“SCRATCH A WRITER and you’ll find a Gatsby obsession,” was the joke at our editorial meeting. And why not? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slim novel, swift and devastating, has navigated the currents of time and (more impressively) fashion to remain a steadfast member of the Western canon. To reread The Great Gatsby is to discover it anew, a fact never more evident to me than on listening to it read by actor Tim Robbins.
I’ll begin with a confession: I’m an avid listener of audiobooks. I listen in the car, yes, but also in the house — while preparing meals, while sweeping the deck, while folding laundry (much better than a TV show, in my opinion, since you don’t feel torn between your T-shirt and the screen). The books on my audio shelf are different than the ones beside my bed; I tend to listen to “page turners” — plot-driven tales that roll easily off the reader’s tongue. I would never listen, for example, to Ulysses, or anything by Milan Kundera — nothing too literary or cerebral, nothing that requires note-taking. I’m not saying this is the way of all audiobook listeners — it’s just how it is for me. In terms of garnering my attention, I need my audiobook to meet me three-fourths of the way.
So to listen to The Great Gatsby was to take a risk, but at less than five hours (who knew?) it seemed an easy gamble. I began to listen on a Friday afternoon; by Saturday evening I was contemplating the orgiastic future. I now believe that Fitzgerald’s classic demands an auditory experience. The Great Gatsby is, after all, a confession. Nick’s cautionary tale about East Coast corruption is also the monologue of a troubled man weighed down by guilt, anxious about his own culpability in Gatsby’s downfall. But with prose so smooth, as effortless and intricate as jazz, I’d never before noticed the urgency in Nick’s unburdening.
Tim Robbins’s tendency toward character roles can belie the fact that he is a lyrical actor with innate gravitas. He feels the somber moments of the story (“it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams …”) without “hitting” them. Daisy’s voice famously sounds like money, but Robbins gives Nick an easy, silvery timbre — we recall, in hearing it, that Nick is old money, too. Robbins manages to capture Gatsby’s artifice (“old sport”) without reducing him to a caricature. And Tom Buchanan, blabbering pathetically about the endangered fate of the Nordic race, practically trembles with restless rage.
Robbins’s noteworthy contribution to the lifespan of this novel is the revelation of how funny it is. Daisy, despite her many flaws, is a great wit. Consider her swift response when Tom interrogates her on her private conference with Nick:
“Did you give Nick a little heart-to-heart on the veranda?” demanded Tom suddenly.
“Did I?” she looked at me. “I can’t seem to remember, but I think we talked about the Nordic race. Yes I’m sure we did. It sort of crept up on us and the first thing you know —”
When it comes to wry wit, Nick is her equal: “As for Tom, the fact that he ‘had some woman in New York’ was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book.” It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the humor before; it’s just that, threaded as it is into the dazzling fabric of Fitzgerald’s prose, I had missed it. Robbins knows when, where and how to switch between lyricism and comedy. His reading of the novel allows listeners to enjoy the beauty of the language without slipping right past the funny beats.
Robbins’s comedic sensitivity applies to his characterization of the “bit parts” — including the party guests who provide the fizz in the champagne that is Gatsby’s fetes. I had never before taken note of the the unnamed wife whose husband is engaged in an intense flirtation with a young actress: “at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond and hissed ‘You promised!’ into his ear.” And, of course, the drunkard who collapses in Gatsby’s library in the hopes of “sobering up.” His delight in discovering that the books in Gatsby’s library are “real” is one of my favorite comic moments in literature:
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me … What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too — didn’t cut the pages.”
Rare indeed to make one of the funniest moments of your novel correlate to your major theme — no wonder fiction writers continue to obsess over it. Robbins infuses each character with a distinctive voice and style without ever letting go of the hypnotic rhythm of Fitzgerald’s prose.
We reread Gatsby for a range of reasons: for the love story that drives it, for mystery at its dark center, for the pleasure of Fitzgerald’s miraculous sentences. We read it to fall again under the cool spell of its glamour, to hear the musical tinkle of Daisy’s laugh. We reread it because, despite ourselves, we love Gatsby, crude and misguided as he is, and we hope to find, buried in the tragic twists and fateful decisions, some glimmer of hope, some confirmation that all his planning and wishing and loving wasn’t in vain. If you’ve never listened to The Great Gatsby, let Tim Robbins read it to you, and experience a world full of amusements and folly, a tragedy, yes, but a comic one.