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Chapter & Verse BlogChapter & Verse Blog

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: The Great Gatsby Uncovered at Matt & Phreds

Jazz Band Alligator Gumbo in perfromanceJon Parker Lee

  • Jazz Band Alligator Gumbo in perfromance

Dreams of the roaring twenties have certainly been rumbling of late, nudged gently along by Baz Luhrmann’s recent film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; a novel we are here at Matt & Phred’s jazz club tonight to immerse ourselves within.

Leading the speakeasy vibe of this rather apt venue, glass of wine in hand, Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at East Anglia University, launches into her topic with great aplomb. That is: Jay Gatsby, his notorious creator and the social and historical context surrounding the creation of this seminal work.

Was this the glittery and irreverent era we all know and love? Perhaps not. Contrary to Luhrmann’s Hollywood glamour-fest, Churchwell is keen to impress upon her audience that the America of 1922, regardless of the lavish parties and organised movement in defiance of prohibition, was much more akin to the post-war years than the flapper girls and fun of the late twenties.

Darker and altogether deeper. Churchwell opens our minds to the world of murder, subversion and failure that Fitzgerald inhabited and is thus reflected in this, his great novel. This cautionary tale betrays a critical, and therefore very brave, view of the so-called ‘American dream’. Life is, it seems, just a bit rubbish after all. Shouldn’t that be explored?

To lend further magic to the evening, limbering up at the bar throughout this entire discussion have been a curious group of men, variously attired in waistcoats and hats of the bowler/fedora variety. They are Alligator Gumbo, a seven-piece swing band who are fully equipped to transport us back nine decades to a time of calling cards and bootleg liquor. The audience tap their feet far into the early hours for an event that has been a beautiful balance between the intellectual and reflective, coupled with all the good fun of a Friday night out at the jazz club.

Not all scholars are necessarily good speakers. Happily for us, Sarah Churchwell is both. Confident, witty and enigmatic, her subject is one of intense attractiveness to a modern audience and makes her a huge hit with the Manchester Literature Festival crowd. We’ve been very lucky to have her with us and will, no doubt, be digging out that well-thumbed copy of that old classic some time very soon.