“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” announces Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament that I, an atheist with an ardent distaste for religion, find consoling, calming, and wise. As the years pass and cares mount, as pleasures fade with repetition, and as the senescence and deaths of family members bear down relentlessly, I find myself turning to Ecclesiastes for comfort, inspiration, and, despite its melancholy tidings, cheer. Continue reading
This moment in human history has the word gender turning over and over in its mouth, the sandstone of the modern tongue stripping away the callouses on the word “woman.” On October 3rd at Skylight Books, author Kate Schatz and illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl heralded the word “woman” in the presentation of their new book Rad Women Worldwide. The book is a celebration of amazing women throughout human history, like activist Malala Yousafzai, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and British punk rocker Poly Styrene. It is sequel to the duo’s first work, Rad Women of America, and a very considerate and artful archive of global femininity. The widened scope of subject matter was approached with great attention to diversity; of skill, of global recognition, of race, and of creed. By acknowledging each rad woman’s unique tribulations on her way to triumph, they have created not only an artifact of female excellence, but of female strength and tenacity in the face of patriarchy, racial oppression, and war. Continue reading
The revelation of Elena Ferrante’s real identity — she is, allegedly, the Italian translator Anita Raja — by the Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti has provoked outrage and dismay from journalists and literary critics. Many feel that Gatti’s violation of Raja’s pseudonymity is an unethical attack on her privacy. We agree. Whatever Raja’s reasons for desiring to remain pseudonymous, her wishes should have been respected, at least during her lifetime. The “exposure” of Raja as Ferrante did not serve the sort of compelling public interests that might have justified the invasion of her privacy. Continue reading
Mark my words: it is no coincidence that Private Novelist’s publication coincides with the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when we Jews celebrate the new year and look towards Yom Kippur, when we will ask our old-testament-God for forgiveness. Nell Zink may or may not have dreamed up, planned out, and been the mastermind behind this non-coincidence. That Private Novelist is being released alongside her new novel Nicotine perhaps points to a larger conspiracy orchestrated by Ecco and HarperCollins’ — a collusion, if you will, designed to sell more books. But why give all the credit to some marketing department, when it might be Judaism we have to thank? Continue reading
I spent much of the summer exchanging links with friends to articles documenting the death of the humanities in American institutions of higher education. The confluence of forces seemed apocalyptically confounding: public universities requiring higher tuition for humanities courses; careerism infiltrating curricula; parents worried about tuition that demand rationalization in terms of investment and returns; MOOC’s and short-term instructors substituting for the sustained attention of a traditional teaching faculty; the possible decline in the number of English majors and worries about employability; lap-tops in classrooms whereby today’s admirably multi-tasking student can seem to fully participate in class discussion while simultaneously shopping for shoes on Zappos and making social plans on Facebook; and, finally, wannabe exercises in digital humanities whereby scholarly inquiry into the things that matter achieves value only through a patina of social-science authority. Now that The New York Times has made it official with an article entitled “As Interest in the Humanities Fade, Universities Worry,” it feels on some days like just a matter of time before the academic world giving prominent place to humanities study would be a distant memory.
What greeted me on the first day of fall classes this year, however, was something entirely different. When I walked into my Nineteenth-century Novel class, I found nothing like what my greatest apprehensions led me to anticipate. Whereas I expected thirty students, more than seventy poured in. Whereas I expected laptops, only four brought them and only two later asked to use them (and since that day no one seems to bring them out). Whereas I expected twelve or so students to actively participate while the rest avoided eye contact, nearly everyone raised a hand at some point. Whereas I expected the rustle of notebooks closing and books returning to bags five minutes before the official end of class, everyone stayed riveted until I gave the signal that we were finished, seven minutes later than we were scheduled to end. (That might not seem like a long time, but my previous experience suggests that college students live a frenzied, back-to-back life of dashing with a bagel and cup of coffee from one place to the next. Rarely do students seem to have the time to linger after class.) They just want to talk about the books: about Balzac’s impossibly long sentences, about Kant and moral choice, about failure and maturity, about the possibilities of agency in an urban mob, about Breaking Bad and Dickens.
