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After the Fire, A Still Small Voice

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

This is the debut novel from a young female writer who runs Review, an independent bookshop in Peckham, near where Wyld also lives and works. This arrangement also resulted in the publication of ‘All the Birds, Singing’ in February this year, shortly after she became one of Granta’s 20 best young writers. So it is safe to say this set up is working for her.

This is the point where I must confess to bias, as Evie’s father Andrew was one of my dad’s most beloved friends and colleagues. When I was quite small, we went to see the Wylds for lunch and the adults were having a snooze in the garden of Andrew’s home in the ruins of a temple in the Isle of Wight. The garden contained a large and powerful trampoline, and I seized the opportunity to bounce on it solo. Higher and higher I soared, until my hubris resulted in me flailing in an arc before crumpling to the ground in a heap. When I could see again, Andrew’s face was beaming kindly down at me, reassuring me (quite falsely) that my descent had been elegant. Evie and her brother were already cool teenagers, and very tolerant of a younger rabble destroying their house.


This memory created a preconception about the tone of ‘After the Fire’ that turned out to be precisely wrong. The recent Royal Academy exhibition of Australian art showed exactly how little I knew about that entire country.  Wyld’s novel was exactly the thing to shake me free of my ambivalence. She grew up in Australia as well as the UK, and is the writer to help the ignorant span the divide. The book spans several generations of a family bakery in the city, a stretch of Australian coastline, an insightful narrator who allows you to miss nothing but remains a close companion throughout, guiding you around the dialect – which seems dead on, certainly to the uninitiated beyond daytime TV at any rate. The characters are shown to be woven together within the narrative without being shoe horned down the reader’s throat: Franks’ fear and Leon’s photos of the dead tie them together just as their shared tendency towards wrath, punctuating their habitual gentleness that clearly marks them out as father and son.

The imaginative breadth in the narrative is illustrated when Frank, rusticating on the coast while he recovers, has trouble in the supermarket: “The shopping of the lady in front of him was curious. White envelopes and chicken livers. He imagined her at home, sitting at her kitchen table, scribbling address on the envelopes, stamping them and placing a chicken liver in each one, licking the seal shut; a bile of bleeding mail growing next to her, ready for the post.”

The swings of temper from the male characters combined with almost constant, background drinking emanate and echo from the source of disquiet within the novel’s landscape. Frank’s father tour in Vietnam seems to be just this canker,  even during the tense calm of soldiers’ patrol before a firefight: “They came to a creek and it could be seen to rise, its belly expanding, its surface was the cross-hatching of elephant skin.” 

Frank meets the neighbours one by one: the mute, ferocious Pokey and Vicky, who emanates a form of pleasant chaos that endears her greatly to the reader. Anyone who felt they were regarded as an odd child (or have been told as such, unfairly) will feel pretty great about Sal. This is a book describing the bakers, the warriors and the wanderers, and certainly for those who always want to read more about the sea (the sea). The image of catching abalone, prawns and squid with ease while sitting on the sun baked shore will have the reader licking their lips to check for brine.

The Editors

Don Quixote 2: courage and identity

“I know who I am,” said Don Quixote, “and I know I can be not only those I have mentioned, but the Twelve Peers of France as well, and even all the nine paragons of Fame, for my deeds will surpass all those they performed, together or singly.” 

Don Quixote’s journey out of La Mancha is a journey out of himself. While Don Quixote sleeps off the injuries incurred in his first three days of adventuring, the priest and the barber examine the library from which Don Quixote’s very lucid and seemingly preposterous ideas appear to emanate. They do not recognise the exertion by which imagination is churned by work into life. “The housekeeper agreed, so great was the desire of the two women to see the death of those innocents; but the priest was not in favour of doing so without even reading the titles first.”

