One phenomenon of movies made of classic novels is that the movie often says a lot more about the time of its making than...

One phenomenon of movies made of classic novels is that the movie often says a lot more about the time of its making than about the time of the novel. And so Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is more a depiction of a 2012 idea of the 1920s than a realistic depiction of the ’20s themselves.

But what of the ’20s? These years are, today, so coated in mythology that they’re hard to imagine as a real time in which real people lived. The myths surrounding Fitzgerald and his novel are equally entrenched, but Sarah Churchwell‘s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (Virago, 2013) goes a long way towards peeling back the layers that have accrued around all of this- the author, the novel and the time- to, in her words, “throw into relief aspects of the novel we no longer see.”

Here, the world of the ’20s- a world that so often seems impossibly ephemeral- assumes solidity through small details: hem lengths, traffic signals, the brightness of the lights. Churchwell’s aim may, at first, seem nebulous- to capture what was in the air whilst Fitzgerald was writing the book, the atmosphere, the mood- but, in the end, it yields a surprisingly concrete portrayal of the writing process (a notoriously nebulous thing) and the origins of a masterpiece.

Careless People isn’t the life of an individual. Rather, it’s the early life of a work- a strand of biography that continues to provide fresh ways of considering classic works, the people who wrote them, the times from which they sprung, what they might have meant then and what they might mean now.

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