Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cambridge University Press ($39.95)
by Christopher Fischbach
In the introduction to Trimalchio, the editors of this "early version of The Great Gatsby" repeatedly claim that the publication of this book is "not only for comparison with The Great Gatsby but for interpretation as a separate and distinct work of art." Why they so adamantly make such a case (rather than present Trimalchio as a text primarily of interest to scholars and Gatsby-philes) is baffling, for it could only be legitimate if Fitzgerald consented for this version to be published, or if he was either forced to make revisions to the text or those revisions were made without his permission.
Since neither of these scenarios is in fact true, we are offered two justifications for the editors' highly debatable statement. First, that when Fitzgerald submitted Trimalchio to Scribner's, the text entered the
public phase of its existence. He submitted it to the 'publication process,' a loose term for a sequence of mechanical and commercial operations which would, as he knew, transform it from a literary artifact in one copy to a saleable commodity in multiple copies. Naturally he expected to see proofs, and surely he planned to do some revising on them, but there is no evidence that, on 27 October, he contemplated major rewriting or structural revisions. He had completed this version of his novel.
Garbage. What is more likely is that Fitzgerald expected to do revisions on the novel, just as any experienced author would. There is no evidence that Fitzgerald was hostile to Maxwell Perkins's editorial advice; the most significant of which here was to let the details of Gatsby's life unfold to the reader earlier and more gradually throughout the book; the fact that such a structural change was undertaken by Fitzgerald (along with numerous other changes) points to an agreeble working relationship between editor and author. Literary editors do not force or even cajole an author into doing something they don't want to do. I would further argue, contrary to the editor's bizarre claim, that the "public phase" of any novel's existence is not entered until the book is actually published.
The second justification the editors use to present Trimalchio as a distinct work of art is that it "is like listening to a well-known musical composition, but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage. . . . To the knowledgeable listener it is like hearing the same work and yet a different work." It's a pretty analogy, but a false one. This may be true for interpretations of previously arranged music (especially jazz, blues, etc.) or for remakes of films, but the musical composition you hear when reading Trimalchio is more like a rough draft that had been thrown away, then stolen from the composer's garbage can and performed as an original piece years after his death.
With all that said, I feel obliged to admit that I enjoyed every second of Trimalchio. It's not really that different from Gatsby, and had it been published as the legitimate text it would probably still be considered a masterpiece. I would even say, if pressed, that I prefer certain sections. For instance, in Trimalchio, the details of Gatsby's life are told directly to Nick by Gatsby in conversation, whereas in Gatsby, Nick relates that conversation to us. Once you've heard Gatsby tell it directly, the revision feels forced--though granted, it shifts more of the emphasis to Nick's voice, and adds to the mystery surrounding Gatsby. Yet for the attentive reader of Trimalchio, much of that mystery is still upheld, since when Gatsby speaks, you can never be sure he's telling the truth. Nick, as we all know, is the only truly honest person he himself knows.
I can only hope, however, that comparisons such as this will be made with tongues in cheeks, and that, as "earlier versions" of great works continue to be published, they will be considered prototypes rather than legitimate, solitary works of art.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000