Jan/Feb 2024  •   Nonfiction

Two Pasts for the Novel: The Present Nostalgia of the First-Person in The Great Gatsby and La Rochelle

by D. W. White

Rock art by Tim Christensen

Rock art by Tim Christensen

"In the end, all that can be said is that the difficult gift is its own defense, the deep rewarding pleasure of which is something you can only know by undergoing it." —Zadie Smith [1]

It was unseasonably cool in California this year. There was wind, and there were scarves, and there were strange, heavy things that lurked in the sky and spat water at us. There was grey fog along footpaths and fractured palms on sidewalks, early morning breath in short, stinging bursts and bright mountains lit up in white and blue. Perhaps that's why I spent my ninth Californian January reading two essay collections written at either end of a tempestuous century. I had the time, and given the authors—Virginia Woolf, Granite and Rainbow, and Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind—all the motivation one could need. And so, as the 405 jammed and the sands of Long Beach ran up towards Ocean Boulevard like the waves, I got to thinking.

At first, I planned to talk about these two collections, both of which are inventive, insightful blends of sophisticated intellectual thought and impressionistic reflections from subtle literary minds, but writing about writing about writing felt a step too far down the rabbit hole, even for me. So instead, I'm taking a page from Woolf and Smith in terms of approach, if not content, [2] and attempting to distill this current moment in my time as a writer, editor, and critic into my recent encounters with two vastly different yet temptingly similar novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Michael Nath's La Rochelle, via their respective narrators, offer two remarkably precise accounts of history, loss, and the stories we tell about our pasts.

From its first pages, The Great Gatsby is a book about death. The death in Nick Carraway's famous opening—his "Middle West," his thinly-disguised superciliousness, his vulnerable years—is not the death found at the end, drifting around a forgotten pool and forgotten pasts. The death that Fitzgerald begins with is the death of an idea, of a dream—call it "American" if one must, but it is far more universal and more specific—of that hope we all seem to have of chasing down an earlier notion held by an earlier self. In their collections, both Woolf and Smith spend time on the act of re-reading, the transformative powers it offers to change the way we see familiar novels, and for the experienced Gatsbyian, the ending is so abundantly clear from the very beginning. Not in particulars, but in feel, in tone. From his first words, Nick is writing an obituary.

This opening is accomplished through one of the most conventional methods of first-person narration found anywhere—Fitzgerald's reluctant scribe begins the century's most famous American novel with a run of exposition that would have even the contemporary writing workshop blush. The Great Gatsby is perhaps the most conventional major novel of the 20th century, [3] written during the most significant revolution in the form of the last few hundred years—the counterrevolutionary par excellence. Fitzgerald has no qualms simply laying out for this reader everything she needs to know about Nick and the story he'll tell.

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. [4]

This opening—a clinically delineated act of the telling, temporally isolated from the fictive present, full of neat biographical information and narrative backstory—is about as far removed from the High Modernists as possible, superficially resembling the most basic and fundamental approach to storytelling. [5] Before you get into all this business of scene, tell me just what's going on here, why don't you. This method works because of Fitzgerald's powerful and precise language, the specter inhabiting each page, the control of the narration—and, of course, because sometimes even the most conventional approaches have their moment (there, I said it). There is no confusion in The Great Gatsby about where we are, whom we're with, or even where we're going. It is a haunting story moving inexorably, smoothly towards its end. We've found our Virgil, we can begin our descent.

