Posts Tagged ‘The American Dream’

Time to Read, to Know and Understand

February 19, 2017

Time to Read, to Know and Understand

Reading is always the way to knowledge and wisdom – often there is more truth in fiction than in anything else you read – especially in these worrying days of alternative facts and fake news. Yes in this post truth world you will find more honesty and truth in novels. So now is the time to remind yourself of the classics you should have read, or to reacquaint yourselves with those novels from your past that have – perhaps sadly – more resonance now than ever before. Here’s a rundown on some of the more pertinent classics that reverberate even today.

 

Dystopian ‘Realities’

1984, George Orwell

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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Now, more than ever you need to take on the brilliance of Orwell – too much prescience for one writer. Return to 1984 and Animal Farm with horror at how the world changes and shifts and learns nothing. Too much has come true, too much of what we thought was outrageous fantasy is coming true. Revisit the under-rated Brave New World (an easier read that 1984, as I recall) and Atwood’s classic and tremble. There is, of course, The Hunger Games and many other novels who explore ideas of totalitarianism gone mad but these are excellent and relevant starting points.

 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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Not going to say that these are my favourite reads of all time but they tell classic tales of desire, love, lust, abandonment, injustice and the excessive amount of suffering love causes us all. You need to know the classics of love and loss – at least they should make you feel better about your own love life. Emma Bovary will certainly cheer you up, as will Anna Karenina – none of us could be as miserable and bereft as those two, and you need to get over Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and actually experience the original 1813 version. And if you’re going to read only one Bronte, Wuthering Heights is the one: you need to see what a bastard Heathcliff is and how unworthy Cathy was too. You can’t go passed Great Expectations for one of the bitterest spurned lovers in literature – the demonic and manipulative Miss Havisham: if you want to know about revenge she is the go-to oracle. Poor Pip, he never had a chance with Estella. No, what we think love is from the classics probably isn’t …

 

Angry (lost) Young Men

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis

Hamlet, Shakespeare

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We have too many angry disenfranchised young men in the world at the moment – they’ve always been there, a lot of them going off to die in war, or flinging themselves about recklessly on the sporting field. Now they have grown up and are running the world. Remind yourself of what happens to boys alone on an island without rules, adults or girls in Lord of the Flies; how utterly bereft and miserable Holden Caulfield is, almost as mad as Hamlet, but none as mad as Patrick Bateman. Yes, American Psycho is a difficult and offensive read, but it shows a chillingly dark side of men gone seriously off-course and what damage can be done by those who think they are above the law!

 

Shitty Pointlessness of War

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Sophie’s Choice, William Styron

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Poetry of Wilfred Owen

Gallipoli – yes, I know it’s a film but it is bloody brilliant

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War is shit, war is stupid, war kills and destroys and never solves anything, yet war is one of the enduring features of mankind. We are aggressive, destructive creatures, we would rather wage war that negotiate a peace. War rages on our planet still, we learn nothing from history and despite this literary collection from different wars and countries, we keep on going. Read and recoil with horror – war may have led to technological advances and helped the status of women in some countries (and absolutely screwed them over in others), but mostly it leaves a trail of intergenerational damage that echoes and reverberates over time and place. Watch Europe implode in the wake of Brexit, forgetting the very reason for the European Union in the first place.

 

Stolen Generations (Oz)

Capricornia, Xavier Herbert – don’t just watch Australia

Radiance, Louis Nowra – great play and excellent film too

Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara – based on a true story, watch if you don’t want to read it

My Place, Sally Morgan – personal history but you need to read it!

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All Australians need to know more about their history – yes we do have a shameful past and we need to know about it and acknowledge it. Capricornia is Xavier Herbert’s classic story of the far north, of how Aboriginals were treated, how we built our national character – the lone, tough bloke of the outback. Have a read, it’s not the novel you think it is. Radiance is a brilliant play about the complexities of the Stolen Generations issue, and Rabbit Proof Fence and My Place give the issue heart and substance.

 

The American Dream

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

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We all need to understand the American Dream, it isn’t just part of the American consciousness but ours too, given how dominant American culture is. The American Dream is akin to the Oz idea about being The Lucky Country. It is a capitalist construct, a belief in the power of the individual – if he (usually it is he) is driven enough, ambitious enough and hard working enough then he can have the life he dreams of, no matter how big. America is built on being the New World, the place where you can begin again, re-make yourself and be whoever you want to be. Status and class (fixed entities in European and especially British society) do not matter: hard work and ambition does. Witness true life American Dream winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gatsby is the best known example of the AD, but you need to read Of Mice and Men too, it shows the other side of the coin; men with small dreams but destined for failure. Is the AD simply an illusion, something used by the powerful to beat the weak with? If you worked harder, believed more then you would be successful… so if you fail it’s your fault too, despite the massive amount of entities ranged against you. It takes away the responsibility of the state, of government to look after anyone. If your life is a failure it is your fault. Read both novels, they won’t take you long, but they’ll give you a handy insight into what makes large bits of the US tick.

 

The System Always Wins

1984, George Orwell

The Crucible, Arthur Miller

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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Perhaps this is the nastiest reading list for modern times. Justice and fairness and the truth are not part of these sad stories. The hero loses, every time. The system is ranged against them – not interested in truth – definitely not in The Crucible, where hysteria reigns and common sense is outlawed, or in 1984 where there is only Double-speak, and the Ministry of Truth, simply isn’t. Fairness and justice is never on the table for Tess or the characters in The God of Small Things. Ivan Denisovich will die in the gulag, after being beaten, starved and worked to death. You just can’t stick it to the man, when he has everything on his side and you are the size of an ant.

