strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
I picked this up rather expecting something along the lines of Saki or P.G. Wodehouse. From a purely stylistic point of view I wasn't far wrong - Fitzgerald definitely displays the same facility with language, choosing words which are surprising in their context, but at the same time highly evocative of the atmosphere he is trying to create. (There's a collection of quotations from the novel on Wikiquote which should give some idea of this).

The content, though, is much more gritty and sombre. Yes, there are parties at lavish villas on Long Island - but there are also frustrated hopes, social divisions, emotional betrayals, callous manipulations, badly misplaced priorities and two entirely avoidable deaths. On the whole, the New York of the 1920s is portrayed as rotten and superficial, and the novel ends with the first-person narrator (Nick Carraway) choosing to return to what he considers to be his more wholesome origins in the mid-west.

I also decided to read it now because I had heard that it related to Petronius' Satyricon, and wanted to see how. In all honesty, it's not a terribly profound resonance. Jay Gatsby resembles Trimalchio in that they have both made a lot of money after coming from a humble background and like to give lavish parties, but Gatsby is far less brash and vulgar than Trimalchio, and far more concerned to draw a veil over his true origins. Indeed, he comes across as a reserved an enigmatic figure, whom we get to know only very gradually. For the first few chapters, our narrator encounters him solely via distant glimpses and reports, and utterly fails to recognise him when they do actually meet. We also hear several exaggerated, sensational and completely inaccurate accounts of his past before we get anywhere near anything which might plausibly be true - and even then there is still room for doubt. Gatsby is very much at the centre of the events of the novel, but it remains always a rather thin and insubstantial centre - presumably in keeping with the superficial atmosphere which Fitzgerald wished to create.

I did spot one other Classical reference which I hadn't been expecting, though. At the beginning of chapter 4, our narrator presents a list of everyone who visited Gatsby's house in the summer when the novel is set. It's too long to include here in toto, but a typical paragraph runs like this:
"From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the state senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another. And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly—they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day."
A list is a list when all's said and done, but the incidental details about the people being ennumerated reminded me rather of the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad (lines 2.494-759, starting here). And I think the closing phrases in each case seal the deal:
"Such were the chiefs and princes of the Danaans." (Iliad 2.750, tr. Samuel Butler 1898)
"All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer." (The Great Gatsby (1925) ch. 4).
Not identical, obviously, and anyway I don't know whether Fitzgerald would have encountered Homer directly in the Greek, or what translation he might have used if not. But the device of recapping what the list has just been about is the same in both cases. The immediate effect appears to be a sort of parody, emphasising the insignificance of what is going on at Gatsby's parties by comparison with the epic warfare of the Iliad. But evoking the theme of the Trojan Wars perhaps also has a wider resonance for the rest of the novel, since it raises the possibility of casting Gatsby's devotion to another man's wife (Daisy) and the disastrous consequences which it ultimately has for him in the light of Paris' devotion to Helen. All in all rather more meaningful than the Trimalchio reference, I think - but knowing about it is still not an essential prerequisite for enjoying the novel. It merely adds an extra hint of spice to what is anyway a great read.

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strange_complex: (Latin admirable sentiment)
I encountered Petronius for the first time at school, when we read sections from the Cena Trimalchionis for what it reveals about Roman attitudes towards slaves and freedman. As a postgrad, I returned to consider the design of Trimalchio's house and his funerary monument, and also had a go at translating the stories of the werewolf and the widow of Ephesus in various Latin classes. At Warwick, I set (in English) Echion's speech on the gladiatorial spectacles of Titus and Norbanus as a way of helping first-year students to understand ancient attitudes towards the games. Now, though, I have finally done for this book what I did two years ago for Apuleius' Metamorphoses: actually read it as a proper novel, rather than just mining it for historical data and language practice.

Not that I can quite do that in the way that its author intended, since unlike Apuleius' work, it survives now only in fragments. In some places, in fact, I'm pretty surprised so much does survive, given that the principal means of transmission for ancient texts is being copied out by medieval monks. The surviving portions include, to give just one example, a scene of the main character (Encolpius) being anally raped with a dildo rubbed with crushed pepper and nettle seeds. Yet this clearly was copied out; and indeed was still being read widely and treated as a great work of literature by Christian authors such as Sidonius Apollinaris, Fulgentius, Jerome and Isidore of Seville, all of whom use citations from Petronius to demonstrate grammatical or other points in their own work. I suppose it just goes to show a) how an established status as great literature can carry a text forward into a new age even if its subject-matter might be considered distasteful and b) that we shouldn't over-exaggerate the extent of early or medieval Christian prudery just because we are looking back at it through a Victorian filter.

The identity of the author )

The plot and structure )

What I got out of reading it )

But I'm off into territory that more properly belongs in my academic publications, here. In this context, I'll content myself by saying that Petronius has been a brilliant read - and I will be back for Lucian's True History before terribly long.

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