Don Quixote’s treatment by his niece and his neighbours is paralleled by the treatment of his books – arbitrary and inconsistent: “The author of that book,” said the priest, “was the same one who composed Garden of Flowers, and the truth is I can’t decide which of the two is more true, or I should say, less false; all I can say is that this one goes to the corral, because it is silly and arrogant.” 

“This book,” said the barber, opening another one, “is the The Ten Books of Fortune in Love, composed by Antonio de Lofraso, a Sardinian poet.” “By the orders I received,” said the priest, “since Apollo was Apollo, and the muses muses, and poets poets, no book as amusing or nonsensical has ever been written, and since, in its way, it is the best and most unusual book of its kind that has seen the light of day, anyone who has not read it can assume that he has never read anything entertaining. Give it to me, friend, for I value finding it more than if I were given a cassock of rich Florentine cloth.”

In Don Quixote, Cervantes creates a problem for the reader; to laugh at Don Quixote’s idiocy or admire his courage? The boundary between idiocy and courage is exposed to be very fine; infinitessimal. Don Quixote sets out on a journey which is a well researched (for who has read over 100 volumes on any subject without being well versed in it) imitation of the chivalric tales in his library. Don Quixote’s journey is one away from accepted social norms, away from the norms of chivalry but exposing, at the same time, the gulf between reality and imagination. What difference is it to be knighted by a king or a publican? What difference is it to be beaten by a knight or a mule driver, to be fed by a prostitute or a princess?

Indeed it is against social norms that Don Quixote wins the greatest victories. Don Quixote interprets the world he finds on his journey through the chivalric tales he has read and learned about. This is the narrative by which he explains the world around him, as others choose to refer themselves to a god or philosophy or a religion – Don Quixote says he is a knight errant – even Cervantes use of the word errant for itinerant carrying it’s double meaning of wayward, erroneous as well as wandering reflects a double edge of satire and accuracy – even as Cervantes satirises Don Quixote so he satirises the reader who sees Don Quixote only as an idiot to be laughed at – (and in the library: The Mirror of Chivalry).

All this by way of saying: Don Quixote lying pulped and motionless on the donkey of his neighbour having been beaten by a passing mule driver says “I know who I am”  and in subtext: ‘this is my choice and I have made it freely’ and that is a courage it is not so easy to satirise.

The Editors

Book Club 1: If on a winter’s night a traveler

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino

What does it say about a blog that chooses one of the great anti-novels of the past thirty years to kick off its Book Club? For those approaching the book for the first time, it opens itself to the reader with a delicious lie – as does any work of fiction – but this one is lipsmacking in its self-consciousness: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” for as soon as you have read it, it is false.

This is the world of If on a winter’s night a traveler – the silver tongued narrator cajoling you to his own conclusion by acycle of stories – a whirlwind of narrative. If on a winter’s night a traveler is an honest novel, because it is naked in its dishonesty. It is a comic novel, because it bends the form of the novel to its own ends. It is a great novel, because it does these things lightly and in only 200 or so pages. It is one of the finest novels of the late seventies, two fingers to that decade’s chi-chi anti-establishment-ism.

Calvino’s control of the form of the book, his mastery of the narrative, is an ultimate rejection of literature and of the novel and the social structures that gather forces around them – the echoing refrain of “Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them” speaking to a social force by which people surrender themselves to the need to have read something or done something, rather than actually doing it properly and effectively. Calvino’s book is about strength: the strength to ignore the social and structural norms of reading (and perhaps of anything) and to reject them in favour of something which is genuine, strong and well meant.

The book is a rallying call to the reader to take control of the book, of books, and not to be led by society, or the narrator, to investigate the text and its purpose and the meaning and not to be dazzled by the gloss of its surface or the name of its author.

The book represents the values of this site, to lead a considered life, to reject structure for structure’s sake and to grapple with the heart of the book, its purpose, its root. We hope you have enjoyed the process with If on a winter’s night a traveler and we would love to hear your thoughts below this post. Please do let us know how you find reading the book, or anything else you would like to say.

