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Tag: F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A wondrous prosateur

In the roaring 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were for a time the golden couple of New York’s high society. Twenty years later, Fitzgerald was dead from a second heart attack while Zelda was in and out of mental institutions where she eventually died in a fire in 1948. Their slow but steady descent toward ruin was documented – as skilfully dramatised fiction – in several of Fitzgerald’s books all of which have recently been published in lavish paperbacks by Alma Classics. The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) was the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a fictionalised portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch, wife to Fitzgerald’s Anthony Patch, a louche and sybaritic heir apparent. The story of man’s obsession with power, money and love was retold again and for the final time in Fitzgerald’s last completed work, Tender Is the Night (1934). The book relays the tale of Dick and Nicole Driver, their tempestuous marriage and gradual undoing. Fitzgerald was one of the most autobiographical and luculent writers with a wondrous binary proficiency to tell a story of a man and his times. A quality so rare yet organic his one-time friend Ernest Hemingway said it was “as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings”. Indeed, one cannot help but agree with Hemingway for there is something spellbinding about Fitzgerald’s prose; its decadence, its verisimilitude, its fatalism, which captured the dazzling milieu of the Jazz Age with masterly foresight and vision.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life paralleled the trajectory of his generation. It boomed in the hedonistic 20s – defined by a wave of liberated women and bootleg booze – and floundered with the advent of the Great Crash when both he and Zelda buckled under the pressures of excess and financial profligacy. Fitzgerald’s fiction echoed the national mood, his insight and personal experience formed the basis of all his work, reflecting the glamour and the strain of living the American Dream. Their story, an embodiment of the triumph and tragedy that afflicted their decade, began in 1918 when Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where he met 18 year old Zelda Sayre, youngest daughter of a wealthy Alabama Supreme Court judge. The couple quickly became engaged but due to Fitzgerald’s lowly financial prospects Zelda broke it off in 1919. In that same year, Fitzgerald began work on his first novel This Side of Paradise, the early prototype which was to set the precedent for all his later works. The book tells the story of a “sophisticated and quite charming – but delicate” young man by the name of Amory Blaine, his professional aspirations and romantic travails. While working on it, Fitzgerald also began a career as a prosateur for mass-circulation magazines. His moneymaking prospects were further improved by the publication of This Side of Paradise on 26th March 1920, which made the 24 year old Fitzgerald an overnight success. A mere week later, he and Zelda were married and swung full-force into a bustling life of parties, power-play and intrigue.

The realisation of Fitzgerald’s plan to get the girl, however, came at a price, which engendered in him “an abiding distrust” and “an animosity, towards the leisure class”. This enmity echoes stridently in all his works, particularly in the young, handsome and ostensibly successful male protagonists (Anthony Patch, Dick Driver) riddled with a financial and social sense of inferiority, which manifests itself most notably in relation to other mostly female characters. Zelda’s penchant for throwing Gatsbyesque parties, champagne and mink meant the couple were almost always broke, despite Fitzgerald writing profusely in between novels. But neither this nor the questionable start to their affinal life stopped the couple from creating their carefully crafted yet seemingly carefree public personas, which contributed greatly to their overall mythmaking. Both Zelda and Fitzgerald were highly conscious of their media image and kept scrapbooks of press cuttings detailing their professional and personal exploits. Almost from the start, following the success of This Side of Paradise the couple began their courtship with the national press, which they monopolised to up their popular appeal and keep their star ever present in the nation’s imagination. The Fitzgeralds were often featured in newspaper gossip columns as the happily married power-couple having a riotous time in their 27 bedroom mansion. In truth, by the early 1930s Fitzgerald was increasingly turning to alcohol to placate his personal insecurities while Zelda’s ditzy-Southern-belle act had become trite and taxing. The gradual collapse of their marriage and the emotional upheaval that preceded and followed is probably most discernible in Tender Is the Night, which seems to be one of Fitzgerald’s most divisive works. Praised for its literary prowess but condemned for its ostentatious show of overindulgence at the time of austerity and ration it received highly mixed reviews.

The book was conceived and written during a particularly grim period in Fitzgerald’s life, around Zelda’s breakdown and hospitalisation for schizophrenia in 1932. Dick and Nicole Diver were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and separation – seem more closely allied to that of the Fitzgeralds. At one point in the novel writing of Dick, Fitzgerald notes that he “had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love” which he always returned with “carnivals of affection” yet upon which he looked back “as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust”. Fitzgerald writes of love here with exsanguinating fatalism and with an intimacy of knowledge which can only be forged through familiarity, through lived experience. The same acutely autobiographical aesthetic runs through The Beautiful and the Damned, which explores the dissolution of another couple, Anthony and Gloria Patch. Speaking of the fictional wife, also stricken with schizophrenia, Fitzgerald seems to be describing his own, a beautiful but merciless party girl who rebels with “incessant guerrilla warfare” against “organised dullness” . Zelda like Gloria was notorious for her contumacious behaviour such as riding on top of taxis, dancing on kitchen tables at the Waldorf and greeting guest from her bathtub.