 

There are other classics you should know and read – a whole raft of Shakespeare, one for every occasion! To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind as does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. All relevant to the difficult times we are currently experiencing. This is just your set to start with.

What will you re-read to help you make better sense of our sense-less world? What would you add to this list? (Images from Private Collection)

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The Great Gatsby – Did I teach this to you?

October 29, 2011

At first it was the image of Gatsby in his pink suit watching over Daisy, waiting so patiently that made me love The Great Gatsby. The idea that a man (and one as beautiful as Robert Redford was in the original movie) would dedicate five years of his life to the dream of obtaining the woman he loved, resonated deep within me. That feeling of longing, of infinite hope, that so mesmerised Nick, captured me too, and at fourteen, I hoped to find a man who would love me as Gatsby loved Daisy.

Now, because I have taught it so often and write myself, I love Gatsby because of the crafting; because of Fitzgerald’s evocative use of language as he describes Gatsby’s parties, Doctor T J Eckleburg’s insidious Eyes over looking the Ash Heap, a place of singular despair and bleakness; the orgiastic green light that Gatsby looks to hopefully, and how Fitzgerald fills me with the futility of Gatsby’s quest. How can a novel be so hopeful and so hopeless at the same time?

I return to the opening pages again and again, marvelling how within several hundred words we know all we need to know about Nick so we can trust him with the story, embrace his fascination with Gatsby. We are taken in by Nick’s moral certainty as we embark on the journey to find out why Gatsby ‘turned out all right in the end’, even though we expect tumultuous times along the way.

Gatsby is a poignant story of misplaced love, of the waste of a good man’s life. The image of Tom and Daisy sitting together in the kitchen after the deaths (film) of Myrtle, her sad and desperate husband, George and the deeply flawed Jay Gatsby, fills Nick with revulsion, and we recognise careless people who damage others and go on with their lives as if nothing has happened. Fitzgerald suggests it was the Buchanans’ wealth that desensitised them to the feelings and value of others. But he knew, like Nick, that Gatsby, despite his shady deals and dubious background was worth ‘the whole damn bunch of them’.

A boy I taught years ago, now a grown man, confessed that Gatsby was the only novel he fully read during his years at school. He went on to become an economist – did Nick influence him more than he realised? (Hello, Gary Jones.)

Fitzgerald’s characters linger  

Nick because we trust him – his ‘inclination to reserve all judgements’ allows the rest of the cast to confide in him; to tell this story of beautiful waste. Nick is everyman, capable in a range of social settings, insightful, vaguely envious of the rich but able to see into their hearts and the emptiness therein.

Jordan is the dishonest, careless one who cheats at golf and drives terribly. We want Nick to be in love with her but we understand that as the only truly decent person in the text he can’t possibly find happiness with her.

Tom is the arrogant, ignorant fool, who peaked too soon: wealthy but spiritually vacant. Fitzgerald’s description of Tom is as sharp as a photograph – ‘ a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes… enormous power of that body… a cruel body… there was a touch of paternal contempt’. Of course he breaks Myrtle’s nose, he has already broken Daisy’s heart.

Daisy is beautiful, as ephemeral as her gossamer white dresses: she suffers at Tom’s hand, her ‘voice is full of money’. Does she know what love is? Is she worthy of love? Look at how she reacts with Pammy, her daughter, who seems more like a doll than a child. Is that what Daisy is – a doll, pretty to look at but devoid of any substance?

Myrtle and Wilson are both ground down by life, by unfulfilled promises and the grind of daily life in the grime of the Ash-heap, no man’s land, half way to hell. Both are half dead anyway, so their deaths seem assured from the moment we meet them.

But what is it about Gatsby that captures us? He is not a man of breeding or worthy of our respect, given his early years and his dubious dealings with Wolfshiem, who fixed the World Series. Gatsby seems as dishonest as Jordan, as dangerous as Tom, as careless as Daisy, as desperate as Myrtle, as superficial as those who flock to his magnificent weekend parties. Gatsby is new money, as opposed to Tom’s old money. Gatsby is self made, (even his name is made up) ambitious, willing to get his hands dirty. He uses people for his own ends: Nick is used to get to Daisy.

It is love that sets Gatsby apart – his unrelenting quest of Daisy that drives him from poverty to riches; from poor soldier boy to wealthy host with the palace on the water-front directly opposite Daisy’s mansion. It is Gatsby’s naïve hope of love: that Daisy loves him as much as he loves her; that she never stopped loving him and that they can obliterate her five years with Tom and be innocently in love once more. How can he be so brutal in his acquisition of money and status but so innocent in his expectations of love?

The tragedy of the novel is not that Gatsby dies in true Tragic Heroic style die, like Shakespearean tragic heroes, undone by the fatal flaw of his unrealistic expectations about love; a love based in fantasy. Gatsby’s tragedy was that he loved someone utterly worthless. Daisy and Tom carelessly careening through life: death and disillusion in their wake.

It seems that what is important in the novel, what Nick tells us, is that it is more important to have a dream, to have aspired to great things, be it love or wealth, to have tried and lost, to have been mistaken, than to be like Tom and Daisy, careless people drifting aimlessly through life, feeling nothing, giving nothing. After all Nick says ‘Gatsby turned out all right at the end.’

Of the three giants of 20th century American literature, Hemmingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, the latter is the one who matters most to me, despite the other two having Nobel prizes for Literature. All three wrote of despair and of the American Dream. Steinbeck’s vision was without hope – remember Lennie and George’s dream shattered on the barn floor? Hemingway was too interested in the hearts of men not women for me. Only Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, had the gift of beauty and hope amidst the despair. If you only read one of these titans, read Fitzgerald, his short stories and Tender is the Night as well. You’ll thank me. (Images from the 1974 movie staring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow)