February 05, 2007



Hear, hear! I love Lolita but always thought Mrs. Haze's untimely demise a fantastic coincidence ...


I also tend to re-read Gatsby a great deal, and I always believed that the relationship between Jordan and Nick was meant to be a little unsatisfying. They like the idea of one another, but not the reality. And since the novel is largely about the nature of dreams (and the nature of dreams cannot be discussed without also discussing the disparity between dreams and reality) it seems fitting that Nick, two years later, would not dwell over the brief summer romance he had with Jordan, particularly not in light of the new perspectives that summer bought him.

And yes, one should never place too much stock in the idea of perfection. Perfection is subjective and, worse yet, it’s dull. And while I don’t believe many have ascended to Shakespeare’s heights, we shouldn’t believe it’s unachievable, and put a roof over potential.


That's a very interesting and astute reading, Kevin. To me, it seemed he was using them to work the whole "When Bad Drivers Meet" metaphor but I think your solution is more elegant.


not especially relevant, but there is a very good John Berryman interview from the Paris Review archives at:



This is great! That's my fabulously autodidactic and incredibly inane comment. But I really enjoyed reading this.

Steven Augustine

Is it our 'incredulity' which betokens inexperience, or our *credulity*? I tend to associate the former with cynics. Or is this a 'flammable/inflammable' type inversion of expectations via the ambiguity of the prefix ? (The 'but' in the penultimate sentence of that Berryman quote sharpens my confusion). Otherwise, I'd interpret this as Berryman's warning that suspicion of Shakespeare's greatness is callow.


I like to think that the seemingly meaningless relationship between Nick and Jordan IS meaningless, because it is not Jordan that Nick is in love with, but what Jordan represents - specifically, a pass into Gatsby's world. I suppose that's sort of along the lines of what Kevin pointed out. The times Nick does mention being infatuated with Jordan always seem to line up with moments when she's been instrumental in revealing to him some more complete image of his mysterious neighbor, and the fact that he ends their relationship right after Gatsby's death seems to signify that he has no need for her any more. I think Fitzgerald's intention is to portray Nick as attracted to Jordan for her ability to bring him closer to the "greatness" that he perceived in Gatsby.

Steven Augustine

"Shortcomings, to be sure. But so what? Nature doesn’t owe us perfection. Novelists don’t either." This sounds a bit like the traffic cop who can ticket you for speeding...or not...depending on his mood and your cleavage (laugh). Is it a useful critical position or apologia for a writer Tanenhaus *wants* to be great?

"...the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion, the arcane reading lists...the characters who don’t change or grow but simply bristle onto the page...the colorful lowlifes pontificating like fevered students in the seminars Bellow taught at the University of Chicago..." Writers have been dismissed (or demoted) as 'minor' for less consistent infractions (and Bellow's are fairly consistent).

It'll sound like heresy to say so, but I wouldn't be surprised if twenty years from now Bellow suffered the kind of downward re-appraisal Miller got...both writers being so terribly of a certain era (Miller pre-War, Bellow post). If Bellow, why not Richard Brautigan? Brautigan is arguably a 'world' too...and no less 'minor' for it.

My point being, is Tanenhaus being clear-eyed or merely loyal? After the giggle-inducing orgy of that Tanenhaus-greenlighted puffpiece on Mailer, I'm not sure if I lend much credence to the editorial vision yonder. That's my cranky old opinion.


Mark, I enjoy your summary. As one of the frequent Tanenhaus-haters in the ol' sphere, I just want to say that I also love the Book Review, and I wouldn't spend so much time talking about it if I didn't. The NYTBR is undoubtedly my favorite literary publication, I've been reading it since I was about six, and this is why I feel I have a right to hold Sam Tanenhaus and his colleagues to very high standards.

With that said -- how is praising Saul Bellow "taking on the canon"?


Steven: No, it's definitely "incredulity" as in "Get over yourself, don't be so amazed, he was just a guy who wrote, albeit brilliantly."

Elizabeth: It's an interesting read but I'm less convinced, primarily because Nick is already drawn to Jordan in their first scene together, before he has any inkling of who Gatsby is.

Levi: By taking on the canon, I meant a willingness to look at a writer like Bellow and a book like Herzog (his ne plus ultra) and say, hey, wait, there's a lot that's wrong with these; that the flaws don't ultimately diminish the canon represents no backing off on Mr T's part; simply an acknowledgement - that I share - that said flaws don't much matter, finally.


Fair enough, Mark -- thanks for a good thought-provoking piece!


Funny, I read the NYTBR essay on Sunday and then went to a talk on chamber music where the contemporary composer was described as someone who took cues from Herzog and Henderson and I thought "so what's the difference?"

Then I decided to just let it go and enjoy Jeremy Denk being cute and smart and un-jaded (and I am so very jaded myself).


Funny, I read the NYTBR essay on Sunday and then went to a talk on chamber music where the contemporary composer was described as someone who took cues from Herzog and Henderson and I thought "so what's the difference?"