There is a sad irony to their story, a story which Fitzgerald spent almost two decades writing about. He must have prevised the tragic end before it approached but if so he did nothing to stop it perhaps because by that point he was no longer able to distinguish between his life and his fiction, speaking of which he once confessed: “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” And yet before the blurring of the line and their subsequent troubles, their story was one of intense if deeply flawed love, which provided Fitzgerald with the necessary material for his greatest works. Writing of their relationship in response to criticism from Hemingway and other contemporariesFitzgerald retorted: “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be…I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” For her part, Zelda’s grandiose shows of affection and her devotion to him never wavered even if her loyalty did. There is little doubt that theirs was a passionate and enduring love, just as there is little doubt that their abject ends were precipitated by mutual proclivity for self-destruction, drinking and artistic rivalry. The capping crisis of their marriage was offset by Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), which used exactly the same autobiographical material as Fitzgerald was incorporating into Tender is the Night. Outraged by Zelda’s audacity Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher Max Perkins forbidding publication. Eventually, however, after stipulating a number of changes and cuts he allowed it to go ahead, which it did two years before his own complete final book. The great romance of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald has been dissected, disputed and debated many times over, with blame shifted onto one and the other, but perhaps in the end they were just two people in love who sadly couldn’t live either apart or together.

Publisher: Alma Classics 
Publication Date: September 2012
Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781847492593


Writers On Writers

“The only one capable of inventing heroes was Bernard Shaw.”
Jorge Luis Borges

“Keynes’s intellect was the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool.”
Bertrand Russell

“Fitzgerald was a better just-plain writer than all of us put together.”
John O’Hara

“Schopenhauer’s saying, that ‘a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,’ has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others’.”
Albert Einstein

“Gertrude Stein, all courage and will, is a soldier of minimalism.”
Elizabeth Hardwick

“Lord Byron makes man after his own image, woman after his own heart; the one is a capricious tyrant, the other a yielding slave.”
William Hazlitt

“George Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation which in the thirties had heard the call of the rasher assumptions of political faith. He was a kind of saint and, in that character, more likely in politics to chastise his own side than the enemy.”
V. S. Pritchett

“We will never be finished with the reading or rereading of Hegel.”
Jacques Derrida

“I wonder now what Ernest Hemingway’s dictionary looked like, since he got along so well with dinky words that everybody can spell and truly understand.”
Kurt Vonnegut

“The genius of Coleridge is like a sunken treasure ship, and Coleridge a diver too timid and lazy to bring its riches to the surface.”
Hugh Kingsmill

Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway: The self-righteous, no good and bastardly monarch of American literature

Ernest Hemingway was a sovereign of stalwart, muscular fiction whose “gentleness and understanding and probity was never far away from his most appalling behaviour”. And Hemingway could certainly be appalling, so much so that most of his life reads like a cautionary tale. Except every word in Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, Hemingway’s Boat, is based on archived documents from the JFK Presidential Library, the testimony of Hemingway’s family and friends, his corpus of work and studious ratiocination on behalf of the biographer. And yet there are gaps in Hemingway’s apocryphal legacy, which Hendrickson fills with caution on the side of temerity. There have been many books about Hemingway throughout the years, which helped compound the myth of his success as a turn of luck. Hendrickson dispels this popular notion early on by saying there’s no truth in the fact that Hemingway “sprung full-blown into the American consciousness as a serious writer” overnight. “What is true,” writes Hendrickson, “is that, for nearly his whole life, Hemingway had a genius, among his many geniuses, for gathering knowledge inside of him with astonishing… The statement can apply as much to the intricacies of big-game fishing as to the art of shaking daiquiris as to the craft of writing fiction: he simply found out, and lodged it inside him very fast. In so many instances, he seemed to mutate from eager novice to acknowledged expert with barely any larval stage in between.” This was also true of Hemingway when it came to sailing and angling, a penchant for which he developed as early as a “five-year-old-nightcrawler-fisherman” in Horton Bay, Michigan, and later resurrected with the purchase of Pilar, the boat which became a permanent fixture in the turbulent seas of his life.

Hemingway was notoriously mercurial. He reviled his “chickenshit critics,” whom he execrated with vituperative epistles and his “turncoat” friends (Max Eastman, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Charles Scribner) for failing to bend to his will. Eventually, he earned himself a reputation as an antagonistic cockalorum, whose talent had gone to “malice and nonsense and self-praise” as the bite of fame chomped down on his ego. In a poem about his former friend Archibald MacLeish seconded this notion, saying: “What became of him? Fame became of him.” Few could keep up with Hemingway; fewer still could endure his boorishness or withstand his competitive sportsmanship, which cost him handsomely both in friendships and in reputation particularly after the publication of The Green Hills of Africa, which was universally panned. The critics were merciless. One of them, John Chamberlain, who was writing for the New York Times at the time, said the book was “divided between big game lore and salon controversy”.  Chamberlain went on: “Mr Hemingway has so simplified his method that all his characters talk the lingo perfected in The Sun Also Rises, whether these characters are British, Austrian, Arabian, Ethiopian or Kikuyu…Can it be that Hemingway has been writing pidgin English from the start?…to offer Green Hills of Africa as a profound philosophical experience is something else again. It is simply an overextended book about hunting, with a few incidental felicities and a number of literary wisecracks thrown in.” According to Hemingway, however, the book was misunderstood by reviewers, who failed to see his calling as a man of nature, an explorer in the throes of a daring adventure.

