The modern novel, when it's great, turns these sad old tricks beloved of its forbears.
When I was reading Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, I was struck by the name of the male character, the romantic hero, 'Nick Conway'.
I thought - 'Nick Carraway'?
You will know that is the name of the narrator of The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, and when I started to compare those two books, I began to think about the prose and structure of both side by side. Then I began to compare the roles of the characters in the great classic Gatsby with Conversations with Friends. In Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes the romantic hero, admires him and his beloved Daisy. In Conversations with Friends, the narrator Frances observes and admires most of all Bobbi, who has no love object. This little matter creates a bit of a dead-end in the structure of the book; it turns out on closer inspection. Bobbi is self-sufficient in a way I guess many of us would wish our daughters to be; the ultimate modern woman. You may argue she loves Frances, but not the way Gatsby loves Daisy, for whom he will sacrifice anything, everything.
I was planning to write this second blog on Rooney's book, looking at the structure of the story, to make the case that while it's great work prose-wise, it will not be Rooney's great work. I had a hunch about why - and it's a plot and structure thing - but looking at these books side by side helps explain it.
The similarities between Conversations with Friends (CWF) and The Great Gatsby (TGG) are not superficial.
We have as the basis of the story an engagement of interests and attraction between a small group of bright young things which plays out, unfortunately. Both books are of their moment; we have the sense of players in the grip of their era. With TGG this misfortune is more of a life and death matter, and stands for the impending doom and sickness of a way of life; and that is more or less what makes TGG a great novel, it's life and death gravity and what it stands for. With CWF the mortal stakes are lower, though the reflections it offers upon 'the way we live now' are as illuminating.
Literary writers moving from short stories to the long-form, seem to me to bolt on to their work (and I did in my first book) an incident or accident that feels ungainly. I did this in Becoming Strangers and always wondered if I'd be caught out with the 'rape' that was not a rape, and cross-questioned. It was a flourish of a drama which was almost something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new. It was a knowing twist which came long after the desire to ponder in fiction 'the way we live now' and to watch bright old things, in my case, at play and at sport in conversation and interaction. With Rooney's work, we know that she cut the last third and rewrote it. The 'endemetriosis' feels to me something borrowed, and not quite required by the moral thrust of the book. Fitzgerald did better, the death of Myrtle, for which Gatsby takes the blame resulting in his demise, and we see blue collar's America's loathing for the false dawn of the American Dream in so far as it is beguiling, distant and founded on something unreachable.
Rooney's prose and the interaction between her characters as I described in last week's blog, shares a luminosity with Fitzgerald's prose, but her story and its structure do not have the power to fire a cannonball through our times into the future.
For a novel to be great, it has to be a complete symphony of era-exactitude, moral theme (the voice of the author in warning) and life and death stakes realized with a sacrifice made.
The prose guides the narrative arc, refines it, makes it more searing, more deadly. It is as one with it and takes the story deeper into the recesses of our sympathies and understanding.
Theme: The privileged of our age at risk. In terms of theme, we have consonance between the CWF and TGG - class and betrayal, a sense of (temporary) privilege. The characters in CWF have a sense of academic social and moral enlightenment, while for those in TGG it's a lifestyle-based privilege built on what would become the increasingly mystifying capitalism built on intangible transactions. Any which way the very best exponents, the creme de la creme of a belief system, must attend at the scene of the accident; where that system fails.
The accidents on the way to the accident are in both books - the parties and gatherings where privilege of different kinds gets a go at the wine bottle.
Autobiographical experience of the theme: Both writers had experience at close hand of the milieu they describe. (Fitzgerald gave Nick Carraway some background that matched his. They were both from Minnesota. From Minnesota, both Nick and Fitzgerald’s family’s sent them to ivy league schools. Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, and Nick Carraway attended Yale University. Sally Rooney wrote Conversations With Friends while studying for a master’s in American literature at Trinity College in Dublin, and her narrator Frances is also a student at Trinity.)
'There are certainly elements of the social world that I inhabited growing up and then in college that I draw from. I mean, obviously, I studied English in Trinity, and I think the book is very much about observing a social milieu as much as anything else, and obviously, I chose to write about social circles that I felt I had an understanding of the norms and manners. So in that sense, absolutely there are autobiographical elements, and it’s written about a city that I have lived in for eight years and that I know pretty well, but, in terms of the actual substance of the book, it’s not drawn from my real life.' Sally Rooney.
The Hero/Heroine: we have a narrator who admires the romantic hero fiercely and champions their mysterious charisma (Gatsby/Bobbi). The narrator is an outsider who longs to fit into an alluring set.
Rooney says in interview with Vogue: “I thought, I have to very quickly now absorb the norms and the social behaviour and the etiquette that will make me socially acceptable. And that certainly informed the novel. That’s how Frances feels with Melissa and their friends: I want these people to accept me. How do I do that? How do I observe them closely enough that I can fool them into thinking I can belong?”