I’m not a star professor. I’m not even a tenure-track professor. There’s no buzz about my course and there’s not much likelihood that I can really help a student climb a professional ladder other than making sure their work is really compelling. And I teach at a competitive school where students think about such things. But my students seem to come to class as if discussing these books is the most important event of their day. They want to talk so much that they gather around the front of the classroom when our designated time is over and email me lengthy comments after the next class has dislodged us. For the first time, I had to set up an electronic discussion board because I can never call on the number of hands that are up. And sometimes I feel my role is just to orchestrate: they respond to each other with an alacrity and respect I cannot really remember being the norm when I was in college.
Maybe the numbers of English majors are really going down –or maybe just recovering from an irregular rise as Nate Silver demonstrated. But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask about the state of the humanities. Instead of statistics, maybe we need anecdotes. I remain awed by the energy in my classroom. And most of my colleagues have said the same. (An example: 80 students signed up for a lecture course on The Canterbury Tales!) Students come to the study of books, even today, with a sense that the endeavor is crucially important. They are interested in a liberal education in the broadest sense of the term.
Some of my best students are English majors, but many of them are not. One is in the engineering program. One is majoring in environmental studies. One is pre-med. Their love for reading and writing and talking about books is undiminished by their very pragmatic career plans, or their very real worries about tuition. Or the very serious concerns of parents and administrators who see one thing, the irrelevance and decline of the humanities, while students and professors experience something else. These students are looking for something genuine, real and engaging—and they are finding it.
The long-term prospects for humanities research may lie in applying Big Data to the study of books (I’m dubious) or (perhaps more promisingly) in reaching out to other growing fields—there’s lots of fascinating crossover work with medical humanities going on, and many interesting engagements with Environmental studies. The long-term prospects for humanities study at the college level, however, may lie in remembering that career preparation is only one of the many missions American colleges have organized themselves around. Literature classes continue to speak, and to speak powerfully, to students of all fields. Whether it’s despite or because of warnings from parents, hyperbole in the press, or a presumed sense of the impracticality of talking and thinking about ideas and books, I am reminded every day in my own experience and by that of my colleagues that the appetite of students for reading, writing, and discussing novels, stories, philosophy and poems remains unabated, and it’s that which might well guarantee the well being of the humanities at large. There seems to be a new vitality in today’s humanities classroom. I don’t entirely know how to explain it, but perhaps the new world it heralds might still be an exciting and rewarding place .
Monica F. Cohen teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Barnard College.
By Kalliope Lee
To Haruki Murakami
The late Matthew Bruccoli, who made a distinguished career out of studying Fitzgerald and his oeuvre, wrote in his introduction to New Essays on The Great Gatsby: “The Great Gatsby and deserving readers will always find each other. And the discovery must be a private act. After that happens, the serious reader will require…help….” The statement is nothing less than an oracular pronouncement, an enlightened master speaking in koans to his disciples, preparing them for the arduous, solitary path ahead.
Whether or not I was “deserving” of my own first encounter with Gatsby, I cannot deny a sense of fatedness. After my childhood in Queens, my ambitious, upwardly mobile, immigrant parents moved us to the North Shore of Long Island, where the novel takes place. Our new house was situated halfway between East Egg and West Egg. Upon moving in, I unpacked a box of books, from which I pulled out a copy of Gatsby. A synchronicity right out of Jung, so symbolically resonant in its mise-en-scene.
I was nine years old and had never even heard of the book before, but I knew it belonged to my father, who had majored in English Literature at Korea University. Likely, he picked it up while living in the States alone for a year before the rest of his family joined him.
I still have the book; in fact, it’s lying open next to me as I type this now, a Scribner’s Contemporary Classics paperback with a simple red and white striped cover. The title and author are in the original Art Deco font. The corners of the cover have lost their ears, and the binding has completely given way. Even the Scotch tape used to patch together the pages has become brittle and desiccated, having lost its stickiness long ago. The price on the back says $1.65.
I’ve since picked up other copies — the Oxford edition with Bruccoli’s commentary and the Everyman Library version. Both are hardcovers, purchased with a view to their longevity. But it’s the original paperback that draws me back — with its uneven underscoring and notes in the margins, scribbled at various times of rereading. It’s become a historical document of sorts, charting the evolution of my understanding. Like the timetable on which Nick Carraway writes down the names of those who come to Gatsby’s house, it too is old and disintegrating at the folds, a palimpsest.
