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THE GREAT AND THE GOOD

By Corey Wagner,2014-07-11 14:37
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THE GREAT AND THE GOOD ...

THE GREAT AND THE GOOD.

The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes: an essay.

    I‟ve long held that the word plagiarism belongs mainly

    in the lexicon of hysterics or world-weary cynics. I feel

    ill at ease with a word that seems to carry with it the

    emotive language of finger-pointing and accusations of

    fraud, so for this reason I have hesitated for many years

    before making such a claim against F. Scott Fitzgerald, the

    author of what is arguably one of the finest novels of the

    twentieth century, The Great Gatsby.

    So when, by chance, I first read Alain-Fournier‟s Le

    Grand Meaulnes soon after I finished reading The Great

    Gatsby for the first time, I was immediately struck by the

    remarkable similarities between the two books. Looking

    closer I have become convinced that the resemblance goes

    further than mere coincidence.

    This would not be the first of such accusations to be

    leveled at Fitzgerald. In his fine book Invented Lives,

    James R. Mellow points out that, when writing a review of

    The Beautiful and Damned, Gilbert Seldes, the critic, suggests that Fitzgerald “had been running so closely on

    the heels of Edith Wharton‟s recent novels that he had been

    skirting plagiarism.” Mellow also observes that when

    Scott‟s own wife, Zelda, reviewed the book in the New York

    Tribune she “charged the author with stealing passages from

    her old diary, paraphrasing and editing segments of her old

    letters. There was a good deal in the book, she said, that

    seemed vaguely familiar. “In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald… seems to

    believe that plagiarism begins at home””

    Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the South of

    France in the summer of 1924. He and Zelda rented a villa

    in Valescure, just above St Raphael on the Riviera. At this

    time the summer was out of season so the rent was cheap, an

    important factor to the couple as they were broke, and

    Scott was already borrowing money from Scribners, the

    publisher, against the royalties of the novel he had yet to

    write. He also needed to escape the distracting influence

    of his friend and drinking partner Ring Lardner, and the

    rest of the Great Neck crowd from Long Island.

    But even in the South of France the pressures on

    Fitzgerald, both creatively and financially, were enormous.

    1

He was still spending money freely. The Fitzgeralds had

    fallen in with a wealthy circle of people, and it was not

    in Scott‟s nature to shy away from prodigality in such

    company. Also his reputation as a writer and celebrity were

    fading, and he had written nothing of real substance for

    two or three years.

    He had written to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners,

    before leaving Long Island in the spring of 1924, promising

    great things and asking for Perkins‟ patient indulgence:

    “It is only in the last four months that I‟ve realized how

    much I‟ve, well, almost deteriorated in the three years

    since I finished The Beautiful and Damned. The last four months of course I‟ve worked but in the two years – over

    two years before that, I produced exactly one play, half

    a dozen short stories and three or four articles an

    average of about one hundred words a day. If I‟d spent this

    time reading or travelling or doing anything even staying

    healthy it‟d be different, but I only spent it uselessly,

    neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking

    and raising hell generally….So in my new novel I‟m thrown

    directly on purely creative work not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere

    yet radiant world. So I tread slowly and carefully and at

    times in considerable distress. This book will be a

    consciously artistic achievement and must depend on that as

    the first books did not.”

    So it was that Fitzgerald committed himself

    wholeheartedly, and to some extent desperately, to writing

    the novel that was so vital in rekindling his career. As

    Zelda put it: “…Scott has started a new novel and retired

    into strict seclusion and celibacy.”

    Le Grand Meaulnes was the only completed novel written

    by Alain-Fournier, and published in 1913. Fournier showed

    great promise as a writer but was tragically killed in the

    very first weeks of the First World War, of which he once

    said, “This war is fine and great and just.” He was shot in

    the head leading his men in an attack against a German

    stronghold just seven weeks after the outbreak of

    hostilities, and less than two weeks before his twenty-

    eighth birthday. The same age, incidentally, that

    Fitzgerald was when he wrote Gatsby.

    He was himself a true romantic idealist, and the

    central theme of his book, Meaulnes‟ doomed pursuit of his

    ideal love Yvonne de Galaise, was based on Fournier‟s own

    fantasy love of Yvonne de Quievrecourt, a beautiful young

    2

aristocratic girl he met casually several years earlier in

    a Paris street.

    To begin examining the points where the two novels

    converge it is necessary to start with the titles: “Le

    Grand Meaulnes” and “The Great Gatsby”. They are the same.

