April 23, 2012
by Mara Jebsen
—Pina Bausch, choreographer
A set of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels has come out from Penguin classics, and they look exactly as they ought. They are small, hard-backed volumes in thick cream paper lined with flashy stripes of silver or gold. Some men of my acquaintance—especially those with big hands—might feel silly reading them on the subway.
But that’s as it should be. There’s a sequined fustiness hanging around the idea of Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe there’s something exhausting about the eternal waltzing of debutantes in white linen; and of tall, stiff-stomached boys getting drunk to distraction. Or really what’s exhausting is imagining all those high-school students across America sailing their way through the bright sadness that is “The Great Gatsby.”
The idea of his work gives me this exhausted feeling because his stuff is both classic and a glam cash-cow, categorized in the same cloud of atmosphere in my head where I keep the Titanic. Soon we will have Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrman’s film version of Gatsby adding his entire DiCaprio-ness into the circle of atmosphere that surrounds Fitzgerald, both deepening and cheapening whatever is this peculiar quality down at the middle of it. Luhrman and DiCaprio, I’m sure, will extend the bright circle of frost that allures, but obscures the filament at the center.
What is that filament? When I sit down with “Tender Is The Night” or “The Last Tycoon,” I feel close to it. The joy of his sentences is such that they make me inarticulate. There's an ineffable purity to them. He’s one, like Didion or Capote, who makes a sentence that feels like a dream. I could diagram them, but I can’t get all the way inside them. In my memory, Fitzgerald’s sentences are all shot through with light. But actually, they’re like this: "You can take Hollywood for granted, like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don't understand." And, this: "The house had dissolved a little back into its elements."
Intriguingly, if you sit like an undergraduate with your highlighter, looking through his body of work for candle-light, moonlight, sunlight and the light of chandeliers—you won’t find really that much. What you’ll find is descriptions of women’s faces, interesting spatial arrangements, a lot of matter dissolving, and breezy generalizations about French people, women, Americans and bell-hops.
The question of whether there is anything real going on under all that talent, or whether Fitzgerald is just a lot of brilliant shine has dogged literary critics (and Fitzgerald) since the beginning of his career. Edmund Wilson famously tried to defend Fitzgerald against Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s claim that he was like a foolish old woman who’s been given a diamond. Scribner defended him against those who claimed that his work after the depression was like "trying to hide from a tornado under a beach umbrella" and against others who liked his prose, but found the lives of his characters "trivial".
Despite his rock-solid reputation, I’ve read modern attempts to defend Fitzgerald from unspoken accusations of frippery-ness. Much has been said about his deep understanding of the price of his love of alcohol. I’ve read accounts of his intellectual debts to the Catholic faith, and to the oddness of his position as a Midwesterner elected as spokesperson of New York City. The biographies often insist he was a good, solid person because of his loyalty to Zelda Fitzgerald in her madness, his relentless suffering, and his enormous sense of duty towards his work; a sense of duty so large that it was spiritual in nature.
All of these readings seem correct, not in the least because they are largely confirmed by Fitzgerald himself. One of the difficulties in saying something new about him is that he seems to have taken his own measure, especially in "The Crack-Up." He knew himself, even the ugly bits. But more than that, like a child on the outskirts of the cool crowd angling his way in, he always knew his position. He seemed perennially nervous about getting closer to the best girl, and further away from those hangers-ons and no-account persons who did not have good birth, money, manners, personality, or looks.
Which brings me to an inkling of what both moves and disturbs me about the way the work resonates with me. “Tender Is The Night” is like certain New Wave French films, in which the foreground and background are radically distended from one another. In the background, people die in blunt, odd, senseless ways. No one grieves. In Fitzgerald’s novels, the non-people who disappear are often (though not always) servants and black folks. Was Fitzgerald thoughtlessly trying to create drama or did he sort of sense that the extension of his absorption with perfect women had frightening ends?
We can see Anthony Blaine, in “This Side of Paradise,” absorbing the racial ideas floating around in Princeton in the 20’s. I remember a passage in which Blaine and a number of undergraduates pore over photographs of previous classes, counting proudly how many were tall and blonde and physically splendid and congratulating themselves on being the "best people".
We know, too, that Fitzgerald took great pleasure in his looks. He admitted that he was not the most virile or athletic; not even the best scholar, but at least . . . charming, clever, and good-looking in a classical, lily-white way. Because of this, he wrote, “I always got the best girl.”
