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The trouble with opiates is that, as J Edgar Hoover warned in the 1950s, one starts on the weaker type and then moves to the stronger ones. And so it is with 19th century novels. From Eliot’s Middlemarch to Trollope, and his great novel, The Way We Live Now; which might have been written in the shadow of the 2008 recession.

I think I recall that when Tom Wolfe published The Bonfire of the Vanities he lamented our own era’s inability to produce the same experience as the 19th century novel. Its scope and range was almost too sweeping and extensive for our times. Its architecture precise and sure and even its decorations are solid like St Pancras Station.

The differences between then and now are real but somehow with a work like The Way We Live Now characters such as Melmotte could be Madoff and the thrill of casino speculation on railways stocks is dotcom mania in another guise. As the overwhelming motives of the characters are cynical and opportunistic it is not surprising it was not well received at the time.

Readers were not happy to be shown their society and see it reflected poorly. Like The Origin of Species which offended Victorians, not with monkey-men, but the awful realization that life was fearful and full of predators. The world was not governed by goodness and fairness.

Trollope’s moral reproach of society has been one of the few advantages writers have. For Julian Barnes it is what makes writers dangerous; that they have the last word.

It is that idea that connects to a different era – the 1920s – and to a work we are told often is still relevant to our own. The Great Gatsby is a simple, austere book. It has the quality of a Midwesterner’s contempt for the East coast swells exemplified in the inane and corrupt Daisy and her repulsive husband, Tom.

Fitzgerald’s view of his era is no less moral than Trollope’s and his pared clear voice is like Shaker furniture, it pretends to be nothing more than what it is. These qualities are somewhat refracted by the film release this week of the book as a lurid extravaganza. It has the sophistication of a Sydney beach party, uncomplicated, unreflective narcissism. As so often happens with adaptations it has the same name as a book but it is not the same. Misread, misjudged, and misunderstood.

On completing Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote to his editor:

The book is only a little over fifty thousand words long but I believe, as you know, that Whitney Darrow has the wrong psychology about prices (and about what class constitute the bookbuying public now that the lowbrows go to the movies) and I’m anxious to charge two dollars for it and have it a full size book.

On that note he might not have attended any film version of his book. Not only morally superior he believed he was socially superior too.

Guy Cranswick
17th May 2013