    Scott Fitzgerald, in letters to Max Perkins, was

    constantly trying to convince his editor that alternative

    titles were more effective. In letters dated between

    October 24 and March 25 he suggested Gold Hatted Gatsby,

    Trimalchio In West Egg, Trimalchio, On The Road To West Egg,

    The High-bouncing Lover, Gatsby, Under The Red, White and

    Blue, and Among Ash-heaps and Millionaires.

    Throughout all this Perkins stuck to his guns. The

    title would be The Great Gatsby, which was the one Perkins preferred from the beginning. The alternative titles seem

    to us now almost ludicrous. But Fitzgerald appears to hold

    an inordinate desire that his book should not be called The

    Great Gatsby.

    For the next significant point we need go no further

    than the opening page. Both of these novels are written in

    the first person, from the point of view of an involved and

    influential observer. In many critical analyses The Great

    Gatsby has been compared to Conrad‟s Heart of Darkness or

    Melville‟s Moby Dick. They are both the story of a man of

    destiny seeking his own Holy Grail, written in the first

    person but observed from a distance. The difference is that

    both Francois Seurel in Meaulnes and Nick Carraway in Gatsby are actively influential, through their friendship

    with the hero, to the outcome of the book. They are not

    just crew members on a ship - an important distinction.

    Equally both narrators, as close friends and

    confidants of the heroes of these stories, are given a rare

    and privileged insight into their hearts and souls. Given

    that the two principle characters are created as private

    and enigmatic individuals with a great degree of self-

    sufficiency, and about whom there is much curiosity and

    speculation, this becomes an important point for

    consideration.

    Robert Gibson says in his introduction to the Harrap

    edition of Le Grand Meaulnes: “Seurel‟s voice, then, is the first and last that the reader hears and he is obliged to

    listen to it almost throughout. The effect of this upon the

    atmosphere and mood of the novel is momentous because

    3

Seurel is not, as has more often than not been assumed, a

    neutral and passive observer, but a committed participant,

    intimately involved in the action, with a very real and

    positive personality of his own.”

    The two narrators each have their own story to tell,

    which, although completely separate, run parallel to that

    of the protagonist; and they each tell their story very

    consciously as a novel. We are frequently reminded of this

    fact, as at the beginning of Gatsby we learn of “the man

    who gives his name to this book” and later, after relating

    some of Gatsby‟s history Nick writes; “He told me all this

    very much later, but I‟ve put it down here with the idea of

    exploding those first wild rumours about his antecedents,

    which weren‟t even faintly true.” Towards the end of Le

    Grand Meaulnes, as Seurel is reading a journal kept by

    Meaulnes, he says “…I read the lines which explained so

    much and which I reproduce word for word…”

    Much of the story they tell is as related to them by

    Gatsby or Meaulnes, so that we are given the protagonists

    view of events as well as the narrators, a convenient

    device for both writers to enable them to give personal

    insight from whichever perspective they choose. As Nick

    Carraway puts it: „I was within and without, simultaneously

    enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of

    life.‟

    Each narrator also takes pause in his narrative to

    recap on what he has written to date. Francois asks the

    question:

    Have I told the story badly? At any rate it fails to

    produce the effect I expected.

    Similarly Nick wonders whether he has given us an

    accurate account:

    Reading over what I have written so far, I see I

    have given the impression that the events of three

    nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me.

    On the contrary, they were merely casual events in a

    crowded summer…

    It was not Fitzgerald‟s original intention to write in the first person at all. He abandoned earlier drafts of the

    story which he wrote while still living on Long Island,

    although elements were to turn up later in the short

    stories Absolution and Winter Dreams, both of which are

    written in the third person.

    4

    In his essay The Great Gatsby and the Great American

    Novel Kenneth E. Eble says: „The choice of Nick Carraway as

    narrator was probably not made until some jelling of the

    essential story took place in Fitzgerald‟s mind.” It is my

    belief that this choice was made after reading Le Grand

    Meaulnes.

    The similarities, however, are not confined to their technical structure or titles. There are a number of

    symbols common to both books, and although Alain-Fournier

    was recognised as a symbolist writer Fitzgerald was

    certainly not. The books share a constant use of colour, as

    well as light and dark among their symbolist elements.

    One of the most immediate and obvious of these is the green light. Augustine Meaulnes had accidently stumbled

    upon “the mysterious domain” after setting off on a wild

    adventure and getting lost. Hiding in an upstairs room he

    awoke at night as “…a dim light filtered through the

    hangings of the alcove.” Looking out he noted “The window

    had been opened, and two green Chinese lanterns hung in the

    embrasure.” These were placed by two shadowy figures to

    guide Frantz, the heir to the domain, across “a vast frozen

    plain devoid of landmarks” to the place where he was to be

    married. In The Great Gatsby the green light appears

    serving an identical symbolic function. When Nick first

    sees Gatsby he is standing in the moonlight looking out

    across the bay: “Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and

    distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute

    and far away, that might have been at the end of a dock.”

