A Familiar Turn of Events
Here’s the thing about Gatsby.
I hated it when I read it in high school. I loathed all the charcters. I resented the required infringement on my own personal reading time. Nouveau riche was just a vocabulary word. I had not yet met bonified crazily rich people, nor—before the economy tanked—was there reason for me to think they had quite so much power over me as I was being told they did. In fact, the only people my age ranting against the rich at that time were those vain prats who liked to walk around school with a copy of Marx’s little red book in their pockets just so they could say that had a copy of Marx’s little red book in their pockets. It was a form of petty rebellion as surely as were tramp stamp tattoos on other students, and I dismissed it in kind.
When I read it, I stress.
Because after I read it, my teacher delivered a kind of speech about it. Mostly about the last couple pages. And then I loved it. Then, with the meaning handed to me, I loved it. I would love to be able to say I did the work of dragging meaning out of it myself, but I didn’t. I was fed up with these people who had so little in common with me, who just loafed around fucking each other and stabbing each other in the back, and I didn’t care who got what they wanted out of life and who didn’t. But this speech that came down to us on the last day of our focus on the book focused, itself, on that specific line—“You can’t repeat the past.” And I was sold. On everything surrounding that line. The conviction that it was true and the rabid desire to prove it false. The greater societal impulses it echoed—teetering on the brink of a modernity not everyone was sure they wanted to tip over into. (And: thinking they had a choice, when they were already in the thick of it. As always.)
We went to a special showing of the movie with a band and period cocktails beforehand. I wore a flapper dress and fascinator. And throughout the first half of the movie I was playing out my response in my head. Trying to come up with reasons, already, why I was liking it so much more than I had on my first read-through of the book. I had decided to push the point of my youth—how I had played two key roles, since I first read the book, that I hadn’t before and that greatly affected my ability to give a damn. I hadn’t been that third wheel yet—hadn’t been told by the male companion of my female friend, only half jokingly, to consider fucking the dog, since I was unlikely to get any ass in high school otherwise. In any number of shots focusing on Nick’s rising disgruntlement and apartness I felt that sharp sting of sympathy for him that I knew I hadn’t felt before. Nor had I yet pursued a romantic interest, surveying the competition with a critical eye and doing away with it the best I could. This prompted a sympathy in me for Gatsby, on that score, that I’d lacked the last time.
Then that line showed up—“You can’t repeat the past.” And I thought, there are three roles I’ve now played since the first time I read the book. Third wheel, determined pursuer, and dogged reenactor.
The second time they said the line it hit me like dart to the neck. Because I remembered how it made me love the book before, and realized where, much more recently, I’d had that epiphanic about-face of literary regard again: in Higuchi Ichiyo’s “Nigorie.” Troubled Waters. Or more specifically: in the speech that came after reading it, delivered by my professor, focusing on a single line in the text where the main character, standing not just for herself (of course) but for the entire muddled, messed-up cultural consciousness of a Japan that liked to think of itself as on the brink of a modernism it had already long since committed to: “She can’t go forward, and she can’t go back.” Not forward to the love suicide that awaits her if she follows through with her plan to escape societal obligations and debts both; not back, because her life has changed too much to allow that no matter how much she wants it. Meiji Japan: not back to the time people still remember, of samurai and magistrates and a preponderance of all-wooden buildings; not forward, to a future as yet unknown but no doubt charted by strangers, jostling for position in a crowded geopolitical sphere rife with competitors with decades’ more experience in the game.
Not to put too strong a point in it, but that line and that speech that was based on it was what made me decide that Japanese literature was something I should be doing. I took immersion language classes over the summer, tackled the entire second major in a year and a half, and went off to live in Tokyo on a two-year scholarship.
Because of one line in a short story written by a woman over 100 years dead.
So to hear that sentiment—different words, different original languages even, but something kindred in it still—jump out at me not for the first time but for what I knew was a repeat occurrence, blew me away. I could hardly focus on the filmic represenation of the book after that, so off-kilter was my brain.
What does it say about me that some of what matters most to me in literature had to be handed to me on a plate? What does it say about my ability to take away something valuable from stories if what I’m taking away is someone else’s treatise on them—no matter how charismatically or insightfully delivered? What does it say about my level of rationality that I turned my whole life around for what someone told me a story said? Even had I been fluent in Japanese at the time—which I assuredly was not—reading Nigorie in its original form would have been a nightmare. I know because I own a book of scanned copies of her original manuscripts, including Nigorie. Ichiyo liked to use Heian-style words and phrasings—something as foreign to my eyes trained on 20th-century Japanese as High German would be to a native English speaker. The translation we read in class wasn’t my professor’s work—someone else had already done it and published it—but the interpretation of that one line was. And I mainlined it and changed, arguably, the rest of my life as a result.
If I hadn’t gone abroad and hated it so much, I wouldn’t have appreciated the merits of being in one place and being loved there, and I wouldn’t have come back to my alma mater and married my boyfriend (which service was presided over by the guy who taught me Gatsby, I should point out) and stopped seeking a future in a profession for which it turned out I harbored a deep resentment. I wouldn’t have gotten my master’s, or my first dog or my second dog; I wouldn’t have been away from my mother when she got cancer or when she got over cancer or when my childhood dog died or when my sister went through her revolving door of loser relationships or…well, anything. And everything.
And at the same time as I snort at my not-so-much-younger self for her foolishness and impulsiveness and eagerness to be told how the world is (can I not just say gullibility?), I am still moved by both lines in both stories and all they mean. Even if I couldn’t have told you all they meant at first. When people asked me, in person and on application forms, why I had turned to Japanese literature, what I told them—that they believed! that I believed! that they gave me money for believing!—was that I saw in Japan a microcosm of what was happening on a global scale. I wasn’t so much interested in the ways it was different from the rest of the world as in the ways it was the same. It was easier to focus on modernization there because of the relative smallness of the country and the rapid pace modernization took there. But I emphasized, in every discussion and paragraph, that it was part of a bigger project: one limb of a much larger creature. And it was that creature and people’s hopeless thrashing against it, or besotted devotion to it, that entranced me.
Not just on a grandiose sociocultural level even, but on a personal one. I’m sure I’ve written of Oriki on her bridge here before. Wanting so much to go back, having plotted a course forward that is doable but agonizing. And Gatsby—how American, to think it will work. How often have I knowingly striven to do the same thing? If I could just serve the same meal, get everyone to stand in the same place, say the same things, maybe the feeling of ten or twenty years ago will come back; maybe the moment I fucked up will be aproached, amended and overcome—who doesn’t think that? Who doesn’t try it, at least once? And how often does it ever work? Tell it to the Civil War reenactors, the activist judges trying to take away rights already granted; tell it to the brick-and-mortar bookstores suing digital libraries and the slow-food advocates: you can’t repeat the past. You can say it all you want, but they won’t listen. Or they’ll listen, but they won’t believe. We have a willful, blind, fabulous stubbornness in this country. What is not will be. Because we will make it so.
People grumbled, I gather, about the soundtrack for this movie. I thought the contemporary tracks worked for reasons that are tangential here. But one of the few period pieces they actually allowed in was Rhapsody in Blue. And. It. Was. Amazing. Nevermind that I have always loved the song; nevermind that when the lottery was super high and I bought my one measly ticket I’d decided to buy Gershwin’s Chicago apartment and that my first order of business there would be to play the song at max volume, pounding through the gleaming mahoghany salons and pressed-tin ceilings. Nevermind that it was over-the-top. It’s supposed to be over the top. It’s rhapsody in fucking blue. It’s transcendent. It’s bombastic. It’s everything people want the 20s to be and none of what it will become—what it already is, rotting from the top down. It’s blind and bullying and magical and sure, so sure, that every barrier can be overcome. Past mistakes can be fixed. Lives can be relived, this time right.
Maybe we outside the film know they can’t. Maybe we know Gatsby’s story like we know our own, well-worn and dog-eared. But amidst the glitter and the gilt and the fireworks, and the thundering drums and pirouetting pianos of Gershwin’s literal freaking rhapsody, we can forget for a little while. We can share in Gatsby’s belief. We can wish him the chance to fix things, and in so doing gain the ghost of a chance of doing so ourselves.
“The front street was quiet suddenly, as if a light had gone out. Seldom did Shota sing his songs any more, At night you could see him with his lantern making the rounds for the interest payments. The shadow moving along the moat looked chilly, somehow. From time to time, Sangoro would join him, and his voice ran out, comical as ever. Everyone talked about Nobu, but Midori had not heard any of the rumors. The former spitfire was still closeted away somewhere. With all these changes lately, she hardly knew herself. She was timid now, everything embarrassed her. One frosty morning, a paper narcissus lay inside the gate. No one knew what it was doing there, but Midori took a fancy to it, for some reason, and she put it in a bud vase. It was perfect, she thought, and yet almost sad in its crisp, solitary shape. That same day--she wasn't sure exactly where--Midori heard of Nobu's plans. Tomorrow he was leaving for the seminary. The color of his robes would never be the same.”—“Child’s Play” by Higuchi Ichiyo
“龍華寺の信如が我が宗の修業の庭に立出る風説をも美登利は絶えて聞かざりき、有し意地をば其まゝに封じ込めて、此處しばらくの怪しの現象に我れを我れとも思はれず、唯何事も恥かしうのみ有けるに、或る霜の朝水仙の作り花を格子門の外よりさし入れ置きし者の有けり、誰れの仕業と知るよし無けれど、美登利は何ゆゑとなく懷かしき思ひにて違ひ棚の一輪ざしに入れて淋しく清き姿をめでけるが、聞くともなしに傳へ聞く其明けの日は信如が何がしの學林に袖の色かへぬべき當日なりしとぞ。 One frosty morning, a paper narcissus lay inside the gate. No one knew what it was doing there, but Midori took a fancy to it, for some reason, and she put it in a bud vase. That same day--she wasn't sure exactly where--Midori heard of Nobu's plans. Tomorrow he was leaving for the seminary. The color of his robes would never be the same.”—『たけくらべ』 末尾より
“Child’s Play” last scene translated by Robert L. Danly