The Banquet of Trimalchio

We, the guests were already disgusted with the whole affair when Trimalchio, who, by the way, was beastly drunk, ordered in the cornet players for our further pleasure, and propped up with cushions, stretched himself out at full length. “Imagine I’m dead,” says he, “and play something soothing!” Whereat the cornet players struck up a funeral march, and one of them especially—a slave of the undertaker fellow—the best in the crowd, played with such effect that he roused the whole neighborhood. So the watchmen, who had charge of the district, thinking Trimalchio’s house on fire, burst in the door, and surged in—as was their right—with axes and water ready. Taking advantage of such an opportune moment . . . we bolted incontinently, as if there had been a real fire in the place. — from the SatyriconThe Banquet of Trimalchio (Fordham University)

At one point, F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted Trimalchio as the title for the book we know as The Great Gatsby. Trimalchio is a former slave, who inherited his master’s great wealth. Gatsby, too, comes from a humble background, but he earns his wealth (in what way, Fitzgerald never quite says).

Gatsby’s parties certainly resemble Trimalchio’s grand affair described in this text (what the editor calls “a[n] excerpt from a comic romance probably composed during the reign of Nero”), but Nick (the narrator) describes Gatsby as standing off by himself, not partaking in the debauchery that he supplies to his guests. Gatsby is hoping that his parties will attract Daisy, the girl he loved, but who didn’t wait for him to come home from the war.

At Trimalchio’s party, singing slave boys clean the feet of their guests (an action that Christ undertook at the Last Supper). Trimalchio himself arrives late, carried in by slaves while the orchestra plays a fanfare. The guests are served lavish food, including wine with a label on it that says it’s 100 years old (something that cultured guests would know and appreciate — the sign suggests that Trimalchio wants to impress even those who wouldn’t know the difference).

It’s not hard to think of that one talented cornet player as a jazz musician — that would have fit perfectly into Fitzgerald’s world.

Still, I can’t help but think of Michael Jackson dancing on the roof of a car outside the courtroom where the judge waits to convene a hearing on his child-molestation charges. And, of course, the idea of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

The mock funeral I quoted above is significant in light of the Gatsby’s funeral — nobody attends it.

Note also the pun — after consuming all that wine, the guests bolt “incontinently” out the door. Was that joke in the original, or was it added by the translator?