I am the same age, now, that Jay Gatsby is during that fateful summer, while I read The Great Gatsby once again for this essay. It's my 11th or 12th read, a lineage stretching back to what can only be called childhood (remember that?). Smith, in "That Crafty Feeling," suggests her best piece of advice to young writers is to step away from their novel, long enough to see it as "a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read." [6] This sound recommendation can serve to the reader as well as the writer; [7] coming to Gatsby this time was, like all others, different from those that came before. Different not only because I was now reading with 11 reads behind me instead of 10, not only because I was reading it specifically for a project, and in running conversation with another novel, but also because this Dan had never read it before. We are continually made up of a new mélange of memories, experiences, interests; a phenomenological ship of Theseus—the "stuff of life," to borrow Woolf, is always changing. Lately, in my editorial work, I've been thinking more about my longstanding interest between conventional and unconventional writing—fiction that constitutes and conforms to the "marketplace" and fiction that, in short, does not. As a writer and reader, I operate in the latter world, and thus as an editor have long been driven to carve out space for challenging, risk-taking, non-conformist writing. This drive remains. But, especially in the world of literary journals (which is far less a zero-sum game than is novel publishing), I more and more conceive of the old rivalry less as a matter of keeping the conventional out, but rather forcing the unconventional in. [8] In this view, reading The Great Gatsby was, again, transformative.

Torodov has verisimilitude as the power of a story built on the effectiveness of its narrative [9]—there is something of this, funny enough, in Nick Carraway. Scriber's most recent trade paperback edition declines to even mention our poor narrator in the synopsis; it's all Daisy this, Jazz Age that. But for all his judgment and fierce defense of the moral high ground, Nick sees everything, and can simply say it, with a poetic ease possessed by few in literary history.

No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. [10]

It is the rare first-person narrator indeed who could get away with a line like that on page two of their book. Protagonists from Jane Eyre to Charles Bukowski have tended to be far more cagey, to play more tricks with their storytelling. And that's not even to mention those tertiary modernists—Clarissa Dalloway isn't thinking so far ahead; for all the terrible genius of Ulysses, even that shape-shifting demigod of a narrative entity would never dare so direct a look at its reader, so bold an acknowledgement of plot. But Nick can, precisely because of that convention, of his open nostalgia and the obsession with the past embodied by his titular hero. Thousands of first-person novels have been written, the vast majority of them engaged in some way or another with the Concord of the Act of the Telling—here is Tristam Shandy, sitting down to tell you a story. After all, this is how oral history, that longtime bedrock of human culture, began. Very few of them manage the magic trick half as well, or with nearly so few illusions, so little stagecraft. It is the ghost of history stalking Fitzgerald's stage, the outline of dreams and selves long dead and gone. There is little in life more relatable than that.


The novelist—it is his distinction and his danger—is terribly exposed to life. [11]

This is both how Virginia Woolf opens her essay "Life and the Novelist" and the overwhelming impression one takes away from reading Michael Nath's 2010 debut novel La Rochelle. [12] Our hero is no novelist, to be sure—he is most of a physician, half a poet, and more than his share of maladjusted romantic—but the fictive world he builds and through which he stumbles bleeds of this exposure to the capricious whims of men and, especially, women.

Now and then the three of us meet on a Saturday in the West End. I buy champagne to keep her there. But she notices the time; and as when winter begins on a September afternoon, in Archangel or Astrakhan, so she has to go. Why does she never stay longer? Because she does not love to drink, you fool. Grey-eyed: eyes like a sky that's going to break into light. [13]

Mark, softly and on the oblique in love with his best friend's woman, as he'd have it, is a London doctor, hopeless bachelor, philosophic dreamer, and an ambitious, daring, wily first-person narrator. Throughout his week-long story—detailing his efforts to help that best friend, Ian, track down that suddenly-missing woman, Laura (oh, Laura)—Mark plays fast and loose within a clearly delineated temporal range, on occasion slipping, as previewed in the quote above, into the immediacy of the present tense, all the while foregrounding the nostalgia of a life he'd never quite lived. And while admittedly the narrator of La Rochelle has surely been drunk more than Nick's "just twice in my life," [14] there are persistent similarities between them. If Nick Carraway chases the dreams of an age through the loss of a man, Mark chases the dreams of his imagination though a past he might have had.

He is a cunning one, our man Mark. That archetype of the first-person novel The Great Gatsby represents in the long annals of American letters is one La Rochelle breaks up and reconstitutes in its experimental use of language and point-of-view. Alongside that sensory immediacy are German bon mots, musings on military history, long stretches of accessed memory written in the third-person detailing how Ian met Laura. Nath sets his novel during the hostage crisis of 2004, a London in flux, giving La Rochelle a Gatsybian use of physical place to chase history. The parallels continue, both superficial and profound: the temporal movement within the first-person, the hagiography of a semidevine woman, the limited and precise timeline leading towards a strange sleepless night, the employment of observation as a vehicle of introspection, the certainty of convention in the one mirroring the ambition of risk in the other.

In her essay "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov," Zadie Smith runs through the Barthesian dichotomy between readerly and writerly texts [15]—those that ask nothing of the reader and those that demand a great deal of him, or perhaps overlooks him entirely. Our old nemesis the marketplace again. It is, as she points out, a fascinating and endlessly useful prism of analysis, encompassing nearly every element of a book, from the mechanical to the narrative, the political to the orthographic. The Great Gatsby and La Rochelle serve as productive representations of these polar ideological comprehensions of the novel, at least within the relatively tame first-person lands. [16] For Nick's lucidity and precision, there is Mark's frenetic wordplay, even orotundity, challenging his audience at nearly every paragraph. But, much in the way The Great Gatsby's opening is able to be pulled off due to the complete control and poetry Fitzgerald commands in his prose, La Rochelle's effectiveness is achieved precisely because of the beauty behind the neurosis, the remarkable lengths Mark will go to for both Ian and Laura visible within the technical-mechanical acrobatics and winding wordplay, moving seamlessly between his fictive present week as private investigator and vividly remembered moments from their triumvirate of love and friendship and doubt.

She was scandalised. He'd taken her for a night out and all they'd done was drink. What was more, her new beret'd got wax all over it and the wheel had come off her weekend case with his tugging. When they went back to his flat—at long, long last—she'd been sick because they'd had nothing to eat all night and he'd made her drink more wine. Did I think he'd looked after her when she was being sick? Oh no! All he'd done was play "Send in the Clowns" about fifteen times...

Later I interpreted his behavior according to the doctrine of success. Careless, unchivalrous as he'd been with her, she was still with him and manifestly in his power. I'd not have treated her in such a way if she'd come to visit me—this was what she'd been implying in front of the two of us. Very likely she was implying as well that this was exactly why women like her visited Ian's type, not mine.

Which has been agitating me for a long time. I'm too good for women? Bollocks. I'd gladly make her drink herself sick if she came to visit me. I'd mess up her beret good and proper. I'd put on a CD of brass bands. I'd lick her arse like a hellhound... wouldn't I? [17]

What is gone haunts these narrators, what was and might have been and what never had a chance. They are exculpations, a penance performed by the living in debt to the memories of their pasts. They take different roads to get there, Nick and Mark, nearly a century apart and born of different literary worlds. But the ancestry is clear, and like the long-lost relative turning up on the doorstep, even among two voices so far removed from one another there are unexpected commonalities to be found.


Strange how the mind works, strange what makes it drag its own depths. Full of holiday invitations from what we're meant to be thinking of, is our old friend the mind. [18]

It's odd, the way things happen. The other day I woke to find not only rain in California, a strange enough happening in its own right, but some of that rain in my very own apartment, seemingly unconcerned with the ideals of roof and shingle. It splashed about a bookshelf for a while, causing me to lose a few old friends I hadn't seen for ages. Nothing too catastrophic, fortunately (books about the law, can you imagine!), but death is death all the same. It seemed like a sign, although perhaps it was only gravity and water and poor craftsmanship. But it got me thinking, of books, of what we choose to keep and try to hold, of the things we remember from those lives we used to have. And how little they must resemble anything that had really happened.

I first discovered La Rochelle earlier this year, as the debut of a novelist with whom I was working. It had the happy effect of reminding me that first-person can, in those rare moments, surprise and invent and challenge.[19] It also reminded me straight off of The Great Gatsby, an ocean and a century away, which I felt showed again the snaking lines of literary ancestry. The mind pulls something from the depths, for no apparent reason at all, simply of its own volition, and there it is—belief.

