House Logo
Explore categories +

Henry James (#110 of 4)

Review: Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures

Comments Comments (...)

Review: Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures
Review: Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures

While teaching her undergraduates at Georgetown, Maureen Corrigan often points to her own family name, wedged between Russel Betty and the Kellehers, “in that long, screwball, pages long-list of all the people who went to Gatsby’s parties.” The introduction to her new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, includes this anecdote, as she suggests a “personal excursion into the novel [she] loves more than any other.” Despite the minor solipsism, her close reading displays a poignancy and humor that’s otherwise absent in the rest of her unfocused work. Corrigan’s main problem, even in the opening, is that she can’t quite decide on the scope of her project. Her own experiences, coupled with several disassociated analyses, muddle what could be a convincing cultural assertion about why, now, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby thrives, when it flopped at the time of its publication.

Though not anything revolutionary, her deconstruction of the novel in the context of noir, or “hard-boiled” detective fiction, offers a refreshing perspective, a well addressed and easy-to-understand alternative to reading The Great Gatsby as a love story, or as a comment on the American dream. As does, too, her understanding of Fitzgerald’s narrative as steeped, inherently, in “New York,” a city where “roughly 80 percent” of her college students hope to move after graduation. Yet this thorough account also doesn’t award anything wholly original. New York isn’t alien to Fitzgerald. Although it’s often attributed to Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” one of Fitzgerald’s most well-known essays, “My Lost City,” essentially starts the tradition of writing about loving and leaving Manhattan. And framing a discussion around the city isn’t a stretch, since whole collections, like those of Henry James or Edith Wharton, immediate predecessors to Fitzgerald, are organized around the borough. Even at her best, when Corrigan provides deft literary criticism and research, either after combing through artifacts at Princeton or leafing through archives in the Library of Congress, she unearths interesting points without nearing adequate conclusions. While she might dwell too long on the motif of water, or Fitzgerald’s view of class, the effect World War II and paperbacks had on The Great Gatsby, and its appearances on high school syllabus, are important trends to note. However, Corrigan doesn’t dedicate enough space to wondering what those things might imply.

Agnieszka Holland’s A Woman Alone

Comments Comments (...)

Agnieszka Holland’s <em>A Woman Alone</em>
Agnieszka Holland’s <em>A Woman Alone</em>

Agnieszka Holland’s early film, A Woman Alone, portrays a society on the brink of a catastrophe. The film was shot in 1981, when many of Holland’s colleagues, such as Andrzej Wajda, with whom she collaborated on 1977’s Man of Marble, felt optimistic about the rise of Poland’s independent unions. Its story centers on the life of Irena (Maria Chwalibóg), a single mother whose position in society is so marginal it becomes painfully oppressive. Belonging to neither the Communist Party nor Solidarity, Irena finds herself unable to count on anyone, except for her own meager resources. Living with her young son in squalid conditions on the outskirts of Lodz, she endures the lack of running water, heat, and electricity, not to mention her colleagues’ unshakable antipathy. Engaged in a stark battle for survival, she fights her neighbors and co-workers eager to take over her home and her job at a post office. In the midst of all this drudgery, Irena starts a romance with a disabled coalmine worker, Jacek (Bogusław Linda), and glimpses a chance of escape. The lovers’ wild plot to flee to the West comes to naught, however, after Irena steals money from pensioners to buy a used car and the two suffer a road accident.

A Large Wedge of Cheese Peter Straub’s Mrs. God

Comments Comments (...)

A Large Wedge of Cheese: Peter Straub’s Mrs. God
A Large Wedge of Cheese: Peter Straub’s Mrs. God

Peter Straub’s new novel, Mrs. God, isn’t entirely new. It first appeared as part of a longer work, Houses Without Doors. Then its title was prosaic and uninviting. Now it’s so ludicrous it beckons you in. Professor William Standish has received the rare honor of a fellowship to study at Esswood House in England, home and estate of the Seneschal family. For a period of three weeks he will have access to Esswood’s famous library and the private papers of Isobel Standish, a former guest, forgotten poet, and distant relative. He believes it’s time her reputation was rehabilitated, that she should now take her place among greats such as Eliot and Pound. He flies to England and checks into the house, but not before learning “there is supposed to be a secret.” His curiosity is piqued and the reader waits for the drama to unfold.

And waits. Along the way, Straub seeks to authenticate Esswood as an illustrious literary bolt-hole by having real writers as past guests. Apparently D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Henry James went on to produce their masterpieces after their stay. Straub even hints that the “remote house” in The Turn of the Screw was inspired by Esswood. We are told more about his fictional writer. Isobel Standish is “an important precursor of Modernism,” “a poet of the first rank,” and “in some ways the Emily Dickinson of the twentieth century.” Straub should have left the eulogy at that, but instead he opts to include one of her poems. Unfortunately, it’s hopeless doggerel. A. S. Byatt performed the same trick by incorporating the Victorian verse of a fictitious poet into the pages of Possession. It was a risk, but she pulled it off. The trick backfires on Straub because he isn’t in Byatt’s league. Namedropping real writers who write better than Straub was a mistake; attempting to realise a 20th-century Emily Dickinson was disastrous.