Tuesday, September 25

The Great F. Scott

I've been reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald lately. On my desk at home and in school I have Flappers and Philosophers, his first collection of short stories, This Side of Paradise, his first novel, and Malcolm Cowley's A Second Flowering, which is about the "works and days of the Lost Generation."

I've also just finished The Diamond as Big as The Ritz and other stories. (Book # 16) The title story has John T. Unger, who vacations with his a classmate. Percy Washington's family is obscenely rich, and for three generations, his family protects their secret enclave. Trouble begins when John falls in love with Percy's younger sister Kismine. Paradise doesn't last long. Soon enough he discovers what happens to young men who fall in love with young women whose family owns a diamond as big as the Ritz.

One thing which surprised me upon reading Fitzgerald again is not that his stories are mostly long. 20 pages is a bare minimum, which is good for me: my grad fiction class requirement is 40 pages! 40! I have 30 to go. It's that his stories contain chapters instead of the transitions that I've gotten used to in most contemporary fiction.

But what I particularly like about Fitzgerald is that most of the conflict in his stories come from what Malcolm Cowley calls the "Romance of Money." Fitzgerald was never really an out and out Marxist. But the conflict between classes was palpable because they were presented in unbearably real (and often traumatic) situations. He was part of that generation of writers born between 1895 to 1900 and came of age in the Twenties, the Jazz Age, when money, lots of it, could be earned, easily.

His young men on the make work in advertising, business, stocks, entertainment. Success was measured not by what you own, but how big an annual salary you got. These young men partied with and fell in love with debutantes, and to their simple request, "W Y B M A D I I T Y?*" the answer was always yes, why yes!

But the thing was, earned money will never be in the same league with old money. New money flowed, yes, but old money was as solid as a house in West Egg, and those living across could only yearn fitfully for that green light blinking at the dock.

There's also a lot of Fitzgerald floating about in the web. The Guardian has a series on great interviews of the 20th century. Michel Mok's interview presents Fitzgerald a few days after his 40th birthday and four years before his death, as a man "consumed with fear that his name will never be in lights again."

This is the Fitzgerald after the crack-up, echoed in his stories "An Alcoholic Case" and "The Lost Decade," where the protagonist was a weird sort of Rip Van Winkle. He had slept through most of the 1930s in an alcoholic haze. His time has passed and he didn't know how to live in this world anymore.

According to a foreword by Jay McInerney, most people have dismissed the interview as "a hatchet job," but while it was "unseemly," it's also "not unfair." He even says that there's a poignancy to it that Fitzgerald agreed to contribute to his own "depantsing":

What possessed him, you can't help wondering, to expose himself this way? It's as if he has determined to be a representative figure once again, even at the expense of humiliating himself, to reaffirm his significance as a generational totem by portraying himself as an exemplary victim of its faults. What makes this document even more poignant, almost unbearably so, is that Fitzgerald seems to have undervalued the literary achievement that would one day resurrect his reputation, even as it would always remain intertwined with the tragic myth of his life.

*Will You Buy Me A Drink If I Tell You?

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