"La reproche essentiel qu'on nous fait, on le sait, c'est de mettre l'accent sur le mauvais côté de la via humaine," says Sartre in his "L'Existentialism est un humanisme." Putting the accent on the bad side of life, isn't that just the thing? Isn't that the charge to lay against the philosopher, the novelist, the critic with her pen. No small amount of merit in it, either. Perhaps it is because the artist, the thinker, these are the ones who tend to see what might have been in the past, what could never be in the future. The ones with the minds that run amok at every slightest interaction, every small daily happening. The ones who watch every atom as they fall, to again borrow Woolf, and dream up a thousand possibilities for each. Be it rêve or cauchemar.

This is certainly true of both our narrators. The Great Gatsby and La Rochelle share an overarching structural design—a demarcated fictive past (as in manifestly distanced from the act of the telling) confined from the outset over a certain period of time; a summer and a week, respectively. This allows each narrator to move fluidly between their immediate story and the world of events that lead up to it, and to occasionally (à la Nick's opening or Mark's sly asides) to hint towards the future. [20] In short, when combined with the self-assurance and precise voice both novels possess, this design creates immense temporal fluidity.

Both Fitzgerald and Nath understand the nexus of such freedom with the driving concerns of their novels—the suffusion of the past into the present—and employ the benefits masterfully. Throughout their narratives, which on the most immediate level operate within tightly controlled timelines, Nick and Mark are able to foreground the moment, to bring the place close to the goal in its chase of history, a moment of self-indulgence by the narrator, allowing him to relive in the full flush of the present tense those brightlight landmarks from his past, his story.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves... In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colours, and hair bobbed in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light. [21]

How alive this passage is, tactile and sensual and real. The mechanics admit no wasted movement, barely a notice from the reader, the breathing pull and power of memory. To return more exactly to Todorov, "And this impression [of the truth] will be stronger in direct proportion to the skill of the narrative." [22] How deeply we can feel something, how fully we can see a moment—this is the possibility of art, to more richly illuminate our own lives through that of invented scenes and imagined situations. The Great Gatsby and La Rochelle share first-person narrators supplied with the tools and the aptitude to relate a poignant impression of the nostalgia that pervades their present stories.

Mark, a far more technically inventive narrator, feels no obligation to give over for set-piece blocks of text his account to the present tense, but nonetheless draws us in with the same proximity to certain events long before his primary story.

I went forward with my head bowed in the manner of a peasant at last approaching the shrine, not wanting to look them in the face too soon, delving with the left hand in my occiput, which by now felt like a bundle of wet rushes. Planning my opening line, I managed to light a cigarette as they smiled up at me: Had they come here to avoid the hysteria?...

They came every Sunday, Ian told me with a smile.

"We come every Sunday to wait for you!" Laura cried. We thought you didn't like us!" There was a fineness to her voice that hadn't been paid for at a posh school. I'd promised to meet them. She wagged a finger at me, reasonable, natural, pert. I'd promised to meet them the day after the roof party.

I was dumbfounded. Did she mean up here? She certainly did! I attempted to apologise. I felt disgraced—almost dishonoured.

"It's all right!" Laura laughed benevolently. "You were drunk. You both were," she added for my sake. "Ian couldn't remember either.'

"That's right man!" Ian laughed. "Come and join us." I settled between them like a plump bird. Ian padded my shoulder and rose to sit on the grass. Sprezzatura. [23]

If these are scenes from the le mauvais côté, as perhaps they are—imbued with regret, emanating from a sense of loss for what has gone and shall not return—they are also beautiful moments, vibrant with the summer air, full of people and sounds and light. They are the business of the storyteller, be he sly narrator or artful novelist, to dream of the things we all have lived, and portray them in all their painful brilliance.

I stack those rescued books on the ground in leaning pillars, and I walk the beach in the rain and the fog, and all the time there is the past, coming up like waves across the sand. Every place and object is a time of life, a version of a past self who was a very different creature indeed. We cannot know them, any more than we can know those who are yet to come, but we can remember them, imperfectly and often, we can reach out across the bay of memory for that green light of the past, striving, striving.


