The Shock of the Now

I haven’t seen the new Gatsby film but from what I’m hearing it doesn’t exactly surpass the book. The writer Irvine Welsh tweeted yesterday: ‘Two hours in, I never wanted to see anything by F Scott Fitz again. Please: read book first or don’t let this movie put you off the book’ and also ‘Gatsby looks great, acting is good, but I sensed they wanted to make a ‘movie of this classic novel’ rather than actually felt the material.’ It’s not true that film can’t improve on literature – Kubrick’s version of The Shining has a better ending than the book – but when directors try to update a modern classic embarrassment generally follows. You get Baz Luhrmann doing Romeo and Juliet, and making it about drug dealers or something, and it just doesn’t work. The more I read about Luhrmann’s Gatsby film, the more it sounds like the Entourage version.

There is a condescending contemporary idea that people cannot ‘get’ classics if they are not made more ‘relevant’ to people’s lives. True, great writers were creatures of their own time and their works are littered with archaic signifiers and allusions that make little sense today. Nicholas Lezard points out that Dante’s Inferno is filled with the poet’s axe-grinding and Florentine political allegiances – ‘He loathed some people so much – those who had behaved treacherously to guests – that he couldn’t even wait for them to die.’ So good translations, contextualisations and commentary are essential. But what do you make of education curricula that encourages schoolkids to recreate World War Two using Mr Men characters? And we wonder why we are turning out generations of young adults who can’t write a job application that most people would understand.

Consider also the impact of set and setting on the plot. Many classical storylines are driven by customs and taboos that no longer exist. In her excellent essay on Fitzgerald, Sarah Churchwell explains that transported to a contemporary setting, no one would care where Jimmy Gatz’s money came from. He could be exposed as a Russian mafiosi and today’s London elite wouldn’t blink. As Churchwell says, ‘Today the illusion of Jay Gatsby would not have shattered like glass against Tom Buchanan’s ‘hard malice’: Gatsby’s money would have insulated him and guaranteed triumph – an outcome that Fitzgerald would have deplored more than anyone.’

There are of course contemporary dramas like The Wire and Breaking Bad that in their richness and moral complexity echo the ancient Greek tragedians and the great Russians. Don Draper is a Gatsby in his way. But David Simon, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan were trying to create something new whereas today’s liberal pedagogues and celebrity directors who rework classic art just end up patronising the audience and wasting everyone’s time. The scramble for timelessness is a fool’s game and good writers know this. I remember seeing Bret Easton Ellis, at a reading in Manchester, responding to a criticism that his novel American Psycho had become dated. Ellis said that (I paraphrase) ‘It was dated while it was being written.’ Like the political references of Dante, the long closed bars, restaurants and forgotten Manhattan topography of American Psycho didn’t make the novel any less fresh – in fact, it’s that very archaic nature of such references that makes the feel of the novel. You don’t achieve timelessness on purpose. You achieve it when you write a great story.

And the demand that everything be made ‘relevant’ always reminds me of the office bore who tells you, ‘There’s more to life than books, you know. Live in the real world.’ As if the world of books, stories and dreams were any less real than mortgages, barbecues and fucking pension plans?


(Image: Rigo Design)


7 Responses to “The Shock of the Now”

  1. Benazir Says:

    I’d say the timelessness come from making sure the world of the novel, film ect is fully realized. I think if a modern and intelligent reader, who knew nothing of the Jazz Age, read “The Great Gatsby”, it would be clear to them why Gatsby has kept his origins a secret.

    Another example would be the world of Jane Austen. Social mores have changed a lot since the 1800s and I think it’s silly when modern (particularly western) people say they “identify” with Elizabeth Bennett. But Austen makes the rules of the society clear without bashing the reader over the head and so we don’t need to read her books with some sort of reference guide.

    A small point about Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet”: I thought the central conceit was quite good. The reason the filmed failed for me was that it was too loud and garish. Maybe that was meant to draw the young uns in.

  2. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Agree totally…which, queasy as it makes me feel….seems to place me in the Gove camp.
    As it happens, it’s several decades since I was at school and I more or less voted with my feet at about 14 and decided I had better things to do. However, before I bailed they obviously decided I and several others were ‘disaffected’ and put some ‘special provision’ in place which largely consisted in drawing a picture which conveyed how we felt about a passage which was read to us by a very eager student teacher.

    The passage they chose was the opening chapter of Hard Times, which tbf, is fuckin brilliant-Dickens has some sublime moments. I remember the disappointment on the poor guy’s face as he collected up our efforts. There were several mounds of brown steaming material, a few cock and balls and mine which was a guy in glasses reading the Guardian with an obvious erection. He kept me back and asked what it was. I told him I’d thought about it and decided it was something that’d clearly give a liberal a hard-on. The others all got away with it and I got suspended for a week…not that I was bothered. They also called my dad and told him what I’d said. He was so happy he took me down the chippy then bought me 4 cans of Carlsberg. He told me the most important lesson I’d learned was: never trust a liberal…they’re all censorious, authoritarian bastards with no sense of humour.

