children leaving a pleasant street at dusk


For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened – then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

This simile – the sunlight leaving her face like children from a street at dusk – is one of the phrases that made me want to write this blog. I keep using the words “beautiful,” “lovely,” “gorgeous” because my vocabulary is so thin, I have no power over language like this man. This simile is all that, well beyond what my simple words can describe. Along with the clear romanticism and tribute to beauty, for this modern reader there’s a paean to lost childhood – do kids really play on the street anymore, running for home as their mothers call out their names in the twilight?

And that whole sentence, I just noticed now, is actually a metaphor for an entire love affair, an entire life of a beautiful woman. There’s this shallow trend now towards flash fiction – it’s hard to sustain bursts of imagery like this over an entire novel, so people try it in paragraphs and pages. But this one sentence shames many of those efforts.

My distant second choice for this page is the way Miss Baker chats about California and “Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.” Brilliant observation that body language interrupts as much as the spoken word.

sad and lovely with bright things in it

p. 14:

Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth – but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.

Well, maybe this is a bit of a cheat on my original rules, it’s longer than I thought I’d use and it happens to extend across two pages. But hell, it’s still one sentence, and most of it is on page 14.

And it was worth typing all of it. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that you could vastly improve your writing skills simply by typing all of this novel over and over again. Just having that music flow through your fingers is bound to leave behind some residue of genius.

The first part, describing Daisy’s face and mouth, shows that you don’t have to use fancy words to craft an indelible vision. Fitzgerald uses “bright” three times in describing her face, eyes and mouth, and the repetition isn’t dull, it’s a waving of the wand that draws her face in the air before you. The juxtaposition of sad, lovely and bright is also wonderful.

And then he does sneak in a nifty phrase there, “singing compulsion” – again in description of her siren voice. I also like that he qualifies her unforgettable voice to “men who had cared for her” – a tacit acknowledgment that only those who fell in her magic circle were so enchanted; you are free to make your own judgments.

an arrangement of notes that will never be played again

p. 13:

It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.

Daisy’s voice is one of the magic totems of her allure. Here is an example of the hold that only the written word can bring, beyond any other creative medium – that voice is lauded throughout the novel, you hear the way it sounds and the way it feels to the men who love her, and no live recreation can ever reproduce that music the way you imagine it. This disconnect between your idea of her voice and actually hearing it is a microcosm of one of the themes of the novel itself – holding the dream in your hand can never live up to the dream in your head.

No one has ever been better at describing women in the full power of their youthful beauty, and this page gives distinct visions of both Daisy and Jordan. Daisy’s feminine magnetism is in full flower: “She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see.” Every man has met that woman once, and remembers her forever whether or not he ever loved her. Her “absurd, charming little laugh,” the murmur that “was only to make people lean toward her,” that “low, thrilling voice” – these are things that might introduce her as an object of contempt, but it’s clear that her charms overpower all objections into irrelevancy.

Jordan’s got her own special qualities of beautifully hardened poise. She sits “with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.” She nods at Nick “almost imperceptibly and then quickly tipped her had back again – the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright.” Nick’s quite taken – “Almost any exhibition of complete self sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me.”

I’ve read this novel more than a dozen times, and I never noticed until just this moment: you can tell that these women are beautiful, alluring and charming – and there isn’t a single line about their physical features throughout the page, nothing about what they are wearing, whether they’re tall or short, fat or thin. (Until the very last sentence, when Fitzgerald starts to describe Daisy’s face, but that goes over into the next page, so I’m going to count that out . . .) That’s good writing, and an example of why Gatsby can be read again and again and again – you keep finding more magic with every pass.