January 7, 2013

"There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms up-stairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms..."

"... of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered."

Ripe, beautiful, cool, gay, radiant, (not) musty, fresh, breathing, redolent, shining, (scarcely) withered. What I'm seeing in today's Gatsby sentence are a lot of adjectives, adjectives all about a house, a house that we're told is a mystery. The adjectives tantalize us about the nature of the mystery. Every adjective says sex. If only we could get upstairs to the bedrooms or into those corridors. Those places are alive! They are breathing.

But within that sex and life there is a hint of death. What does it mean to be "laid away already in lavender." I'm picturing the lavender in a sachet, put in a drawer to impart a semblance of freshness. How do you put musty romances away like that? Those are your memories (or maybe old love letters). But don't worry about that. The point here is that these romances are alive, fresh and breathing. I mean, they are alive somewhere in this house, this mysterious house you've just entered, if only you could find your way into the bedrooms and corridors.

Here at the entry point, we just have a hint. There's a smell. It's ripe. It's redolent. It's not musty. It's not that lavender you use on old things. It's like shining motor-cars and dances where there are flowers. Shining motor cars? It's the famous new car smell people are always raving about, and I guess they loved it back in the 1920s when F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing "The Great Gatsby." So there's this wonderful spell of fresh romance and it smells like new cars and dance flowers.

We've already encountered dance flowers in our little sentence-a-day Gatsby project. My self-imposed rule is to stay within the boundaries of one sentence. But it's so strange to me that a sentence that names one flower goes on to say "flowers" without saying what kind. I guess you could say those flowers are like the women in the romances that are happening now. They aren't memories, which are specific and can thus (in some poetic logic) be laid away with specific flowers. These women could be anybody. Maybe their namelessness is part of the adventure that goes with those unseen rooms and corridors.

But I can't help thinking back to that sentence we looked at on January 2d, which had Daisy — a named woman, named after a specific flower — drowsing at dawn with the shreds of her evening dress "tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed." It seems that when the romance is over and laid away into memories, the flowers can be specified. In the January 2d sentence, the flowers, orchids, were dying (as Daisy was drowsing). The flowers we see today are not dying. They are part of romance that is happening right now.

And yet, here it is again, that hint of death: The flowers are withered. Scarcely withered, yes, but withered. And withered is our last adjective. This is another sentence with a narrative trajectory: We went from ripe to withered, in a sentence full of life — hints of life, life just out of reach, with a whiff of death. A mystery!


Unknown said...

Even attempts to describe newness and freshness end up describing something faintly rotten.

edutcher said...

The voluptuousness he wants to evoke just doesn't seem to arrive.

It's a kiss and a promise.

Chip Ahoy said...

Briing briing … briing briing … briing

"Hi, this is Chip. It this the party with whom I am speaking?"

"What? Oh yeah, This is Ed Lytton. If you will be so kind. Leave a message for me. As I said, If you will."

"Sure. I'm ready. Shoot."

"Tell your little teacher over there Edward Bulwer-Lytton called and told her to give his sentences back."

"I'zat it?"

"Yep. Thin-q"

* click *

Rooted in Him said...

The rich are not like you and I, they have ripe mysteries.

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

The mystery is ripe and there are hints of unseen activities. The house was practically dead, already laid away in lavender and withered flowers but its vibrating now, about to be reborn into a fresh, gay, radiant, breathing Busby Berkley set with shiny new cars and sexy, dancing chorus girls and all kinds of glorious activities for the VIPs in the cool, beautiful bedrooms upstairs.

It's probably going to be about 2-1 dolls to guys even on the worse day.

mccullough said...

Cool undermines the sentence a bit. Why are the bedrooms cool. Suggests some frigidity or impotence.

Banshee said...

This is an example of why I didn't like Gatsby. If you were reading, say, a house party mystery by some English author of the day, this kind of sentence would be followed up by all kinds of exciting, interesting, creepy goings-on, plus at least five murders and a wedding.

Nothing so interesting happens in Gatsby. You're stuck with all these boring people whom the author keeps insisting are going to be interesting any minute now. (Although I suppose it was a genius act of self-advertising, since people still keep saying it's an interesting book full of interesting characters, despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

Pretty sentences are a good servant, but a bad master.

Leslie Graves said...

"Ripe mystery" followed by "cool" feels to the metaphor-interpreting part of my brain like atonal music.

I googled "ripe mystery" and came across an interpretation that ties this sentence into F. Scott Fitzgerald's Catholic roots. Not sure how to hyperlink here but if you, too, google that phrase, you'll immediately find it because not surprisingly, other authors have not made extensive use of the term "ripe mystery".

Nichevo said...

Air conditioning did not exist so cool was a virtue.

tim in vermont said...

"Nothing so interesting happens in Gatsby. You're stuck with all these boring people whom the author keeps insisting are going to be interesting any minute now."

I don't think that is the point. The point is that Gatsby is creating an attractive illusion. The sentence serves the plot.

Robert Cook said...

With each sentence I read from GATSBY in these "sentence-a-day" samplings, I become more certain I will never read F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I don't like his prose.

I had the same negative reaction to a writer's prose in two attempts to read Thomas Pynchon, (V and THE CRYING OF LOT 49), each of which I put aside before getting far into them, and Jack Kerouac, where I failed in two attempts to get further than 50 or so pages into ON THE ROAD.

Sydney said...

This is a lovely sentence. The two pleasing passive adjectives "beautiful and cool" juxtaposed so closely with the more active, but also positive adjectives "gay and radiant" give it the character of a poem. The gay and radiant romances are consummated in those beautiful and cool rooms. "Cool" belongs there. Two radiant bodies close together in hot, stifling rooms with sweat is not as beautiful an image.

CWJ said...

Let's see. A mystery in a house with many rooms. OK, I'll bite. Tom Buchannon in the bedroom with the lead pipe.

Avery Gilbert said...

Sex and aliveness and now versus withered memories of time past. All done with imagery of smell. (The flowers at the dance were probably fragrant, too.) Fitzgerald does this elsewhere--great passage in The Russet Witch in which a character climbs three flights of stairs in an apartment building, and the smells along the way are like geological strata going back in time.

jungatheart said...

This sentence does not work on it's own. But of course, it would flow with the narrative.