We will be posting again about If on a winter’s night a traveler next Friday, please do join us to discuss our next instalment.

The Editors


Best books read in 2012

Rather than provide the usual list of best books published in 2012, we thought we’d take an alternative approach to this at – below are the best books we’ve read in 2012.  We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.   See you all again in 2013.  The Editors.

For Whom the Bell TollsErnest Hemingway

The first and only book I have read that made me feel more alive when reading than when not.  I thought I had run the full gamut of human emotions through literature but never have I felt the urgency of mortality more forcefully than when reading Hemingway’s masterpiece.  If you did not read this book in 2012 or before, make sure you read it in 2013.  The Editors

A Dance to the Music of Time – Anthony Powell

It is not one book, and I did not read all of it this year. However, the 12 component parts of Anthony Powell’s epic form a coherent whole, and I did get through the majority of it in 2012, some of it in far flung bits of West African bush. It takes a while to warm up (about five volumes indeed), and I would not be the first to say that reaches its peak with the three war time instalments (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art and The Military Philosophers). But fundamentally the Dance repays the time one must invest to master it.  Simon Akam

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

I am somewhat reluctant to push this book into the 2012 limelight; it is by no means a seminal work. However, for those fed up with a wet and cold London, slip through the cracks into Gaiman’s fantasy world “London Below” – a subterrenean labyrinth of disused tube stations, sewers and canals. Magical characters like Old Bailey and the Angel of Islington will lead you through this shadowy world where walking down Night’s Bridge (Knightsbridge) might be the last thing you do. It’s magical escapism at it’s best, you’ll never forget to “Mind the Gap” commuting into work again.  Anna Stewart

War Music – Christopher Logue

I have two best books read in 2012, but the first, Infinite Jest, is one of those novels with which you feel that it isn’t passing through your life, but you through its, so I make my genuflection and move on to Christopher Logue’s War Music. It’s a translation and adaption of the central part of the Iliad – from Achilles’ decision not to fight for the Greeks after Agamemnon’s confiscation of Briseis through to his re-entry into the war after the death of Patroclus. The language has all the hard-edged clarity, the sweep and ferocity we associate with the Greeks. Never have I read the Trojan War so vicious, Achilles so startling, Hector so noble, the gods so cruel and indifferent.  Alex Starritt

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

It is a very brave author that sits down to write a novel so plainly about ‘good and evil’. To do this without preaching or patronising is almost impossible and the cynic in me began this novel with not a little scepticism, but I was left in awe. Steinbeck uses the story of Cain and Abel to examine the relationships between brothers, and also of their individual relationships with their fathers through three generations of the same family. I fell in love with some characters, grew to hate others and learned a lot along the way. I suggest you buy a copy because you can’t have mine – Merry Christmas DRTF and friends.  Al Kent-Lemon

The Letters of Sylvia Beach – Edited by Keri Walsh

A charming collection of the correspondence of this most significant and quiet woman who, among many other things: fostered a generation of writers in Paris through her bookshop-cum-library including Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce; she published Ulysses when no one else would take it; and perhaps most importantly of all, she gave this website it’s name.  The Editors

2666 – Roberto Bolaño.  This book was long, difficult and bewitching. I fell in love with it long before it was finished.

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer.  In his stunning debut, JFR enters the territory of A Clockwork Orange mixed with The White Tiger, in a delightful violation of the English language – he make it is his own.

Becoming Dickens – Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.  An excellent counter-historical account of Charles Dickens’ life, his almost accidental rise to fame and the bison-like determination that pushed him on to achievement.

The Consolation of PhilosophyBoethius. I read this book at least once a year and it is always in the list of the best books I have read that year.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – Adam Phillips.  This combines literary criticism with psychoanalysis in a way that spans an incredibly broad, if incomplete, number of subjects.

Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature Alastair Fowler.  Semantic clues in literary naming. A marvel.

Noriko Smiling – Adam Mars-Jones.  A wonderful study of post-war Japanese cinema.

