Tuesday, May 17, 2011

de Bernieres Versus Fitzgerald

I am close to finishing up Louis de Bernieres' novel Birds Without Wings. I might be done with it had I not interrupted the reading with a re-reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Luckily for de Bernieres, Gatsby is more novella than novel and so I only lost two days of Wings reading time.

These are both good books. Birds Without Wings might have better prose overall and on the surface appears to be a more ambitious undertaking: an historical tale spanning 40 or so years from 1890ish to the end of WW II, telling the story of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the rise of modern Turkey. There are multiple main characters and a gang of first-person narratives interspersed with third-person narration and the section I'm currently reading, about the Gallipoli campaign, is splendid and brutal and moving and funny and sad and horrifying and really everything one could want from a piece of historical literary fiction.

The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a first-person narrative spanning a single summer in 1922, and recounts the events surrounding Jay Gatsby's attempt to steal his old lover Daisy from her husband, Tom. That sounds pretty slim, but coiled inside this short novel are sharp observations about American wealth and class, consumer culture and the destructiveness of avarice. Fitzgerald's prose struck me as a bit clunky for the first couple of pages but soon enough I was caught by his brilliant use of images and his startling way with modifiers. "Yellow" is used to describe a jazz song. Women rise from a couch "slenderly." This is just what Jon Gardner meant, I think, when he said that adverbs and adjectives should be used in surprising ways.

Meanwhile, of course, I am working on my own novel. de Bernieres' book makes me want to fill my story with references to the growing conflicts in Europe and Africa, to give a larger scale to the piece and situate the characters' actions within the actions of the whole world. Fitzgerald's book makes me want to focus more sharply on the characters themselves and show how each of them is at odds with their immediate surroundings and attempting to fit into their perception of the world, and not always succeeding. I have always come to great fiction as a pupil, to learn something new about how fiction operates and what fiction can do, which means that every good book I read influences my own work. I have no idea what sort of things I'll take away from Fitzgerald or de Bernieres, but I think I'm getting ideas on ways to broaden and deepen the narrative, maybe. We'll see. Right now it's just a first draft, which means practically nothing. The real work is in the revisions, which is where I hope to find that some of de Bernieres' and Fitzgerald's genius has rubbed off on me.

Edited to add: Fitzgerald's book is definitely the better of the two. The minute I finished the last page I went back to the start and began to read the whole thing all over again. But Birds Without Wings is well worth your time, kids. Literature ain't a contest.


  1. The real work really is in the revisions. I love Gatsby. I adore that book and how Fitzgerald twists language up like a play toy. His descriptions live in my mind even now - 3 years after I last read it. I've read it probably ten times. I love that book. Sigh.

    Good luck with your writing! You read well, and that means your writing follows suit. :)

  2. We talked for a few minutes on the sunny porch.

    “I’ve got a nice place here,” he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly.

    Turning me around by one arm, he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore.

    “It belonged to Demaine, the oil man.” He turned me around again, politely and abruptly. “We’ll go inside.”

    We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

    The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

  3. There's so much going on in those few paragraphs. The whole narrative is like this, filled with a condensed power. Description, symbolism and theme are unified. Great stuff. He had a good ear for dialogue, too.

  4. "the groan of a picture on the wall" What's that even mean? I have no idea, but it's an arresting phrase that makes you stop and imagine the picture, the whole room, the wind, the women the immense sofa. All because of the misuse of the word "groan." The whole book's like that.

  5. Sigh.

    That is all.

    The "ballooned slowly to the floor" is one of those descriptions that has stuck with me since I very first read that book.

    Also, the part about "pulpless pyramids" when he's describing the party scene is one of my favorites. I love it so much I alluded to it in The Breakaway.

  6. By the way, I can't wait to talk to you and Davin tonight on Skype. :)

  7. Had to go put up a Gatsby quote on my blog. Thanks for the inspiration. :)