    In fact the dock was Daisy Buchanan‟s, the girl Gatsby

    loved and the object of his obsessive quest. But to Gatsby

    the green light takes on a meaning of its own. It almost

    becomes the quest itself, his grail. When later Daisy has

    been reunited with Gatsby at his mansion:

    “If it wasn‟t for the mist we could see your home

    across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green

    light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”

    Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he

    seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it

    had occurred to him that the colossal significance of

    that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the

    great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had

    seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had

    seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again

    a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects

    had diminished by one.

    5

     Then, on the very last page, the green light takes

    its significant place in one of the finest closing passages

    in modern literature:

     And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown

    world, I thought of Gatsby‟s wonder when he first

    picked out the green light at the end of Daisy‟s dock.

    He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream

    must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to

    grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind

    him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the

    city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on

    under the night.

     Gatsby believed in the green light, the

    orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It

    eluded us then, but that‟s no matter – to-morrow we

    will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one

    fine morning

     So we beat on, boats against the current,

    borne back ceaselessly into the past.

    When writing critical guides to The Great Gatsby

    essayists invariably draw comparisons with T S Elliott‟s

    The Wasteland, usually with reference to “the valley of

    ashes”. In its own way “the great wet barnyard of Long

    Island Sound” can be seen in the same way. The valley of

    ashes is “a desolate area of land” that must be negotiated

    by Tom Buchanan, Daisy‟s faithless husband, in order that he might get to New York for his sordid liaison with his

    mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who actually lives in this bleak

    place. Long Island Sound is that stretch of water that

    separates Gatsby from Daisy. So both places represent a

    barrier between the lovers and the object of their desire.

    In Le Grand Meaulnes we learn that Augustine has set

    off on an adventure but very soon becomes lost: “Then once

    more he was surrounded by a vast frozen plain devoid of

    landmarks”. He struggles on but without comfort: “In the

    whole of the Sologne it would have been hard to find a more

    desolate spot than the region in which he now found

    himself.” Eventually he comes upon a remote chateau in

    which, he is to discover, lives the beautiful, aristocratic

    Yvonne de Galais, with whom he will fall deeply in love. He

    finds shelter in the house, and, as mentioned earlier, his

    sleep is interrupted by two shadowy figures, one of whom

    says, “What‟s the point of showing a light on a mere

    stretch of country a desert as you might say?”

    Thus we become aware that the wasteland is a symbol

    common to both books. This point is further reinforced

    6

later in Le Grand Meaulnes: “On one side of us is an

    expanse of waste land where the chateau and it‟s

    outbuildings formally stood.”

    The geographical settings for these books are not,

     In however, completely devoid of any recognisable landmark.

    Le Grand Mealnes, Seurel is sauntering along a country lane

    in the company of his friend, Jasmin Delouche and is given

    a clue as to the whereabouts of the lost domain:

    As we approached the top of the hill where two

    great stones mark what was said to be the sight of an

    ancient fortress, he began to speak of estates he had

    visited and particularly of a more or less abandoned

    domain in the neighbourhood…

    As Nick rents a small house on Long Island he describes

    two landmarks in particular:

     …where there are, among other natural curiosities,

    two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the

    city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and

    separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most

    domesticated body of salt water in the Western

    hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.

    These „natural curiosities‟ bear a striking resemblance

    to the stones in Alain-Fournier‟s story that denote the proximity of the lost domain.

    Each book contains two parties in particular that are

    described in detail, and in both cases they are significant

    turning points in the narrative. The first party in Le

    Grand Meaulnes is seen through the eyes of Augustine after he has wandered in by accident, following his disastrous

    adventure. The chateau is lavishly made up to look like „a

    palace en fete‟ and populated largely by children and mild old folk, all in extravagant costumes, and apparently

    allowed to behave as they pleased. He overhears some of

    them speaking: ”They‟ve given us carte blanche, haven‟t

    they!” and: “You know very well we‟re planning the party to

    suit ourselves.”

    Meaulnes had little trouble integrating as: “The guests

    seemed hardly to know one another. They must have come from

    distant towns or remote parts of the country.” But not only

    did the guests not know each other, they seemed to know

    little of the person in whose honour the party was being

    given:

    7

    “Do you know her?” the older boy asked his comrade,

    an urchin with a round head and candid eyes.

    “No, but my mother said she had a black dress and a

    muslin collar and looked like a pretty pierrot.”

    “Who does?” asked Meaulnes.

    “Why Frantz‟s fiancee, of course…that he‟s gone to

    fetch…”

When later Meaulnes inquired further:

    “Is his fiancee as pretty as they say?”

