I suppose it was inevitable that Scribner’s would change The Great Gatsby’s cover art to coincide with the movie. It is, to say the least, a crass alteration. The original 1925 illustration was as masterful as the novel. The artist Francis Cugat created a celestial canvas of love, longing, light, and night. A woman’s face floats like a ghost, intensely evocative and permanently elusive. A tower and a whirl of light suggest a carnival or perhaps a city. We see a small yellow explosion, maybe the furnace of the Jazz Age, maybe the car crash, the implosion of Gatsby’s colossal dream, perhaps all three.
In place of Cugat’s subtle reverie, today we have the crudely obvious: an art deco proscenium with Leonardo and pals stacked inside like fancy manikins. The dreamscape of eyes and lips is replaced by the plump, confident head of a man in a tuxedo. Tom Buchanan pouts in the corner. The women pose like cats. Don’t misunderstand: I think DiCaprio is truly talented, as is Tobey Maguire, and I enjoyed the movie. But this cover—NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE—is simply vulgar.
The new cover somehow will scrape up a few more dollars. As a marketing exercise, I suppose this remains true to the financial fascinations that figure centrally in the story. This is, after all, “a business gonnegtion.” And if the cover is vulgar, well then so are most of Fitzgerald’s characters.
This discussion of the book’s appearance reminds me of an interesting scene in the novel. At one of Gatsby’s parties, Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker wander the mansion. Behind “an important-looking door,” they discover Gatsby’s library and find a “stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles. . . staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books.”
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves. “About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! . . . .”
This scene is funny and powerful. An owl-eyed man (one of several sets of observant eyes within the novel) is astonished by the authenticity of Gatsby’s books. “Absolutely real — have pages and everything. . . a bona-fide piece of printed matter.” He expects to find falsehood everywhere, an obvious commentary on the many fictions of Gatsby’s world. He picks up a real book and announces, “It fooled me.”
It’s this comment that elevates the scene from entertainment to philosophy. How can one be “fooled” by an authentic object? An actual book—a real object—cannot fool anyone unless one’s expectation is to find false books. And if one expects false books, then an actual book can only “fool” by giving an appearance of falsehood. He is deceived by a lack of deception, and considers it a wonderful illusion. “What realism!” Fitzgerald created a riddle in these lines, a small puzzle of broken logic worthy of Lewis Carroll.
I wonder what the owl-eyed man thinks about The Great Gatsby’s new cover. Is it inauthentic in comparison to the original? Or is its cheap glitz somehow more true to a world of multi-layered falsehoods? Does its very flimsiness make it more deeply resonant? I’m not sure. But I strongly suspect that the owl-eyed man would examine the book, wipe his large glasses, and examine it again. He would shrug, and pour another drink.