With Gatsby we have a sense of an incomplete person, sorrowing and suffering despite his personal charm and this as much as the lights, the champagne, the music and moths of the evening parties, is painstakingly evoked by Fitzgerald. He strived for a 'haunted' mood from the outset of his creation. With Rooney's Bobbi, who is equally charming, we have a sense of someone who is satisfied with herself, therefore more complete and less inviting.
Gatsby is the 'dream' walking - and phantasmal. As the self-made man he's insubstantial, and knowing it, can make his sacrifice. We have a sense of foreboding that rather than the hero he will prove to be the scapegoat as Fitzgerald suggests on the opening pages:
'No - Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.'
He is a reflection of our desires. This cannot be said of Bobbi who is almost an irreproachable moral colossus.
I think the response of the reader to either of these heroes may be personal. How do you like your heroes? Solid or floating beyond your reach? Is your reader's heart hungry for sorrow, confusion or conviction?
Scott Fitzgerald had Gatsby stand in for a wider shame. 'What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.'
The narrator owns the shame; the hero pays the price so that the narrator can get away scot-free. The narrator tells the story by way of atonement.
In Frances' suggested betrayal of her lover, Bobbi, at the end of the novel, where it's clear Frances is not done with Nick, nor Nick with Frances, we have a resolution of the undercurrent in CWF which is Frances toying with the opportunities of femininity against her declared feminism. Bobbi doesn't dither - she is the one who goes naked to swim in France, neither male nor female, but both. It's an almost satisfactory resolution, realistic albeit defeatist. Or it would be.
The resolution is undermined by a red herring - the endometriosis Frances suffers. Of course, one can argue - this is a metaphor for her female condition, it's suggested this condition means she will not enjoy sex nor have children - neither of which are strictly medically correct, but it still feels a bolt-on. (It's a long-term condition which causes heavy periods and it can have a significant impact on your life, but there are treatments that can help.) One can see where Rooney went back through the work to slip in the bad period pains...it doesn't gel. It was not there form the outset for Rooney, the writer.
First, the stakes are too low. Does Bobbi make any kind of sacrifice as a noble hero? Will she? Probably not. She's entirely self-sufficient. Do we get the sense that Frances' betrayal will hurt her, that she will suffer? Not really.
Second, it's a good try to wed the female malady to Frances' existential predicament and the moral theme of the book - how to be a woman and how to be free to think for yourself and act for yourself in a society with one hell of a patriarchal hangover - but it's not enough. This illness is not a tragedy, it's a rendition of the original 'curse' on womankind, but it's nobody's fault. And fault we must have.
With Gatsby the moral maths is simple but elegant - the narrator's shame is our shame.
France's shame is only partially ours. (The predicament, the flaw, wanting to get what women get from men and not wanting to trade on that.) If Frances is coldly opportunistic, not really 'one of the girls' but actually working against her sisters in arms, then yes that speaks to some of us, no doubt, but Bobbi has none of it, so we see in the book that Frances does have a choice, she is not carrying a social burden she cannot help.
Who pays the price for her choice? Melissa? Not really, she seems quite smug, and with the episode of the short film on Facebook of she and Nick singing which captures their perfect intimacy, we are told they will remain together more than likely, so Frances's betrayal of Bobbi is pretty pointless if we are to want, as I think Rooney wants us to want, the possibility of enduring love.
A sin is committed then, were it not, there would be no novel, and Rooney meant for it to be a sin, but no price is paid for it. Hence the structure is flawed. The writing is great, the set up terrific, but Bobbi needed to pay the price for her beloved's sin. If not Bobbi, then Frances and endometriosis won't do.
The hero in The Great Gastby, Jay Gatsby, is the mascot of our communal shame, the best at what we do, what we are, what we are becoming. Is this true of Bobbi?
But the love story we are offered is that between Frances and Nick.
To sample the Gatsby model, where the love story is between Gatsby and the unobtainable, whimsical, Daisy it should have been between Bobbi and Nick Conway probably, with the real greater love story between Frances and Bobbi as it is between Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.
But this is Conversations with Friends, not The Great Gatsby.
Sin without sacrifice is interesting when well-written but a story without sacrifice doesn't linger forever in our hearts.
"But good books count as that mysterious thing, ‘literature’: they inform, absorb, hold you: they invite your emotional involvement, excite your intelligent participation and they are hard to forget." Fay Weldon.
Fay Weldon's new book "Why Will No-One Publish My Novel?: A Handbook for the Rejected Writer" is a treasury of top tips from a feisty writer. A quick read it's packed with nuggets for the novelist. A useful reminder of what, why and how. 'It shows you how not to write if you want to get published.'
You'll devour it. The perfect Sunday night read to get you ready for the week's writing. If you're struggling this summer, with kids at home, read this book and get your idea nice and tight on all counts for take-off in September.
The video is a recording of Scott Fitzgerald reading from John Masefield's poem 'On Growing Older.'
Listen out for the very touching last lines:
Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire,
Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander
Your cornland, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nor share the battle yonder
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies.
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.
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