Then I decided to just let it go and enjoy Jeremy Denk being cute and smart and un-jaded (and I am so very jaded myself).


Great post, I admire you for popping one of your own bubbles...but isn't Nick's relationship with Jordan a "contrast tool". It throws into relief Nick's lack of real passion for her with Gatsby's complete exaltation of Daisy...his ability to dream.

Cal Godot

Is it anything more than postmodern literary father-killing to "take on" the "canon?" What is "the canon" these days? At what point does "taking on the canon" become, you know, "canon" itself?

These are not snarky questions: I respect and enjoy this blog, am invigorated by the erudite minds which read and comment here, and especially delighted with the author himself, with whom I share not only iconoclastic tendencies but also the desire to identify and acknowledge great literature.

To me this is the purpose of the canon: to identify and acknowledge great literature, and by doing so allow us to examine and perhaps even quantify what makes said literature "great." Studying the canon is meant to be instructive, not reductive. It is meant to broaden one's mind to literature, not narrow it and contain it. I learned Shakespeare so that I could realize the greatness of Mamet, not so I could prop up my own insecurities by declaring Shakespeare "the greatest" and thus save myself the trouble of studying anything new.

Too many people, it seems to me, regard "canon" as some sort of Greatest Hits Reading List. The result of this attitude appears to be either slavish devotion to canon, excluding all else (or at least keeping all else in the overarching shadow of the canon), or a desire to eliminate canon in a deluded attempt to "democratize" or "popularize" great literature.

That said, I agree with the middle road that you seem to propose - that we accept Bellow as great, but not perfect, and that we do not allow our perception and respect of his greatness to delude us into a blinded critical analysis of the work. But I caution any enthusiasm for canon-breaking or taking: history demonstrates that such thinking has never helped literature, and has generally led us onto such twisted paths and the Cultural Revolution and the burning of books. We stand on the shoulders of our literary fathers and mothers: if we cut them from under us, we have nothing to ground us.


Kevin:I have a few questions about your comment "They like the idea of one another, but not the reality." What idea does Nick have Jordan? What idea does Jordan have of Nick?

Jordan likes Nick because she thinks he's too honest (or not devious enough) to dupe her - that he's the "careful" one that enables her to be careless. In their last conversation, Jordan seems to be seething -she tells Nick she's engaged {Nick surmises Jordan says this in an effort to make him jealous} and she says "I don't give a damn about you now" - she's angry in way that suggest she wanted to be with Nick and that he rejected her. She didn't walk away from Nick because he didn't meet her dreams - she didn't walk away at all - Nick threw her over.

So what would you say is Jordan's "dream" of Nick. Is Jordan's "dream" of Nick is that he can't/wont dupe her? That's not really a "dream," but perhaps a low-grade expectation. Does Jordan "love" Nick and dream of getting married and living happily ever after?

What was Nick's dream of Jordan?
He knew she lied (i.e., about leaving the top down on a rent-a-car) and cheated and bribed her way through golf. When or where do we know what Nick's dream of Jordan is?

At the end of chapter 3, Nick admits, unlike Gatsby and Tom, he has "no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs, and so I drew up the girl beside me, tightening my arms." This seems to suggest that Nick doesn't have a dream about Jordan, only a warm body in his arms.

Why does Nick end it with Jordan?

Nick spent a good part of the summer carting Jordan's senile aunt around town. Do you think Nick pretended to be more into Jordan than he was? Did Nick mislead Jordan? Or was Nick seriously pursuing something he later judged not worth having?

There is a passage that ties a few ideas together:
"At first I was flattered to go places with her because she was a golf champion and everyone knew name. Then it was something more. I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a tender curiuosity." Nick's curiosity was that he knew Jordan's haughtiness was concelaing a secret - the secret that she was dishonest. Perhaps Nick is an emotional voyeur - he is more interested in penetrating Jordan's facade than actually inhabiting it. (Compare Gatsby in Daisy's Louisville house, where the rooms suggested greatness, and Gatsby so wanted to be a part of Daisy's world).

Later Nick says that "dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply-I was casually sorry, and then I forgot." At their last meeting Nick wonders if he's making a mistake, he's "angry, half in love with her and tremendously sorry."

What makes Nick feel this way?

Elizabeth: great idea - however, there is some sense that Nick does seek Jordan for something other than as a way to be ushered into Gatsby's world. Nick admits that he even stopped thinking about Gatsby because Nick was more interested in pursuing Jordan. Also, Nick does spend time with Jordan's senile aunt. Do you see anything authentic in Nick's attraction to Jordan? I also see Nick as a very lonely figure - perhaps he can create one relationship out of two 1/2 relationships (Gatsby and Jordan).

Maybe Nick is emotioanally reckless and moving faster with Jordan than he should have been, though it's hard to find textual suppport for this. Just wondering if you see Nick and Jordan's relationship as anything more than a way into to Gatsby's world.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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