But before I begin to talk myself out of my literary crush on the man, I want to think about this business of “the best girl.” Here, in another world at a similar time, is a party described by Toni Morrison in her novel "Jazz":
"Anything that happens after this party breaks up is nothing. Everything is now. It’s like war. Everyone is handsome, shining just thinking about other people’s blood. As though the red wash flying from veins not theirs is facial makeup patented for its glow. Inspiriting. Glamorous. Afterward there will be some chatter and recapitulation of what went on; nothing though like the action itself and the beat that pumps the heart. In war or at a party, everyone is wily, intriguing; goals are set and altered; alliances rearranged."
Of course a war is like a dance and a dance is like a war, especially when you're young. Everyone knows that and everyone tries to forget it. Fitzgerald shows that the ambitious, romantic and sensitive white man can torture himself with what now seem to be infinitesimally small class and "ethnic" differences and a sense of insufficiency that comes flying up most painfully to the surface when romantic alliances are being made.
One thing I admire about the expanding breadth of his imagination is what starts to happen in his unfinished work, “The Last Tycoon” (which it seems Fitzgerald would have preferred to have had titled “The Love of the Last Tycoon”). This piece features these same love-desperations motivating beautiful women. In “Tender is the Night” one of the lovelorn characters is a startlingly pretty movie star, but she is someone who has to work in order to summer at the Riviera, like Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s last book moves this desperate yearning into the heart of a beautiful young heiress. However, like Fitzgerald, when it comes to matters of the heart, Cecilia takes her own measure and notes her position. She acknowledges that the tycoon is a widower, compulsive about his work, too old for her, and is likely to have made some of the very films that have given her her first ideas about love, and so, "it was all rather hopeless."
Where does all this yearning come from? I don’t know, but it seems that towards the end of his life that Fitzgerald began to see that the circles weren't real, but the yearning would never leave.
Here’s Toni Morrison in "Jazz" again, describing young Dorcas, who has a lovely figure, light skin and ‘good hair’, but mild acne, encountering twin brothers at a party: “Laughing, they accept the praise that is due them: adoring looks from girls, congratulating punches and slaps from the boys. They have wonderful faces, these brothers. Their smiles, more than their flawless teeth, are amused and inviting." Morrison goes on to describe an entire scene taking place in the length of time it takes a needle to find its groove: "The brothers smile brilliantly; one leans a fraction of an inch toward the other and, never losing eye contact with Dorcas, whispers something. The other looks Dorcas up and down as she moves toward them. Then, just as the music, slow and smoky, loads up the air, his smile bright as ever, he wrinkles his nose and turns away."
These are not so trivial matters, after all. It is tempting for so many reasons not to study Fitzgerald but to bask in his charm instead. It is tempting not to want to dismantle a chandelier and find the source and danger of all that light in those sentences. But I do think that I’ve learned something from these novels and stories even if it is a sort of cautionary tale.
I suppose the ‘lesson’ I get from Fitzgerald is one of the few that he was not forced to learn in his lifetime. What I mean is this: I suppose it is dangerous to think that you are not enough. I mean not only personally uncomfortable, but socially and politically dangerous. He himself was forced to learn that being an artist can kill you; that most ‘geniuses’ work compulsively; that one must know the price of things; that all sprees must end, and that even money can’t protect one from madness and misfortune. It is probably enough learning for one lifetime.
But teenagers and everyone else come to know that one must stand right in the middle of one’s body, and one’s inherited social position, like Dorcas--and offer it up, and somehow stand it if that offering is rejected and one is pushed out into some less desirable circle. Fitzgerald was nearly ‘pushed out’ of the circle, but somehow he always made it back in and ‘got the best girl’. So ultimately he was left to write about the emptiness of the inner circle he worked so hard to occupy.
Where does all this yearning come from? How does one decide who to love, and who to consider ‘the best people?’ Wars and parties are the places where these matters get decided. It makes sense that we can't remove him from a circle of shininess that his work seems to waltz through with deceptive carelessness. The filament, the electric thing that sparkles at the center of all that genius now seems to me sad, sweet and ultimately dangerous—but recognizable on some fundamental level.
Posted by Mara Jebsen at 12:35 AM | Permalink