The Deadman’s Pedal – Alan Warner.  He writes with the kind of dark Scottish humour that Irvine Welch should aspire to, with characters so amazingly eccentric I am never sure if I would run away screaming or take them home for cheese on toast were I to encounter them in a dark alley.

The Big Music– Kirsty Gunn.  Inspired by bagpipes. Essential.

NW– Zadie Smith.  Some say not as strong as White Teeth, this is accomplished and entertaining regardless.

Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman.  Hilarious, wonderfully plotted and hugely accomplished, both.

Bring up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel.  No way this can be left out.

The Twelve – Justin Cronin.  This is hard to admit to. This is a post-apocalypse novel with vampires in it. For adults. It is the second part of the Passage trilogy, it is over 590 pages long and I read it in three days. Utterly compelling.

Angelmaker– Nick Harkaway. Harkaway’s is a funny, tautly written example of how a thriller (or mystery, for the classic definition) novel should be written.

Ancient Light – John Banville.  Unpromising subject beautifully written.

Graphic Novels

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary and Bryan Talbot.  This illustrates how fraught growing up in James Joyce’s household was for a child of this cantankerous, frustrated man. The entrance of a young Samuel Beckett does nothing to simplify things. Moving and brilliant.

Complete Works of Alison Bechdel.  Everything you never need to know about being a young illustrator/artist/writer and/or a lesbian. Self-deprecating to the last, amazingly honest and funny.


81 Austerities – Sam Rivere.  He’s young, he writes about the distortion of things, he’s ace.

Collected Poems– Don Patterson.  Whether he writes about the death of a dog, the birth of a child or spending too much time with his mates in the pub, Patterson is capable of bringing you up short with his apt mastery of the correct word in ever situation, always with humour.

The enemy within

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

Let me begin with a confession. I am hiding things from you. I am sitting at my computer, selecting from the information in my head. What I have just written and will now write is the manifestation of my deliberate and ardent desire to direct your thoughts, to rule your brain for the following 600 or so words. For as long as I hold your attention, I wish to wash your thoughts with mine. Not because your thoughts are dirty and need cleaning. But because mine are blue and yours are pink or green. The aim of my washing is not to cleanse. The aim of my washing is to run the colours together. To create. Some of the colours of my washing are beautiful, brilliant, temporary. Some of them are staid, boring, difficult, ugly. I wish only for us to mix our colours in the hope of capturing the beautiful, mastering the brilliant and dislodging the staid, the boring, the difficult. Perhaps to create a third, more intriguing category: substance and beauty together. Either way, it is best that we share our colours, all of them. Do not peacock the brightest to hide the dullest for that is fraudulent. That is the lesson of The Secret Agent.

I first read The Secret Agent in 2010. Not an auspicious year for anything. Not even memorable for a catastrophe, though we should all be grateful for that. The blandness of the year, against the brilliance of the book is perhaps one reason I feel strongly about it. I am sure, for example, that Stevie is the hero. I know this for several reasons. The novel’s full title is The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. Stevie is simple of mind and speech. He has a clear and unencumbered view and understanding; the anarchists in one room swapping hackneyed political theory; next door he scrawls “circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos.”

The book strips away the sophistications of modern life, of modern politics, the secrets and dirty laundry that make up so much of what might be described as ‘urbanity’. Stevie, a classic Shakespearean fool, is more revealing in his view of the world for being ‘innocent Stevie’. He does not see in colours especially. He sees the world as black and white. Recognises evil when it is evil and does not dress it up as anarchy or politics, love or business. He is the instinctive being in a mechanised and polluted world. Nature in this book does not look kindly upon the city: “A peculiarly London sun – against which nothing could be said except that it looked bloodshot – glorified all this by its stare”. This is a book about confession, about the importance of truth and the danger of concealment. It reveals the dangers that lie in petty lies, that lie in dirty laundry, that lie in the narrow alleys “littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill, joyless, rowdy clamour.”  This is a book about approaching those alleys, metaphorical and physical, and exposing them to the bloodshot sun so that we and others can see, clearly, their colours, we can show our own colours and we can mix them, wash them, or indeed, if we choose, cleanse those colours or finally, and better still, we could expunge them all and be pure.

