may seem incredible now, the authorities in Hugo's day actually wanted to pull Notre Dame down because it had fallen into decay. Hugo was appalled by this - he loved his Gothic architecture - and wanted to raise attention to the situation. The huge success of the book played a huge role in saving the cathedral and it's now one of the major tourist attractions in Paris. Well done, Hugo!

So now I've got that out of the way I can concentrate on the story itself. I'll give some friendly advice here: if you're looking for a happy, "feel-good" read then this book won't be for you. If you've grown up with the Disney movie (like I have) then this book may come as quite a shock to you. The book is more complex and is very dark. Having said that it is, for the most part, an extremely interesting, fascinating and powerful read. There's drama, there's action and suspense, a few twists and turns, some intriguing (if not always likeable) characters and a brooding atmosphere. The book is shorter and more tightly plotted than Hugo's Les Miserables too so I suppose it might make for a more accessible introduction to Hugo's style. That's not to say that there aren't any digressions and tangents in this book. There's a fairly lengthy and detailed digression about the layout and architecture of medieval Paris for example that was clearly very well-researched - and I loved Hugo's description of the various noises in Paris collectively forming a giant symphony. Hugo also goes off on a tangent about the monarchy by bashing Louis XI. I found this tangent less interesting I must admit but I didn't mind it.

The plot is mostly concerned with Frollo, Esmeralda and Quasimodo's characters and they're all interesting and memorable. Frollo is one of the very best villains I've ever come across and is seriously creepy and nasty. Esmeralda's character frequently got on my nerves. The girl spends so much time pining after the completely unworthy Phoebus that I wanted to scream at her! And it gets her into major trouble at least 4 or 5 times! Having said that though I still felt pretty sorry for her and she has her good points. Quasimodo may not get the most page-time but he's easily the most sympathetic out of all of the main characters and is very likeable. There are other interesting characters too. There's Frollo's drunken, over-indulged younger brother Jehan. There's Phoebus who is a sleazy scumbag (so different to the Phoebus in the Disney movie!) There's Pierre Gringoire, an impoverished poet. I'm not sure if his character is supposed to be likeable - he's spineless, cowardly and has a worrying obsession with Esmeralda's goat - but I quite liked him. I found him quite funny for some reason.

I have to say that I wouldn't call this book an absolute favourite of mine and I definitely don't rate it as highly as Les Miserables. The ending has none of the hope that Les Miserables offers and is so much more bleak and tragic. Even though I'd been forewarned that this book had a sad ending it still depressed me quite a bit. And I would have liked it if Quasimodo had gotten a little more page-time during the middle-portion of the story. However if you like historical fiction, don't mind a few digressions and can handle sad, dark stories then Notre Dame de Paris is still well worth a read. If you're a Phantom of the Opera fan then this book may also be of some interest to you. The book came out about 80 years before Gaston Leroux's novel and can be rightly called its predecessor although Hugo and Leroux were both drawing from the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

Rating: 4/5