Read and Digest

5I fished out my copy of the book that I last read at least 20 years ago. PTI photo

After watching the very theatrical and dramatic trailer of The Great Gatsby on YouTube recently, I fished out my copy of the book that I last read at least 20 years ago. I didn't think it was particularly fantastic at the time; or maybe the subtleties and vague insinuations of evil and tragedy were lost on my teenaged brain. So I decided to give it another shot. Alas, I still find it contrived — good in parts — but nowhere near the earth-shattering masterpiece that many literary luminaries of our times have declared it to be. But we can be sure that Leonardo Di Caprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan will renew interest in F Scott Fitzgerald's devastating story of moral decay.

Even though, a lot of what was shocking in 1925 ceases to be in 2013. But classics are defined as classics for a reason and by and large all the certified greats are usually outstanding reads. But there's no accounting for a reader's subjective opinion. Fitzgerald's contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and TS Eliot gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, but sales were lacklustre and reviews were tepid at the time. It was only in the '50s, a couple of decades after its publication, that The Great Gatsby really caught on.

Why is it that some classics continue to fascinate us after 200 years while other equally good ones languish unopened in our bookshelves and fade into oblivion? The world's preoccupation with everything Jane Austen wrote endures; there have been countless makes and remakes of Pride and Prejudice but very few of an equally fine or even better book: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has remained relevant but I don't hear anyone ever mention The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy's intimidatingly sized War and Peace is regarded more like hard labour or a cruel punishment, which is a real pity because the story of Pierre, Natasha and Andrew is truly timeless. This would alarm purists but I've often wondered why some savvy publisher doesn't edit out the maddeningly long war parts, and War and Peace would be a huge hit again. Nobody cares what Napolean's soldiers ate during the Crimean War. Having said that, Tolstoy is at the top of his craft in this masterpiece and his insights into war strategy are mostly engaging. But we just don't have the time for every little detail. And readers shouldn't be deprived of War and Peace because the editor wasn't thinking two centuries ahead.

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