The Editors

For your consideration

Apparently “slush pile” is the technical term for unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publisher, as in “have a wade through the slush pile and see if there’s anything decent.”  It must be a daunting experience for first-time or unpublished authors to submit their creations to publishers in the knowledge that the default reaction of the latter will probably be to assume that what they have been sent is rubbish.  I suppose it is understandable really, given that of the thousands of manuscripts sent to a publisher there are probably only a handful that are worth reading let alone publishing.  This undoubtedly makes the publisher’s role a difficult one: how to be selectively dismissive without missing the real gems out there?  It is not a new problem, nor is it confined to literature.  When Beethoven’s Fifth was first performed it was variously called a “vulgar din” and “the end of music”; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring started a riot on its opening night in 1913.   Clearly, human beings are not enormous enthusiasts of novelty, and it can take decades for an artist’s work to be fully appreciated.

Sticking to literature though I thought it might be amusing to collect a few quotes of publishers’ initial reactions to classic novels, partly as a way of encouraging budding authors not to take criticism too seriously and partly because they’re sometimes quite a hilarious reflection of human ignorance and misunderstanding.  I owe most of them to the recent book This Is Not The End of The Book, in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière discuss, among other things, the history of human stupidity.  If anyone has any others (or personal experiences), we want to know about them –

On Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “It may be a lack of intelligence on my part, but I fail to understand why it should take thirty pages to describe how someone tosses and turns in their bed, unable to sleep.”

On Hemingway’s Fiesta: “Sir, you have written a travel book.”

On Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “Sir, you have buried your novel beneath a hotchpotch of detail that is very well done, but utterly superfluous.”

On Melville’s Moby Dick: “There is little chance that a book such as this would interest a young readership.”

On Emily Dickinson: “Your rhymes don’t work.”

On Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It’s no good trying to sell the Americans a novel about animals.”
The Editors

In praise of living

CoverFor Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

“Venceréis […] pero no convenceréis.” – “You will win […] but you will not convince.”

So said the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at a fascist convention held at the University of Salamanca during the Spanish Civil War.  Unamuno, as rector of the university, was presiding over the meeting, at which Falangist general José Millán Astray was also present.  Having endured various impassioned speeches by the assorted fascist luminaries, as well as the chanting of the well-known francoist motto “¡Viva la muerte!” – “Long live death!”, Unamuno rose to give this closing address:

“I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán-Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is a war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him.”

“This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.”

The outrage that followed this shameless affront to fascist sensibilities is probably best summed up by General Millán’s cry of “Death to intelligence!” at the ageing academic, who was 72 at the time.  Apparently, Unamuno only survived a lynching because he was escorted off the premises by Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo Martínez-Valdés.  Aside from this being perhaps the single greatest instance of intellectual courage on record, it brings to the fore one of the central confrontations of the Spanish Civil war.  Fascist (and Nazi) ideology, imagery and language were obsessed with death and repression, whereas those fighting on the Republican side for the most part believed in the individual’s freedom to live life however he or she saw fit.

No book I have read on the Spanish Civil War makes this ideological juxtaposition feel more vivid than Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.  It is a novel that celebrates life, and yet it is a novel surrounded by death.  The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is a young American demolitions expert behind fascist lines who must compete simultaneously with enemy patrols and the partisan band’s own problems of disloyalty and infighting.  The odds of survival are stacked hugely against him, a fact that he is fully aware of, and yet it is from this desperate situation that he truly begins to live.  In fact, the reader is left overwhelmingly with the impression that Jordan’s thirst for life increases in direct proportion to his consciousness of death:

“Maybe that is my life and instead of it being threescore years and ten it is forty-eight hours or just threescore hours and ten or twelve rather […] I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years.”