    Move on 15 years or so and I get called in to talk to my son’s year 3 teacher because he was refusing to colour in any picture he’d draw. I already knew this. I’d noticed at home and I distinctly remembered that I’d been the same at his age. My kids all did pretty well at school, except him, although he really is the smart one…very smart. Problem is: he takes after me.

    I told his teacher it was no big deal and asked what the problem was. She looked horrified and told me that an inability to colour in was an indicator of any number of learning disabilities and it was vital that we got to the bottom of it. I suggested that all it indicated was that he didn’t like colouring and was probably bored shitless by the entire curriculum. Actually I knew this. He knew his tables up to the 19s by this time and used to read match reports from the broadsheets. I’d talked to him about school and he said it was OK but he clearly just viewed it as a place where he went to meet his mates and the condition was that he had to jump through a few simple hoops to keep the teacher happy…but colouring was a hoop too far.

    Anyway, we agreed that if he could show her he could draw and accurately colour a picture we’d forget all about the learning difficulty thing. Fair play to him, he sat down, drew a pig, coloured it immaculately and handed it to his teacher who rapturously exclaimed “Oh Joe, it’s lovely, I’m going to put it on he wall. And I hope you can do me lots more, it really brightens up the room”.

    He jumped up, snatched the picture, ripped it to pieces and screamed: “That’s wasn’t the deal, and I thought if I coloured one, that was enough. Fuck you and your shitty school” then ran out. Before she could say a word I screamed at her: “What sort of place is this? Where is he picking up language like that?” And stormed out.

    He was skulking around the play ground looking a bit nervous and edged his way over to me looking anxious. “Come on” I said, “I’ll get you some chips, then we’ll ring your grandad and tell him all about it.”

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Fuck me. Such a gutsy moving story. Why aren’t you writing for a national newspaper?

      • Paul Murdoch Says:

        I’m guessing the lack of formal qualifications, the big gap on my CV where ‘Oxbridge’ should be, the criminal record and my natural aversion to national newspapers are contributory factors. However, the lack of any connections with the media is what probably swings it. Don’t get me wrong…if I chose to resume contact with the alumni of my alma mater, I’d probably find they could offer me all sorts of interesting opportunities…unfortunately my alma mater is HMP Walton.

        I’m not even being wholly facetious here either. A generous state fed, clothed and housed me for 3 years with the chance to study more or less full time…and all I had to do was get caught with several tons of aluminium and lead whose ownership was in dispute. Looking back, I’m grateful. I read ‘everything’. I know this sounds a bit conceited but I’ve never met anyone else who’s read as much as me. Not only that, I read things randomly, made judgements and choices based purely on subjective taste; particularly re. prose style.

        The downside is that I tend to reread things too often these days…don’t know why but I’m always reluctant to read new fiction even though I regularly very pleasantly surprised. Generally, I have 3 books on the go: 1new fiction, 1old and one non-fiction and I tend to view a book in terms of its place within the trio. Just before Christmas was a real trial. I could never decide which one to pick up. It was Visit from the Goon Squad, Confederacy of Dunces and Ackroyd’s Blake biography. A few times I literally couldn’t choose, gave up and went out for a pint instead.

        I’m definitely gonna see Gatsby, mind. The book’s a peach and I’ve enjoyed all Luhrman’s efforts. I take your point about Romeo and Juliet, but it hit a few high notes and he strikes me as a creator of spectacle as much as he’s a film maker.
        I’m also half way through series 4 of Breaking Bad…magnificent. Up there with The Wire and Sopranos.

        Sorry about the length of these posts btw but I dislocated my shoulder the other day and I’m laid up until Wednesday.

        Incidentally, what did you think of Brett Easton Ellis’s dig at Foster Wallace? On the whole I think he called it spot on. Wallace was a fantastic essayist; as a novelist he leaves me a bit cold; especially Pale King. His novels tend to become an ordeal for me; like ploughing through Pynchon but without the payoff.

      • maxdunbar Says:

        I know what you mean. I reread stuff all the time. There are books I read every year.

        I know what Ellis means about DFW too. He’s one of those guys that I’ve consistently been put off reading because he is so revered by tons of anaemic soulless twentysomethings who can’t write…

        I loved Breaking Bad, too. Just wait till the finale!

        Also, why not use your convalescence to set up your own blog? 😉

  3. PaulDBrazill Says:

    Top post, Max.Paul Murdoch, that’s a brilliant story.

  4. comradeNosaj Says:

    Check out Wallace’s essay collections they’re simply perfect and a friend of mine swears by Infinite Jest. DFW is for me like Wes Anderson: yeah he’s a hipster icon but that doesn’t stop him cracking out a masterpiece

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