My discovery of Gatsby was a “solitary act,” as Bruccoli deems necessary, the serendipitous find of a bookish misfit. When we moved to the North Shore, there were virtually no Asians to speak of, and I felt my cultural disenfranchisement in all aspects of life. Not only in school, but also, inversely, at home, where I was the disregarded Korean daughter among culturally favored sons. In both worlds, and because I had no Asian girlfriends to commiserate with, I was relegated to the fringes. So I sought with desperation a refuge in books. Gatsby, in particular, sustained me. Within its pages I stored my soul for safekeeping — while the rest of me went through the grudging motions of my pained adolescence.
My other sanctuary was the city, where I’d escape whenever I had the chance. I’d ride the Long Island Railroad, taking the same route Nick Carraway takes on his daily commute from Great Neck — the real town behind the fictional West Egg — to Manhattan, and his job as a bond trader. When the train passed through Queens, I would see the Valley of Ashes, and the dispirited George Wilson limply pumping gas at his auto body shop. I imagined Gatsby’s glorious yellow car driving past “with fenders spread like wings, scatter[ing] light through half of Astoria.” The journey released the images that had taken root in my imagination; the movement of the wheels and the chugging of the engine freed me to romp in the terrain more real than the reality I knew — and I was reminded again “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”
As the city came into view, I would recite the lines, halfway between prayer and incantation: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” I sensed the approach of a critical threshold, not only from Queens to Manhattan, but something more profound — literally so, as though we were descending into the shadowy underworld. A dim, malleable place where, as Fitzgerald provocatively forebodes, “anything can happen…anything at all.”
Fitzgerald’s North Shore became my North Shore. And every journey I took on the Port Washington/Penn Station line became a pilgrimage of sorts, the way Jay Gatz returned after the war to Daisy’s hometown of Louisville to pay homage to their love affair. Each time, the path was forged more deeply in my mind, the attendant images evoked again and again, so that I could practically recite the entire book by heart. The peculiar turns of phrase, the recurrence of puzzling motifs, its runic, fragmented quality, became more pronounced. They began to nag at me, stealing my attention at unexpected moments.
Gatsby itself seemed like “the volumes…that stood on [Nick’s] shelf…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.” For instance, this very line holds a clue: the first two names of the triumvirate are common enough, but the third sends you on a hunt, all the way back to antiquity (not easy during an age without internet access) to a rather shadowy, enigmatic patron of new Augustan age poets. References to Maecenas even in ancient literature are sparse, prompting further curiosity. And the most famous of his charges, Virgil, is more maddeningly cryptic than Fitzgerald in Gatsby. Soon the reader is caught in a Chinese box of puzzles. And that is only one clue in a novel rife with such provocations.
My curiosity roused, I began gathering Gatsby facts and reading Fitzgerald biographies. But my growing preoccupation wasn’t something I could share with anyone. Not only would it have sounded absurd: “Sorry, I can’t go out this Friday night; I have to stay in and re-read The Great Gatsby for the 23rd time because I’m trying to figure out what it really means.” I also assumed others would judge it an eccentric and inexplicable passion as I did Star Trek conventions or trainspotting. If I were to hazard the effort of explaining my peculiar hobbyhorse, my enthusiasm would have to be met with equal enthusiasm. But I didn’t feel particularly optimistic, even in the face of those who’d read the book because I saw in their eyes and heard in their tones that they didn’t “get” the book like I did. They had read it in high school, they would tell me, and didn’t see what the big deal was.
Though I cannot say that Gatsby was the sole reason I chose to major in the classics in college, its original working title, Trimalchio in West Egg, colored my decision. I had become acquainted with the eponymous hero and flamboyant host in my high school Latin class, when we read Cena Trimalchionis. Goaded by Gatsby, I read it again more critically in college. Not surprisingly, like Fitzgerald’s reference to Maecenas, Trimalchio lured me into yet another puzzle — another cryptic text that opened another can of mental worms. In graduate school, I read the Satyricon again in light of the entire classical tradition and its inter-textual influences, both past — and future.