Hendrickson aims to succeed where Hemingway failed by depicting his subject first and foremost as an adventurer “catching 420 blue marlins” and sailing to foreign lands rather than a “monarch of American literature” famed for his “imagistic economical stroke”. And to a certain extent the biographer prospers, as reading the book one gets a distinct impression of Hemingway’s preternatural inclination for the outdoors. Hendrickson is also keen to outline his subject’s virtues saying “when it was good with Papa – the writing, the fishing, the drinking, the eating, the talking, the palling around” was in fact so good it made “few things seem better.” But his picture of Hemingway also aims to be a balanced one as he scrupulously documents Hemingway’s frequent bouts of anger, embarrassing public outbursts and pointed cruelty, especially toward his successive spouses. At one point Hendrickson posits that Hemingway “was always making things up from what he knew,” and this was no different when it came to his wives, who always made it into his books in one “unflattering way or another”. Not only that, Hendrickson suggests that Hemingway felt guilty for the break-up of his first marriage and in part could never fully devote himself to his subsequent wives. Certainly, they seemed to be secondary to his sporting life and to Pilar, for it was there that that he dreamed up new books and taught his sons “how to reel in something that feels like Moby Dick,” that he accidentally shot himself in both legs, fell drunk from the flying bridge, wrote “achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters,” propositioned women, hunted German subs and saved guests and family members from shark attacks. Pilar was “intimately his, and he hers, for twenty-seven-years which were his final twenty-seven-years. She’d lasted through three wives, the Nobel Prize, and all his ruin.” Unfortunately, she may have also contributed to it.

Yet, as Hendrickson notes, it was mainly Hemingway that ruined himself as he continued to self-destruct and alienate people by “telling terrific lies about real people” in his work, which he believed “was somehow more truer than it had actually happened”.  Writing about Hemingway in his book, The True Gen, Denis Brian describes him as a “charming bully and artful sadist who sought to get you drunk in a bar and then take you out into the dark and sucker punch you.” Occasionally, Hemingway shared this opinion of himself once saying to a friend he was “self-righteous, no good and bastardly”. The “son of an old Oak Park doctor and a socially pretentious mother” from a “faith-heavy Midwestern family” got his tempter from his father “who had a propensity to erupt into red rage”. Hemingway’s own anger got worse with time. When his reputation was dwindling he hoped to ingratiate himself with the critics again with the publication of Across the Trees and into the River, a book he thought his best. “I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices,” he wrote, “ and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time”. But the press almost unanimously deemed it “embarrassing” and “held together by blind rage”.  Hemingway took out his anger on his fourth wife, Mary, periodically subjecting her to verbal abuse (“whore, bitch, liar, moron”), countless public infidelities and increasingly manic behaviour.  “At table his favourite and frequent means of protesting any word, glance, gesture or food he doesn’t like,” she wrote to his publisher, “is to put his full, freshly served plate on the floor.” By this point, Hemingway was in his early 50s and “not a well man”.  He suffered with “ringing ears, migraines, hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems, depression, and paranoia – and all these ailments, and others, were not only ageing him at what seemed a far faster rate than his chronological age, but each was prone to balloon up wildly and almost virally before subsiding again.” Years of hard living, as well as physical and cerebral exertion, left Hemingway a shell of a man he once was and he could no longer find solace in anything except Pilar, his wondrous “fishing machine” for which his love only deepened with age.

“I envy you like hell,” wrote Fitzgerald to Hemingway toward the end of his life without realising the irony of his words, for by this point the “twentieth century Byron,” as Hemingway was once described, was no longer the brilliant “voyager in literary modernism” but rather a bitter and ailing scrivener responsible for “egregiously bad” copy. Among the many snapshots of Hemingway offered by posterity, and an array of biographical paraphernalia, the most prevailing one remains that of him as a writer of perhaps fleeting but profound talent. Hendrickson’s work certainly provides another dimension to his legacy, but one which neither adds nor detracts from the place Hemingway had previously occupied. The book offers a cornucopia of information about Hemingway’s sporting passions, which defined most of his life and in a somewhat nebulous way gives a more complete picture of the writer who to a certain extent has been a casualty of his own popularity. But the last word lies with Hemingway, who after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1954 penned a letter to the Swedish Academy, saying: “Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.” And forgotten he will certainly never be.

Seminal Lines

“Here’s to alcohol, the rose coloured glasses of life.”

The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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