Every moment is the centre and meeting-place of an extraordinary number of perceptions which have not yet been expressed. Life is always and inevitably much richer than we who try to express it. [24]

It is the power of these two novels that they are able to render so vividly that experience, to come as close as possible to recreating that sensation, rerunning the striving of memory. There are certain moments in all our histories, aren't there, that can be called up on command, in full technicolor, to relive and regret? Let us examine another similarity, a method that challenges a certain essayist's rather bold claims about The Great Gatsby's extreme conventionality.

Much like the use of present tense above, both Nick and Mark allow someone else to do the narrating for a bit, leaving the stage entirely for the soloist.

He got up and made a pass of the table the girl and her partner were sitting at... Señor's eyes were on nothing. Her mouth was the thing about her, the fullness of it in her blonde face.

Ian crossed the plaza. On the other side of the road was a bookshop that seemed to be particularly busy, which he entered...

He knew what he was doing. As sure as Napoleon, the illumination was on him. From the shelf he picked a yellow book, which was an edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets. The poems had been translated, the English versions faced them. He bought the book and returned to the plaza.

The haze had gone and the sun was bright again. Its heat criss-crossed and crowded the air, like a magically erected maze of thick hedges. Marvelously, he could get through it; to him it yielded.

He says he had no sense of sound, only heat, as he found his way to that table and put the book in front of the girl. Señor recoiled in his chair as if the table were steadily accelerating. She said, "Don't, please, Norbert!" She didn't want trouble. But how much trouble was a fellow called Norbert likely to produce anyway? Here Ian realised she was English. Laughing he presented her with the book.

"I've got you this!" He told her. [25]

What bravado! The passage is all the more effective being told through Ian's eyes—not only because Mark wasn't there, of course, but it is again a question of immediacy. If our narrator is absent from the scene, we are not; we feel the sun and the charm and the incredulity. It is a grounding wire giving charge to Mark's tormented, lovesick journey, all these years later.

One October day in nineteen-seventeen—

(said Jordan Baker that afternoon, sitting up very straight on a straight chair in the tea-garden at the Plaza Hotel)

—I was walking along from one place to another, half on the sidewalks and half on the lawns. I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber knobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground. I had on a new plaid skirt also that blew a little in the wind, and whenever this happened the red, white, and blue banners in front of all the houses stretched out stiff and said tut-tut-tut-tut, in a disapproving way.

The largest of the banners and the largest of the lawns belonged to Daisy Fay's house. She was just eighteen, two years older than me, and by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville. She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night. "Anyways, for an hour!"

When I came opposite her house that morning her white roadster was beside the kerb, and she was sitting in it with a lieutenant I had never seen before. They were so engrossed in each other that she didn't see me until I was five feet away...

The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since. His name was Jay Gatsby, and I didn't lay eyes on him again for over four years—even after I'd met him on Long Island I didn't realize it was the same man. [26]

How remarkably similar these selections are, [27] both offset in their own sections and temporally focused, painting in rich scenic detail the central inciting incidents for their respective narratives. These scenes, which haunt our central protagonists—Mark and Gatsby (sorry, Nick)—are alive in the book, and so are alive in the story. The narrative and the textual functions, the book acting as tale being told and the book acting a constructed novel, are united in these inventive passages. To whatever Barthes believed about the reader creating the novel afresh on his own terms, Smith, via Nabokov, has it right, it is the author, the design of the artist, that builds these worlds of shadows and memory. "Reading is creative! insists Barthes. Yes, but writing creates, replies Nabokov." [28]

We've a final parallel to draw—related, as all my critical work must be—to Rachel Cusk. What is life without memory, and what is criticism without Cusk? But, I am not biased; we shall also mention Proust.

There is a certain technique found in Rachel Cusk's Outline series that I have elsewhere called first-person free-indirect style, [29] an elision of a first-person narrator's own voice to access with third-person immediacy the speech of another character. It is found, in trace elements, in both The Great Gatsby and La Rochelle. [30]

She pounced. Let her and Ian come up one weekend and help me decorate! It would turn my life around. I explained that I couldn't. Not without permission. Whose permission? My landlord's. She had difficulty accepting this. Still renting accommodation at my age, in my position? Her eyes broke into full blue. The truth was dawning! These excuses I made about my house—what it all boiled down to was that I did not live on my own. She'd suddenly realised! That was the reason. How silly of her, to take so long. Now she understood! That was why I never asked them round. Wasn't that so? She nudged me in what she took to be a man-to-man fashion. I had here a tactical dodge that took the form of charging straight at my opponent. Actually she was right! That was it exactly! She'd got me! This tactic induced her to scatter temporarily. She went home on her own soon after, leaving me and Ian drinking. [31]

This scene, between Mark and Laura, with Ian standing by, is an excellent example of those two novelistic functions operating in unity—the textual, as a designed work, and the narrative, as a told story. Their triangulation is central to the novel's thematic and narrative concerns, and the method plays with Mark's slippery style and the fluidity he feels between them. Reading this passage, can one not feel the complex web of emotions the narrator has towards Laura, with her man—and Mark's best friend—sitting at the table? The bolts of Laura's interrogatory, unflagged as they are, stand as something like what is found in Outline: the presentation of a secondary character's speech as though it were that of the first-person narrator himself. This technique appears throughout La Rochelle, giving a shimmering, electric, underwater quality to Mark's tumultuous week.

There is something about them, those women in whose wake our tortured protagonists frantically splash.

He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was...

...One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. [32]

This is rather like homo Erectus to Cusk's homo Sapiens vis-a-vis first-person free-indirect. While Fitzgerald does not have her mechanics, the Cuskian elision of the narrator is visible; Nick steps aside here to allow Gatsby's direct recollection the floor. It is of course the past that warrants such a maneuver, the spark of his love for Daisy that will bring down the whole apparatus of life.

This quote, like the one above it, looks at the nuances of each novel's technical-mechanical approach (La Rochelle being ever far the more daring than The Great Gatsby), but Gatsby's first kiss with Daisy is also something of a madeleine moment (I said I'd get there)—the electric shock that starts off the narrative chain reaction, leading us right up to the telling. The whole novel has led up to this passage (textually), which then serves as the fictive past starting gun for the story itself (narratively). It is the source of Gatsby's nostalgia, and thus the source of Nick's telling. We cannot go forward without looking back.

We've seen La Rochelle's use of Cuskian free-indirect; a final quote will allow us to look at Mark's Proustian epicenter.

I needed to make this clear. I owed it to my history. There was actually some value in the way I've been. It was as close as someone like me could get to art. If she'd cut it out with her fineness, if she'd let me breathe—her lips were as cool as cucumbers, and as slippery—I'd tell her I'd always meant to be the way I had. How the hell did she know how to do this? How has anyone ever known?... So how the hell did they think it stood with me, a man who couldn't hope to write a thing that anyone would stop to read. Could they not see what it meant to me to refuse physical enjoyment? It was the sacrifice I made for the art I lacked... that's what it was, damn it! [33]

The struggle between what we've been and what we'll become. This is a rare moment of true sincerity for Mark, one that grapples with his past selves in the face of the onslaught of the future. As impossible as it is to return or to fully know our past lives, it is equally impossible to stay the same, to hold off the rush of life ever thundering over the cliff of passing time.


What I really wanted was to persist in my chronic, solitary dream. [34]

There has always been, within and beyond the Abrahamic psyche, a reflexive and inherit looking back, a searching for the paradise as it was before the fall. This is distilled into both the millennial and the quotidian, something fundamental in humans and the worlds we create that can never quite let go the thread of history. In our traditions it manifests as tales, collectives, generations—but on the personal level, we feel this in memory, nostalgia, regret. As expressions of the human condition, then, The Great Gatsby and La Rochelle are sublime exhibitions of life's backward gaze.

This is no mean feat, doubtless. But there is far more to both books than we've had space for here—The Great Gatsby's character dynamics and societal critique, the blazing energy and dark humor of La Rochelle—and each are among that first class of novels, eminently successful on its own terms. I will read these books again, surely—but not quite I, rather another I, a version yet unknown and yet unborn, one who remembers but does not know me, shaped by other things and different notions, bringing experiences of my hidden future into his forgotten past.

It is the power of art to distill and render life, and the task of the artist to draw from her own experiences something towards a universality. Life is never the same, not for any of us, across space or time, as each moment stacks upon the last in infinite bleeding succession, that luminous halo forever diffused across itself (to borrow Woolf a final time). We cannot reach back, we cannot see forward. But perhaps we can, among the pages of a great novel, feel the shivers of the winds that had blown, the glow of the sun that once burned, the sting of the rain that had fallen on the places we used to walk.

"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" [35]


Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.

Nath, Michael. La Rochelle. Pontefract, England: Route, 2010.

Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Woolf, Virgina. Granite and Rainbow: Essays. London: Harcourt, Brace, & Jovanovich, 1958.



[1] Z. Smith, Changing My Mind, p259.

[2] I take the title of this essay from Smith's "Two Paths for the Novel," originally published in New York Review of Books and reprinted in Changing My Mind, rather vexingly, as "Two Directions for the Novel." Alas, the world is an imperfect place.

[3] In part, surely, because it set the convention. What will the first-person novel look like emerged from the long Victorian-Edwardian shadow? Here comes Nick Carraway, ready to illuminate.

[4] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 2.

[5] Ah, I can hear the counter-critics now—yes, yes, modernism is largely a third-person affair, and there are several notable elements of Fitzgerald's method that do take more risks with narration (who knows, perhaps we'll find some below). But, in part due to what it is and in part due to what it's become, The Great Gatsby is a leading template for first-person narration in English: accessible, linear, reader-focused.

[6] Smith, Changing My Mind, 108.

[7] I would be remiss to not likewise point to Smith's closing essay of Changing My Mind, on rereading David Foster Wallace, written as an incredibly intelligent and striking tribute to her favorite writer.

[8] I still adamantly see work that would broadly be called unconventional as by and large "better" than that found in the literary mainstream—more sure of itself, displaying a deeper and more sophisticated command of theory and craft, representing a more polished artistic display of human life. But far too often predilection festers into dogma, taking no one anyplace useful at all.

[9] Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, 80-1.

[10] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 2.

[11] Woolf, Granite and Rainbow, 44.

[12] Here I might mention that I've happily gotten to know Michael of late, publishing his work in both the literary journals with which I am involved. For those of that rather innocent persuasion that one should never dare comment on the work of someone they know, and feel such a connection fatally compromises whatever critical integrity this essay or essayist might have otherwise enjoyed, well I supposed you'll be soon expected home for dinner, anyhow.

[13] Nath, La Rochelle, 14.

[14] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 29.

[15] Now I find myself writing about writing about writing about writing—this essay was to be the trying of something new, after all.

[16] As challenging as it is, we must avoid any third-person katabasis to the underworlds of consciousness in this essay. Remember, we're after something new here.

[17] Nath, La Rochelle, 124-5.

[18] Ibid., 97.

[19] I know, I know.

[20] Our future, of course, as the reader. It is still the past for Nick and Mark, although it is the more recent past than are the events of the book—it is closer to the act of the telling.

[21] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 40-1.

[22] Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, 80.

[23] Nath, La Rochelle, 107-8.

[24] Woolf, Granite and Rainbow, 23.

[25] Nath, La Rochelle, 34-5.

[26] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 74-5.

[27] One notable difference is Gatsby's explicit mention of Jordan's taking over the story—apparently a century of novelistic modification rendered moot the parenthetical.

[28] Smith, Changing My Mind, 54.

[29] For the interested reader, and in the name of shameless self-promotion: 'Ghost in the Machine," L'Esprit Literary Review; 'The Revolution Comes from Within," A Thin Slice of Anxiety

[30] Although, we must note, with nothing like the scale, intention, or effectiveness of Outline. The essayist stands by his theory!

[31] Nath, La Rochelle, 141.

[32] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 110-1.

[33] Nath, La Rochelle, 259-60.

[34] Nath, La Rochelle, 259.

[35] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 110.