I took a detour into T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which appropriated lines from the Satyricon, spoken by Trimalchio, for its epigraph: “For I myself saw the Cumaean Sibyl with my own eyes, hanging in a cruet, and when the boys asked her, Sibyl, what do you want?, she answered, I want to die.” From Eliot, I went on to his hero Dante and back to Dante’s hero Virgil and further back to Homer; I explored the neoteric poets, particularly Catullus and his connection to the patron, Maecenas. Eliot also pointed the way forward, to Conrad, from whose Heart of Darkness Fitzgerald revealed to H.L. Mencken he had “learned a lot” and which he had “consciously imitated…in Gatsby.” I went on to read other writers on whom Conrad exerted a significant influence and studied them side by side, hoping one would shed light on the other — and ultimately, Gatsby.
Growing claustrophobic, I left graduate school, trading my place among the dead and suffocating for more expansive pastures where Gatsby awaited, breathing, living, inexhaustibly deep. If I’d navigated the maze of the western literary tradition with Gatsby as my companion, it would now compel me to come out of closet and disclose my true desire — to write fiction.
As much as I had faith in Gatsby, however, I had no confirmation that it wasn’t somehow “all in my head.” I don’t know how long I would’ve lasted if I hadn’t discovered Haruki Murakami. The lone Toru Watanabe, narrator of Norwegian Wood confides:
I would pull [The Great Gatsby] off the shelf when the mood hit me and read a section at random. It never once disappointed me. There wasn’t a boring page in the whole book. I wanted to tell people what a wonderful novel it was, but no one around me had read The Great Gatsby or was likely to. Urging others to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, although not a reactionary act, was not something one could do in 1968.
Reading these lines, I had to stop and calm myself. It was a revelation — silent yet seismic. Gatsby, the novel, also catalyzes the meeting between Toru and his friend, Nagasawa: “When I did finally meet the one person in my world who had read Gatsby, he and I became friends because of it.” Murakami’s fictional world was giving me what I had desired in real life — a friend and mentor who intuitively understood and shared my obsession. And though I had not exchanged one word with the author, I understood it wasn’t a matter of words. Murakami and I, to quote Fitzgerald’s opening of Gatsby, had “been unusually communicative in a reserved way.”
To be sure, one can glean the Gatsbian influences in Murakami’s work, not only in the conscious literary ways the author himself professes, but in its very vocabulary and metaphors, the way one picks up the accent or the mannerisms of a lifelong companion, or even takes on his features.
“Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel,” Murakami writes in his essay “As Translator, As Novelist,”
I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there). Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby. It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life. Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel. I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections.
My meeting with Murakami and our shared enthusiasm for Gatsby was nothing short of deliverance, and this solidarity invested me with a sense of hope. It championed my strange, secret mania for Gatsby, whose addiction had been perplexing even to me. But most of all, I felt truly accepted for the first time in my life. Whether Murakami experienced the pain of alienation as I did, his narrators, like Toru Watanabe, are solitary figures, preferring books and music to the company of peers. And with this, my soul identified.
Fitzgerald confessed to a similar plight of exclusion:
That was always my experience—a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton…. However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.
Transferring this sense of indignation into his art, Fitzgerald rendered Gatsby, a parvenu par excellence, who by hook and by crook tries to make his way into exclusive East Egg society. But Fitzgerald’s resentment, which prevented him from ever being “able to forgive the rich,” finds resolution in the resurrection of another secret society, whose membership doesn’t require money, but a different sort of wealth — esoteric, literary knowledge. Though Gatsby ultimately “failed” to penetrate the upper class, Fitzgerald succeeded in joining another elite cabal, which boasted its own blue-blooded pedigree of literary cognoscenti. Mental agility has been the alternate way “in” since the ur-upstart Hermes tricked his way onto Mount Olympus and secured tenure as a god (as legitimate as Zeus, who had fathered him illegitimately during a clandestine relationship with mother Maia). Who needs money when you have smarts, which can get money and a lot more? It can even catapult you from the time-bound realm of lowly mortals to the eternity of the gods. Ars longa, vita brevis. Fitzgerald seems to have been aware of these stakes, as the motif of time figures recurrently throughout Gatsby. (According to Bruccoli, there are at least 450 time words in the novel.) A spiritual son of Hermes, Fitzgerald’s true wealth was his prodigious verbal talent, and it is with this currency that he ensured his place among the literary immortals.