During his time in the Spanish Sierra, Jordan falls in love with María, a young Spanish partisan, as a result of which he is forced to struggle at all times with the tension that arises between his duty to the Republican cause and the overpowering emotion of his first love.  It is a tension between love and war, life and death, and is not, of course, an original idea – one that is embodied in Freud’s conception of Eros and Thanatos as fundamental psychological drivers.  It is a theme that runs throughout Hemingway’s novel and is reinforced by the author’s terse prose and the manner in which he channels Jordan’s subjectivity via a staccato stream-of-consciousness.  In fact, such is the originality of the book’s style that this central idea feels completely novel, as if the sum of human experience can be compressed into seventy hours, or the pages of a book for that matter.

The Editors

7. Why Read?

There is an admirable online publication, Letters of Note, which collects fine examples of written communication between interesting figures, many well known, others less so.

One letter published on the site in particular delighted me. It is from an impressed reader to Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the literary bestseller Life of Pi.

The reader writes:

“Mr. Martel —

My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals.

It is a lovely book — an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.

Thank you.”

For me this elegant note, describing an elegant book, eloquently answers the question that Don’t Read Too Fast is examining in this series: why read? Books, whether their content is factual or imagined, can be immeasurably powerful things, capable of examining the most fundamental questions that men have yet had the capacity and wit to ask.

I believe our greatest asset in navigating the complex corridors of dealing with other humans is to have context. It is our only chance to achieve even an imperfect understanding of other people (and we must accept it will only ever be imperfect). We can amass this context by learning from our own experiences and contact with others, and it is our duty to do so. However, reading, I would argue more than any other intellectual activity that has yet been devised, enables us to exponentially grow our repository of context and understanding of the experiences of other people.

The address of Yann Martel’s correspondent? The White House, Washington. His name? Barack Obama.

Like him, I think we should give humble thanks to those that create or record stories that successfully help us to understand other people, and seek to answer some of the questions that have troubled and challenged our species for as long as we have existed.

Tristan Summerscale

6. Why Read?

Finishing a novel can be like waking up from a vivid dream, one that is so real that reality itself is a disappointment.  The book ends and, unsurprisingly, life goes on.  However much we identify with the protagonist or agree with the author’s view of the world, the book finishes and even if we are profoundly influenced by its contents, we are forced to carry on living our lives.

There follows a period of adjustment during which the mind tries to accommodate the novel’s universe to our own: we see our lives in new shades of mystery, intrigue, adventure or the ups and downs of a convoluted plot.  It could be said that this flows logically from the fact that, like a novel, our lives have a beginning and an end, but unlike a novel, there is no discernible narrative to follow: we just navigate our way through existence as best we can, and stories emerge retrospectively, as we consider the sum of our experiences – friendships and romances, successes and failures.

Perhaps this is why, as human beings, we are inherently attracted to narrative, that is, stories with a beginning, middle and end.  Things make more sense if they fit a cohesive pattern: by reading novels we can distance ourselves from the frustration and uncertainty of a first-person existence that goes by from day to day, and view stories in their totality, whether in the past, present or future.  A cynical man might say that this is simply a form of escapism, an attempt to soften the brutal fact of a chaotic and indifferent universe, the same sort of escapism, in fact, that breeds religious Narrative – in short, an artificial abstraction created by minds desperate for validation and reassurance.

This is a difficult argument to enter into without broaching a theological debate that is beyond the remit of this humble literary blog.  However, disregarding religious discussion, it remains an outlandish position to take to say that all fictional narrative is inherently worthless because of its artificiality. Fiction may be no more than a means of filling a void, but expecting human beings to live without narrative, in one form or another, is like expecting human beings to live without eating.  As Samuel Beckett said, “nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile…a stain upon the silence.”

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