Back to Paris in the 20’s

My friend Sally Allen of Westport’s Hamlet Hub writes a regular column about books, which I love. So I’m pleased to let you know about a recent one where she falls under the spell of Paris in the 20’s. As you know, Paris was a favorite haunt of ex-pat American writers, who used to hang out in various cafe’s and at Shakespeare and Company, an English bookstore run by Sylvia Beach (which still exists). I love books that take me back in time, and so does Sally. I’ll let her tell you about it;

Reading the 20’s

My reading list this year (all two weeks of it) has been all about the 1920s, and it’s given me an idea.

But before I get to that, let me say, the 1920s is not “my” decade, meaning if a car/time machine were to whisk me away to some bygone era I idealize, as happens to nostalgia-prone Gil Bender in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, it would probably take me to the 1940s or maybe the turn of the century (19th – 20th), rather than the 1920s.

Shakespeare & Company, Paris
Shakespeare & Company, Paris

However. It just so happens that I watched and was fully charmed by Midnight in Paris before Christmas. Iconic authors and artists incarnated by actors who seemed almost born to play them. A hopeful, happy ending. What’s not to love?

Besides this, the current selection for WestportREADS—Westport’s town wide reading program that promotes conversation and community through the shared experience of a book—is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” a Great American Novel about the American Dream. It’s an inspired choice for our town since Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived here in 1920, and one critic has argued that traces of Fitzgerald’s Westport stay linger in “Gatsby.”

So I had the 1920s on the brain when, about to get on a flight back to Connecticut on New Year’s Day, I decided I needed a paper book (can’t read e-books during take-off and landing!). The scant bookshelves in the airport store offered two viable options—Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife” or a novel by James Patterson whose title I can’t remember. With “Gatsby” on my reading list, I had to pick McLain’s fictional reconstruction of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway (with whom Fitzgerald collaborated) and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The novel begins with their first meeting in Chicago and follows them to Paris where they lived for most of their five-year marriage.

The novel, which McLain researched meticulously, was elegant and engaging, and I would have enjoyed her soothing, rhythmic prose even if I were not in a 1920s frame of mind. Still, as a complement to Fitzgerald’s classic, “The Paris Wife” was a good pick. Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda appear in the story, and even though most of the novel is set in Paris…read on here

What do critics know, anyway?

I love Flavorwire, where Emily Temple, their brilliant but hard-to-find literary editor, is on the lookout for different ways of looking at books. Last month she published a list of 15 scathing reviews given to literary classics when they first came out; The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Catch 22 – all reviled. Here are some samples:

On Madame Bovary: “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” — Le Figaro, 1857.

On Brave New World: “Mr. Huxley has been born too late. Seventy years ago, the great powers of his mind would have been anchored to some mighty certitude, or to some equally mighty scientific denial of a certitude. Today he searches heaven and earth for a Commandment, but searches in vain: and the lack of it reduces him, metaphorically speaking, to a man standing beside a midden, shuddering and holding his nose.” — L.A.G. Strong, 1932

On The Catcher in the Rye: “This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” — James Stern, The New York Times, 1951

Read the whole article here

A 49,00 word play

I don’t know how I missed this when I was in London last week, but it seems that there’s an eight-hour play currently running in the West End of London. And to rave reviews. Sounds ambitious? It is. It’s an off-Broadway hit called Gatz, that has transferred to London and is now wowing the audiences who can spare the almost eight hours to watch it. The reason for the length of the play is that it’s a reading of the entire 49,000 words of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.  London critics have generally loved it. Michael Billington, in the Guardian says: “A great American classic has been captured with total, transfixing fidelity by this dedicated ensemble.”

Sarah Crompton in the Telegraph said that “the other appeal of Gatz is that you go into a theatre early in the day, and emerge late at night, having devoted a day to one single cultural pursuit. This type of marathon is always a joy.”

The play is presented in a 1990’s office where one of the employees is waiting for a computer repair man to fix his computer. He picks up the novel while he’s waiting, and begins to read. As he does so, the workers around him begin to turn into the characters he’s reading about.

What fascinates me about this is the fact that it brings yet one more rendition of this famous book to the public. I’m not sure that someone who wasn’t already familiar with the novel would sign up to see it, but I like the idea that books can live on, not just in paper or eBook, but in films (although, of course, adapted) and now as a stage performance. Do I yearn to see it? I think I’d go if I were in London.

What do you think? Is this idea pretentious or brilliant?