And yet, there was a price, a grave, bittersweet price, for this ultimate victory. Just as Hermes learns the art of sacrifice en route to the top, Fitzgerald too paid dearly — with what he referred to as “the whole burden of this novel — the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” These sentiments are echoed with aching eloquence at the close of the novel, as Nick imagines Gatsby’s last moments, referring to the “high price he paid for living too long with a single dream.”
Though the publication and posthumous success of Gatsby proved redemptive of Fitzgerald’s sacrifice, the author’s longing did not disappear. Its pathos, which inspired the most poignant, hauntingly elegiac passages of Gatsby, is a signature leitmotif that runs through his entire corpus and tragically, in the corrosive alcoholism that dissolved his talent and shortened his life. This weltschmerz is both the Muse, who inspires, and the Siren who lures to death with her seductive whispers. Daisy Buchanan incarnates both aspects. In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, the roles are meted to two love interests. Emotionally fragile Naoko portrays the exquisite sensitivity of the artistic soul, which cannot bear the pain of reality and pines for the blissful union she once shared with her dead boyfriend — while spirited Midori represents its contrary world of hope amid the everyday rigors of reality.
Naoko’s eventual suicide and Toru’s wrenching grief over her death replay Nick’s sober reflections upon Gatsby’s murder. For both narrators, time must elapse before they can tell their story. Framed retrospectively, the deaths of Naoko and Gatsby become a trope for the loss of artistic innocence. Or rather, the sacrifice of otherworldly waters of life, its womblike warmth, which is in essence creativity’s romance with the imagination, where anything can happen. And where life is eternal, possibilities are infinite and the mind free to “romp” like “the mind of God.”
To finish a book, to publish the product, the writer must leave his Eden. He must give up his union with the divine and enter the cold, hard reality against which his ideals may “break up like glass.” But this is the price exacted. It is the initiation of the writer. Perhaps it is because Fitzgerald never experienced the extraordinary success of his novel in his lifetime that he sought wistfully his ideals in the anesthetic of alcohol. Or perhaps it was the age of which he was a part that enabled his dissolution. Whatever the case, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is linked intimately with his failure in life and his early demise.
Though I’m well aware of the dangers of ascribing qualities of an author’s characters to the author himself, I also know how desperately an aspiring writer needs a model to emulate. Reading Norwegian Wood and following Toru Watanabe’s journey to the end — through his wrenching, cathartic grief over Naoke’s death and his subsequent return to the world of the living and the vivacious Midori — was heartening. Not only had Toru chosen to commit to life, but so had Murakami, it seems. A decision which is reflected in his lifestyle and his art — in his marathon running, healthy eating and the strict discipline of his prolific writing. Novel after novel, Murakami mines more deeply the ore of his prodigious talent.
Murakami’s books have for me served as a commentary on Gatsby. I read his work as if with a Gatsby divining rod, alert to allusions embedded in his narratives, which confirm my understanding of the classic. Reading Gatsby through Murakami’s lens has also refined my perspective, as it refracted the success of Gatsby from the failure of Fitzgerald’s life. Consequently, I could admire the novel, but choose to live otherwise as an artist. I did not have to sacrifice my life for my art. Or at least not in the destructive way Fitzgerald had. If Gatsby had served as “a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which [Murakami] was able to organize…the world of the novel,” Murakami’s life served as a model for me. His example inspired me to finish my first novel and see this rite of passage not as the beginning of the end, but of better, perhaps greater, things to come. And for this, I love Murakami most. But perhaps, and with terrible irony, it is a love that I can only imagine, keeping its hope alive eternally in my dreams, daring not to risk its meeting in a world where a rose can appear to be a “grotesque thing,” and the sunshine shows raw on “the scarcely created grass.”
Kalliope Lee studied the classics at The University of Chicago and Columbia University and received her MFA in Fiction from NYU. She could not have finished her debut novel, Sunday Girl, without The Great Gatsby and Murakami’s books by her side.