The Great Gatsby is currently available in the UK in at least seven different editions, is about to appear in its sixth film adaptation, has been adapted on innumerable occasions for radio and theatre, even succeeding without adaptation as an eight-hour theatre reading, and has also been performed as a ballet, an opera and an orchestral suite. Someone somewhere is surely developing a Gatsby computer game, a Gatsby Theme Park Ride and Gatsby on Ice.
The book's obvious attraction is the holy trinity of fantasy: wealth, glamour and romance. Who would not wish to be thirtyish, goodlooking, unattached and with unlimited disposable income to spend on designer clothes and extravagant parties in a mansion with a swimming pool next to the sea? And of course, to dispel any suggestion of idle hedonism, to be a decorated war hero and wracked by a great unfulfilled passion.
The only mystery is the book's status as a modernist classic when, as a novel, it is an oldfashioned mess. The central character is a cardboard cutout, the premises of the story are laughably absurd and it ends in wildly implausible Victorian melodrama.
As a character, Gatsby's only distinguishing feature is addressing everyone as 'old sport' - and the source of his stupendous wealth is never explained. We are told that he works for a crook called Meyer Wolfsheim (a sharply anti-Semitic portrait) but the sordid details of what he actually does are never revealed as this would spoil the glamour. Instead there are only hints that he is used as some sort of frontman, and part of the popular appeal is that Gatsby is presented as a naïve, innocent sweetie who acquires his wealth almost by accident and spends it on fabulous parties only in the hope of attracting his lost love, Daisy Buchanan, who lives with her husband across the bay. Has anyone ever gone to such lengths for a date? And we are expected to find Gatsby's passion admirable, even noble, when Daisy is an utterly worthless, spoiled, selfish rich girl (the portraits of Daisy and her husband Tom are stereotypes of the idle rich). In fact Gatsby, in a rare moment of revelation, explains that what he loves about Daisy is her aura of wealth and privilege ('Her voice is full of money').
And of course Gatsby's great passion can never end in the tedious business of actually living with Daisy. Could Tristan ever move in with Iseult? Could Heathcliff shack up with Cathy? Dear, innocent, romantic, handsome and beautifully-dressed Jay has to die tragically. It's tough shit, old sport, but the only way to get your story filmed six times.
A plausible scenario would be to have Wolfsheim fly into a murderous rage after seeing Jay's shopping and liquor bills. Instead, the narrator, his girlfriend, Gatsby, Tom Buchanan and Daisy are lounging by the sea on a 'broiling' day of 'oppressive heat', when they envy the yachts on Long Island Sound. Yet they decide to drive into New York and Tom, an old-money rich man, who has just discovered Gatsby's passion for Daisy and despises him as an arriviste, inexplicably asks to drive Gatsby's car. Next Tom just happens to run short of gas at the filling station of a man whose wife is Tom's discarded lover. This is so that the woman sees Tom and believes he owns Gatsby's car. And on the way back from New York, Daisy, a woman so pampered and indolent that she can barely manage to stand up, suddenly decides she has to drive Gatsby's car instead of Tom and when they pass the filling station knocks down and kills the wife who has run out to confront Tom. The distraught husband sees Gatsby's car, believes that Gatsby was driving and sets out to shoot him, not only killing him instantly but leaving the corpse drifting picturesquely round the swimming pool on an inflatable. (I know very little about shooting but I strongly suspect that Jay would have fallen into the pool).
Then at Gatsby's funeral Fitzgerald uses the old trick of making the scene bleak by calling in a downpour from special effects (the parties all take place in perfect weather). Mark Twain once had a wonderful idea for weather in fiction. At the end of his novel, The American Claimant, he placed a selection of passages describing dramatic weather conditions and suggested that readers choose their own weather for each scene.
Why is such an unconvincing novel revered as a classic? Because of its narrative language (ironically, the one thing that can never be captured on stage or screen). Most prose trudges gamely in sensible footwear. In Gatsby Fitzgerald's prose lyrically floats. It is light and graceful, yet exact - ballerina prose. And always it is suffused with yearning and loss. Take the sentence that concludes the marvellous list of those who attended the parties: 'All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer'. It appears to be matter-of-fact but enchants with an exquisite, melancholy cadence.
This is the modernist music discovered by Flaubert when he concluded his story, Herodias, with a description of three men bearing off the head of John the Baptist: 'As it was very heavy, each of them carried it in turn'. Joyce then used the sentence to conclude his story, Ivy Day in the Committee Room, where it describes a response to a sentimental poem: 'Mr Crofton said that it was a very fine piece of writing'. All three sentences are the same sentence, which makes an apparently flat statement resonate with the beautiful and mysterious banality of life.
So the reader is happy to float through Gatsby, aching with tenderness for summers gone and loves lost, as indifferent to plot and character as when watching a ballet. I will probably not see the new movie but I have just reread the book and could do so again any time, in preference to many worthier novels. The final sentence is the best of all: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'
Michael Foley will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org