    They looked at him as if not knowing how to reply.

    No one but Frantz had seen the girl.

But none of this lack of familiarity was allowed to get in

    the way of a good time:

    In the passages groups were forming for round

    dances and farandoles. Somewhere strings were playing a

    minuet…Meaulnes, his head half buried in the collar of

    his cloak which stood out like a ruff, was loosing all

    sense of identity. Infected by the gaiety he too joined

    in the pursuit of the pierrot through corridors that

    were now like the wings of a theatre where the

    spectacle has spilled over from the stage. And well

    into the night he was lost in the throng taking part in

    a joyous masquerade. He would open a door and find that

    a magic-lantern show was in progress, with children

    loudly clapping their hands…Or in a salon crowded with

    dancers he would get into conversation with some young

    fop and pick up hints about the costumes to be worn on

    the ensuing days…

The following day the fun moves to the lake:

    Other guests were now standing about under trees.

    Then three pleasure-boats came alongside to take on the

    passengers.

And later:

    In deep silence they drew away from the shore.

    Nothing could be heard but the putt of the engine and

    the wash from the bows.

    The resemblance to Gatsby‟s first party as attended by

    Nick , and seen through his eyes as a stranger, is

    undeniable. No expense is spared in making the house look

    extravagantly festive:

    8

    …a corps of caterers came down with several hundred

    feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a

    Christmas tree of Gatsby‟s enormous garden.

    Nick: “…wandered around rather ill at ease among the

    swirls and eddies of people I didn‟t know….” There were:

    “…introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic

    meetings between women who never knew each other‟s names….”

    And the guests, it appears, behave just as they like: ”I

    like to come,” Lucille said. “I never care what I do, so I

    always have a good time.”

    But of the host little is known:

    As soon as I arrived I made an attempt to find my

    host, but the two or three people of whom I asked his

    whereabouts stared at me in such an amazed way, and

    denied so vehemently any knowledge of his movements,

    that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail

    table..

    Later, as Nick is settling in he becomes surrounded

    by wild speculation about his host‟s mysterious past:

    “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.”

    and, “It‟s more that he was a German spy during the

    war.”

    But all in all, and despite the fact that they were

    among strangers, the guests‟ enjoyment of the party was

    unconfined:

    There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden;

    old men pushing young girls backwards in eternal

    graceless circles, superior couples holding each other

    tortuously, fashionably, and keeping in the corners

    and a great number of single girls dancing

    individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a

    moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By

    midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor

    had sung in Italian, and a notorious contralto had sung

    in jazz, and between the numbers people were doing

    „stunts‟ all over the garden, while happy, vacuous

    bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky.

Earlier the fun had been out on the bay:

    I watched his guests diving from the tower of his

    raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach

    while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the sound,

    drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam.

    9

    As the two parties draw to a close there were scenes

    of drunkenness. In Le Grand Meaulnes Augustine observes:

    But since this meal was after all the concluding

    feast in what should have been a wedding celebration,

    some of the more uncouth visitors, no doubt spurred on

    by wine, had burst into song. And as he made his way

    back Meaulnes heard vulgar songs desecrating a park

    which for two days had harboured much grace and many

    marvels. It was a portent of disintegration.

    Earlier, at that same party, Meaulnes had been

    immersed in a deep and wonderfully peaceful contentment:

    A piano was being played in an adjacent room.

    The door stood open, and out of curiosity Meaulnes

    went over to see who it was. He stood looking into a

    small drawing-room. A young woman, or possibly a mere

    girl her back was turned a reddish-brown cloak

    over her shoulders, was playing softly some simple

    familiar airs or part songs. On a sofa near the piano

    six or seven small boys and girls sat as primly as

    children in a picture, listening and “being good” as

    children are when it is getting late…

    To Nick Carraway‟s eyes a similar scene had an

    altogether more decadent feel:

    The large room was full of people. One of the

    girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside her

    stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous

    chorus, engaged in song. She had drunk a quantity of

    champagne, and during the course of her song she had

    decided, ineptly, that everything was very, very sad

     she was not only singing, she was weeping too….

    “She had a fight with a man who says he‟s her

    husband,” explained a girl at my elbow.

    I looked around. Most of the remaining women

    were now having fights with men said to be their

    husbands.

    Now both parties are developing this “portent of

    disintegration”. And each party, whilst magical at their

    height, end in scenes of pandemonium. In Le Grand Meaulnes

    Augustine is preparing to leave when he is faced with a

    tableau of chaos:

    Under the window, out in the carriage yard,

    there was a scene of utter confusion. Pulling, pushing,

    10

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