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Posts tagged ‘Fitzgerald’

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

Testaments unknown

Suite FrançaiseSuite Française – Irene Némirovsky, Chatto and Windus, translated by Sandra Smith

Streetwise – Mohammed Choukri, Telegram, translated by Ed Emery


It is a rare pleasure to read a book that speaks with a voice of its own, beyond the fact of its author.  Two such books are Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky and Streetwise by Mohammed Choukri.  Two more different books I could not think of to review together and yet both record the beauty and suffering that brought them into being with that raw honesty which is itself an ecstasy. The air crackles around them.

Choukri’s book records a homeless twenty year old Tangerine urchin’s struggle for instruction. “”I’m sorry,” said the headmaster, “We have a problem here. The reception class is for young boys and you’re almost a man. You’re old enough to shave already. And anyway, what the older boys should be doing is memorising the Koran and Ibn ‘Ashir’.”

The book records a struggle for literacy.  A struggle for life. Choukri slept in mosques, on streets, fed on the kindness of others, smoked kif, the local weed, “cheaper than cigarettes”, slept with prostitutes and found friendship in their company: “At the end of the street was a disused well. I went over to it. As I stared down into its dark, silent depths, I had a sudden urge to hurl myself head-first down the shaft. The silence seemed to awaken all the despair within me.”

Nemirovsky records instead the flight of Paris society into the countryside to escape Nazi occupation. A fiction rooted in fact, beautiful but no less stark, no less true than Choukri’s book: “The streets were empty. People were closing their shops. The metallic shudder of falling iron shutters was the only sound to break the silence, a sound familiar to anyone who has woken in a city threatened by riot or war. 

One is the story of a terrible loss, about what to keep and what to surrender, what ludicrous choices we make in the face of our own mortality, how silly we can be made to seem, made to feel, when we are asked to examine our possessions: “The Péricands had been travelling for nearly a week and had been dogged by misfortune. They’d had to stay in Gien for two days when the car broke down. Further along, amid the confusion and unimaginable crush, the car had hit the truck carrying the servants and the luggage. That was near Nevers. Fortunately for the Péricands, there was no part of the provinces where they couldn’t find some friends or relatives with a large house, beautiful gardens and a well-stocked larder.”

The other is a story of incredible achievement in the face of insurmountable obstacles, of hope.  Unencumbered by the accoutrements of success, of privilege, of pretension; taking refuge in a mental hospital; Choukri writes with a lucid, stripped-back liberty: “In the hospital people’s faces were actually made more beautiful by the misfortunes and worries that they’d endured in their lives. Hospital bread has its own particular taste. These mental patients opened the doors of inspiration for me, enabling me to look out into the world. Whenever I looked at one of the crazy people here, I saw a hidden flame of intelligence as old as humanity itself.”

Both books are incredibly well written, moving works of prose.  Both books are paper testaments to their authors, to their ideas, to their struggles with life, with their own intelligence. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to a friend, ten years before Choukri was born or Némirovsky began Suite Française“people don’t seem to realise that for intelligent man writing down is the hardest thing in the world.”  Both books are deserving of being read, and re-read, deserving of a favoured place on a bookshelf, of being in wider circulation.  But for all of this, and for whatever reason, I cannot read them and love them as much as I do without knowing that Mohammed Choukri became Chair of Arabic Literature at Ibn Batuta College in Tangier and Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz.

The Editors

A curious conversation about driving a car

CoverThe Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cars and chauffeurs pervade Fitzgerald’s novel, first published in 1925 at a time when the automotive industry was coming to define the American way of life.  This was mainly because in the decade after the First World War prices of mass-produced cars dropped sufficiently to make them widely available to people outside the elite of American society.  The Great Gatsby, however, was written before the era of Route 101 and open highways, and 28 years before Kerouac published On The Road and the Beat Generation took off.  Clearly, Fitzgerald’s car is no vehicle of emancipation, but instead represents the false hope and delusion that lies at the heart of the novel.

On one level, cars in Gatsby do live up to their early 20th century billing as the ultimate tools by which the American dream could be won: they ferry the great and good to Gatsby’s champagne-drenched parties, and presumably underpin his bootlegging operations across the country, thanks to which he enjoys a certain prominence and notoriety in New York society.  However, Fitzgerald hints at the more destructive side of the automobile at an early stage of the book.  Wilson, the second-hand car salesman, provides the services that allow Tom Buchanan to have such a carefree affair with his wife, and it is Wilson who will later be one of the key figures in the book’s tragic denouement.

“But the wheel’s off!”

The real portend of things to come occurs midway through the third chapter with, firstly, the car crash outside Gatsby’s house as the guests are leaving one of his parties.  This is a highly surreal episode in which the reader glimpses the potentially disastrous consequences of modern technology through an absurdly comic lens.  We are initially led to believe that Owl Eyes, the library-dwelling drunk, is responsible for the accident, until he eventually clarifies that he was merely a passenger at the time.  In seeking to prove his innocence Owl Eyes protests that he knows “nothing whatever about mechanics”, as if to say “how could I possibly drive a car without understanding the basics of how it works?”  Of course, this gets him nowhere, mainly because none of the other onlooking drivers knows anything about cars, and, as with most drivers since then, this hasn’t stopped them from getting behind the wheel.

The point of this becomes clearer a few pages later during a conversation between the narrator, Nick, and Jordan Baker.  The exchange arises out of a near-miss they have in the car, when Jordan almost runs over a group of workmen.  Nick advises Jordan to be more careful or avoid driving altogether, to which Jordan responds that she trusts that others will be careful for her, and keep out of her way.  It is with this off-hand talk that Fitzgerald explicitly brings together the themes of cars and carelessness, the latter being a trait we can ascribe in varying degrees to all the major characters of the novel, except for Gatsby, of course, who rises above the rest in the single-mindedness of his ambition.  It is driving, however, that turns carelessness in Gatsby from a facet of personality into a destructive force.  After all, carelessness without cars, without mechanics, cannot go far beyond emotional consequences, brutal though these may be.  In fact, Jordan tells Nick as much at the end of the novel when the two characters part ways: “I met another bad driver didn’t I?”  The reader may agree with her assessment, but in light of the literal car crash that is Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy Buchanan, Jordan has come off lightly.

Fitzgerald must have been wary of the hope and expectation that flowed from the growing availability of cars in 1920s America.  In the hands of a careless driver, after all, a car is a dangerous thing.  And if Fitzgerald saw a city of careless drivers in 1925, his intuition wasn’t far wrong.  Only four years later Wall Street imploded in another crash, this time exacerbated by the novelty of being able to buy and sell shares as a layperson with no knowledge of the New York stock exchange.  Indeed, this was clearly an episode of American history that affected Fitzgerald profoundly, despite the fact that he lost no money in the financial collapse.  Apparently he later came to see 1929 as the end of the “jazz age” (see, for example, his short story Babylon Revisited, set in the aftermath of the crash).  In any event, carelessness is something that is often overlooked, particularly in the context of rapidly evolving technology.  For Fitzgerald, it was a defining feature of humanity.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clear up the mess they had made…”   

The Editors