Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

The first time I read The Great Gatsby, a few years ago now, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about although I found the book entertaining enough. In other words, I fell into the same trap as most of Fitzgerald’s peers, who wrote it off as trivial and flippant – an entertaining portrait of their time but nothing that would last. So I was intrigued by the premise of Careless People (Virago, 2013), UEA academic Sarah Churchwell‘s “biography of a book”:

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell, Virago, 2013Since its publication in 1925, The Great Gatsby has become one of the world’s best-loved books, delighting readers across the world. Careless People tells the true story behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, exploring in newly rich detail the relation of Fitzgerald’s classic to the chaotic world he in which he lived. Fitzgerald set his novel in 1922, and Careless People carefully reconstructs the crucial months during which Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald returned to New York in the autumn of 1922 – the parties, the drunken weekends at Great Neck, Long Island, the drives back into the city to the jazz clubs and speakeasies, the casual intersection of high society and organized crime, and the growth of celebrity culture of which the Fitzgeralds themselves were the epitome. And for the first time it returns to the story of Gatsby and the high-profile murder that provided a crucial inspiration for Fitzgerald’s tale.

A study of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryan...

A study of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryant. Published in Shadowland magazine in 1921. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With wit and insight, Sarah Churchwell traces the genesis of a masterpiece, discovering where fiction comes from, and how it takes shape in the mind of a genius. Blending biography and history with lost and forgotten newspaper accounts, letters, and newly discovered archival material, Careless People is the biography of a book, telling the extraordinary tale of how F. Scott Fitzgerald created a classic and in the process discovered modern America.

I found this book fascinating, although I realised after the introduction that I would have to stop and re-read The Great Gatsby first. And boy, was I glad that I did! This time, being less concerned with finding out what would happen next, I was at leisure to appreciate the writing and to get beneath the surface of the story. I’m not going to attempt to review Gatsby here – there’s not space, and anyway there are zillions of other reviews, scholarly articles and analyses out there, should you be interested!

Sarah Churchwell’s account of the writing of Gatsby is mingled with the lives of the Fitzgeralds and the real life Hall-Mills murder case in a way that was generally illuminating, but I occasionally found the chronology a little confusing and the jumping from one to another frustrating. The story of the bungled investigation is genuinely shocking and fascinating, but I’m not sure that it really cast all that much light on Gatsby.

The book helped me to pick up on a lot of cultural references and symbolism I had previously missed in Gatsby, which I really appreciated, despite not always being a fan of lit-crit. It also provided a lot of interesting information on the era in general. I was highly amused by the story of the original New York traffic lights worked by a policeman sitting inside the boxes and their non-standardised colour-coding. The history of prohibition is also an illuminating example of the laws of inintended consequences and there were many interesting and appalling incidents recounted here. And I absolutely loved Zelda’s recipe for breakfast:

“See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week.
Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.” from Favorite Recipes of Famous Women (1925)

Towards the end, though, I did find that a lot of it was getting rather repetitive – another round of parties, drinking, arguments and apologies. There is a great deal of detail here and perhaps less would have been more.

The book definitely requires a fairly detailed knowledge of Gatsby to appreciate it and should not be attempted without having read it first. Overall, it was very interesting but not without flaws.

A photograph of Zelda Fitzgerald published in ...

A photograph of Zelda Fitzgerald published in Metropolitan Magazine in June 1922, accompanying her piece “Eulogy of a Flapper”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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