The 100 best novels
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Fitzgerald's jazz age masterpiece has become a tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art
Mon 8 Sep ‘14 05.44 BST
n the five years between the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise(1920) and his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), F Scott Fitzgerald experienced the kind of literary success that can only happen in America. Fitzgerald not only coined the term "the jazz age", he lived and wrote about it with the hedonistic delirium expressed in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922). "I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the 'impossible' come true," he wrote later. His career as the celebrity spokesman for the inter-war generation brought him money, fame, and the love of women. Looking back, he remembered that "it seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man".
The Great Gatsby is the American novel on this list that remains, after many readings, one of my all-time favourites, an unquiet masterpiece whose mystery never fails to exert its power. This is perhaps because, as Fitzgerald himself wrote, he is exploring the geography of regret. In a letter to a friend, he said: "That's the whole burden of the novel – the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world that you don't care whether things are true or false so long as they partake of the magical glory."
The "jazz" side of Gatsby, amply represented by Baz Luhrmann's movie, remains seductive. The plot, ripped from the pages of a tabloid and crossed with a romantic novelette, has the potency of cheap music. The attraction of Gatsbyintensifies with the text itself, a glittering diamond of brevity less than 60,000 words long. If it was just a lurid tale, its appeal would have faded long ago. But, as well as being a tragic romance, it's also a prose-poem, an elegy to its author's lost love, a hymn to the anxieties of the American dream, and a jazz riff on postwar trauma. Not for nothing did Fitzgerald set it in 1922, the year of The Waste Land. Put all these elements together, mix in prohibition, bootlegging and the beginnings of celebrity culture, add a soundtrack from Gershwin, plus the creative ambition of a writer tormented by fame, and you have a literary supernova. When Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles, from a heart attack, aged just 44, his publisher's warehouse still held copies of the first edition. There was, as Fitzgerald had predicted, no second act in this American life. Just immortality.The Great Gatsby, in short, becomes a tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art.
A note on the text
Fitzgerald began planning his novel in 1922, hoping to write, as he put it, "something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned". But he made slow progress and in the winter of 1922 worked on magazine stories to pay his debts. One of these, "Winter Dreams", he later described as "a sort of first draft of the Gatsby idea".
The other impediment to creative progress was his alcoholism. He was, as Sarah Churchwell writes in Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby, consistently "drunk, tearing drunk, roaring drunk". Indeed, in the party season of 1922-23, Fitzgerald calculated that he averaged barely 100 words a day, and knew he had to get out. In 1924, he and Zelda moved to the Riviera, where he immersed himself in his novel. "Out of the woods at last," he wrote in April 1924, "and starting novel."
By 1925, the book was done. "Like Gatsby, I have only hope," Fitzgerald told Gertrude Stein, as he waited for the world's verdict. In the gaudy myth of the novel, there are two further strands: the cover and the title. The jacket art for the first printing of The Great Gatsby, a disembodied face above a dark blue Manhattan skyline by Francis Cugat, is one of the most famous cover illustrations in American literature. Copies of this edition now sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
And then there's the title. Fitzgerald had to be talked into The Great Gatsby by Maxwell Perkins, his editor, and Zelda, his wife. To the author, "the title is only fair, rather bad than good". While he was writing, he had flirted with many alternatives, including: Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, Under the Red, White and Blue, The High-Bouncing Lover, and Trimalchio in West Egg (his most favoured alternative). An early draft of the book has been published by an academic press under the title Trimalchio.
Finally, after publication on 10 April 1925, the fate of the novel and the novelist's own creative rallentando fuse into the Gatsby myth. Hemingway wrote: "I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. We were to find out soon enough."
The reviews were not as bad as people claim, and the sale of 20,000 copies was above average. Eliot, for one, was full of praise, but the novel did not match the expectations inspired by Fitzgerald's celebrity. Thereafter, Scott and Zelda's lives began to unravel. She had a breakdown and would end up in an asylum. He went to Hollywood to reverse his fortunes, completed Tender is the Night, and sold some confessional Esquire pieces, later published as The Crack-Up. "My God," he wrote to Zelda, "I am a forgotten man."
Three more from F Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise (1920); Tender is the Night (1934); The Last Tycoon (1941).
THE 100 BEST NOVEL WRITTEN IN ENGLISH
001 The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
002 Robinson Crusoe by Danie Defoe (1719)
003 Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
004 Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)
005 Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
008 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
009 Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock(1818)
011 Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)
012 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
013 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)
015 David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
016 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
017 Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
019 The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)
020 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)
021 Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)
023 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)
031 Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
032 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
055 As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)
070 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)