A brief survey of the short story part 15
F Scott Fitzgerald
He himself belittled them, and critics have followed suit, but these stories have a rare poise and beautyChris Power
Wednesday 4 March 2009 08.00 GMT
In 1940, the year F Scott Fitzgerald died, his books – four novels and four short story collections – sold 72 copies. A precocious youthful talent, Fitzgerald embodied both the heady excess of the Jazz Age and its demise. Following the Great Crash of 1929 he suffered a decade of diminished standing and reduced ability offset only by the late renaissance of The Love of the Last Tycoon, unfinished at the time of his death. (The unfinished book was published in 1941 as The Last Tycoon, which provided the basis for the 1976 film.)
Fitzgerald encouraged comparisons between his life and work. At the 1920 American Bookseller's Association convention he enclosed an "Author's Apology" in copies of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, suggesting it had been dashed off between highballs. Its writing, he claimed, was "a substitute form of dissipation".
Such humorous self-mythologising contrasts starkly with The Crack-Up, an article Fitzgerald wrote for Esquire magazine in 1936. By then his wife, Zelda, was in a mental institution, his output had slumped, and his fortune had reassembled itself into debt. The article contains a line that could stand as an epigraph to much of his literary output: "... the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness."
Fitzgerald sold more than 150 stories – for as much as $4,000 apiece in the 1920s – to magazines, but he demeaned them to his peers, characterising them as, at best, testing grounds for the important work of the novels. As his biographer, Matthew J Bruccoli, writes, his "disparagement of his stories has persuaded critics to classify most of them as facile potboilers".
This attitude persists. It seems significant that Penguin's edition of the stories, unlike the novels, lacks an introduction. Yet The Rich Boy, The Bridal Party, The Baby Party (which directly influenced Richard Yates and Raymond Carver), The Last of the Belles and Babylon Revisited, among others, rank alongside Fitzgerald's best work. Some might dislike their preoccupation with the leisure class, but the complaint is offset by the way in which these stories, each intensely alive, possess an extraordinary sense of emotional, social and geographical space, and display the author's acute sense of when to allow the writing to unfold, so that the particulars of the story fall away to show the world entire.
This same effect is displayed in The Swimmers (1929) when Henry Marston, forerunner of Dick Diver, is swimming off the coast of Virginia and reflecting on his troubled marriage and his children. Suddenly Fitzgerald changes gear, writing, "Far out past the breakers he could survey the green-and-brown line of the Old Dominion with the pleasant impersonality of a porpoise", and then, three sentences later:
"Americans … should be born with fins, and perhaps they were – perhaps money was a form of fin. In England property begot a strong place sense, but Americans, restless and with shallow roots, needed fins and wings. There was even a recurrent idea in America about an education that would leave out history and the past, that should be a sort of equipment for aerial adventure, weighed down by none of the stowaways of inheritance or tradition."
Such shifts recur throughout Fitzgerald's work, and succeed thanks to the care he takes over character. The expansive quality of Henry's thoughts as he bobs in the water would seem false if we had not already been privy to those regarding his adulterous wife. Rather than being yanked from Henry's problems to the grander thoughts of his creator, we follow a train of thought step-by-step as it dilates from the particular to the general.
In this manner, Fitzgerald's stories grapple with individual emotions while at the same time operating on a far larger stage; one reason why Gatsby is frequently mentioned in discussions about "the great American novel", and the reason why Babylon Revisited (1931) stands as probably his greatest achievement in the short story form. An account of the previously dissolute Charlie Wales's attempt to convince his daughter's guardians that he has reformed, it implies not only the hazardously fragile nature of Charlie's desire to be a better person, but also the entire giddy rush of the 1920s, of youthful success and its seamy underbelly, and of the shellshock experienced by a generation when their limitless, impregnable world collapsed around them. In short, it is a devastating essay on the nature of what its author would later term "qualified unhappiness".
Can someone who could write stories of such subtle power really have held them in such low regard? I think not, and Fitzgerald seemed to admit as much, albeit privately, when he wrote in a notebook:
"I have asked a lot of my emotions – 120 stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was a little drop of something – not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story ..."
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger