Monday, July 12, 2010

A Look into the Writing Process of a Master

Book Reviewed: Trimalchio, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I'll be upfront about this post: If you haven't read The Great Gatsby, this review might not make a ton of sense to you. Just thought I'd give you the warning from the top. Oh, and if you haven't read Gatsby yet, what are you waiting for, huh!?

By now, you all know I am obsessed with Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. He's my favorite writer; it's my favorite book. I tend to think of Gatsby as a perfect piece of literature. It's so tight you can make beautiful music when you pluck it. The language is precise and clear and poetic. The characters are hard to love but recognizable. It's all just put together so well that even if you don't like it, you have to admit it has an amazing construction. That's why I try to read the book every summer (and I do believe summer is the best time of year to read it, a time of year that's intense but lazy at the same time). But this year, I decided to try something different. I tried an early version of the novel instead.

Trimalchio is the version of The Great Gatsby that Fitzgerald submitted to his publishers in the fall of 1924. It was only after receiving the page proofs of the book that Fitzgerald turned it into the novel we know today. It's really cool to see how Fitzgerald managed to completely restructure an already well-done book in just a few short months. If anything, it makes you realize that his reputation as a literary giant is definitely earned.

Trimalchio (the title comes from a character from the Satyricon) mostly stayed intact in its final incarnation as Gatsby. Whole passages remain the same, and the plot basically hits the same notes. The differences all exist in the small things, and it's those small things that really make the published book a masterpiece. In this version, Nick Carraway, our moral narrator, is a bit of a snob; Fitzgerald made him much more sympathetic and pathetic in The Great Gatsby. Also in this version, Jay Gatsby's background is stated a little less artfully, and Jordan Baker is made even more of a liar but given more to do. Of course, the thing I noticed about the book is how many adverbs Fitzgerald must have struck from his prose before the final draft, which just goes to show you that I've maybe read Gatsby a few too many times.

So all in all, it was really cool to have a chance to read this early version of my favorite book. It shows you what a genius of revision Fitzgerald was. I've argued for years now that what made Fitzgerald's work great was his ability to get rid of his worst instincts when it really mattered. People who don't write don't understand how hard that is, but trust me: Fitzgerald is a master at turning bad ideas into beautiful moments. Trimalchio proves that.

And now, just because this is my favorite book of all-time, I'm going to go ahead and confess to the levels of my nerdiness in regards to The Great Gatsby. When reading passages of Trimalchio that remained in the final book, I actually teared up from happiness over reading something so wonderfully done. There are short scenes and throw-away sentences in that book that literally make me shake. It's really quite sad. But if that isn't a reason to be a reader, then I don't know what is...

Side Note: This weekend, I also finished Supernatural: The Unholy Cause, by Joe Schreiber. It's a tie-in novel to one of my favorite TV shows, Supernatural. It was so bad that it does not even earn a review on this site. It provided enough entertainment for the couple hours it took to read, but man, was it terrible.

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