Books

F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’d Die for You

Bob Dylan sang, “You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books/you’re very well read, it’s well known” about someone who knew something was happening but didn’t know what it was. Was that like Fitzgerald? Pretty early on he started saying, “I used to have a beautiful talent once, baby”, and his talent was to say that kind of thing and to have lived the nightmare with Zelda – she went haywire, he was a drunk – that became a legend.

So we pore over this uncovered collection of stories no one saw fit to publish. Fitzgerald exhibited a beautiful talent at least once, in The Great Gatsby, one of the greatest short novels in the language and arguably the most widely read literary work of the first rank in the past hundred years. 

There he hit on a story tragic and romantic enough to be commensurate with his capacity for drama. If he had always written like this, or every so often, he would be the T. S. Eliot of fiction. 

But he didn’t. The Beautiful and Damned and This Side of Paradise are high-coloured juvenilia. Tender Is the Night starts ravishingly – at least in the version that begins in long shot on the French Riviera – but then dissipates when we see Dick Diver as a psychiatrist in the Swiss sanatorium treating a mad Nicole. There’s some beautiful phrasing and it’s a poignant symbolic expression of the Scott and Zelda story, but not much more. Perhaps the unfinished one, The Last Tycoon, might have amounted to something.

Otherwise what do we have? The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, The Crack-Up and a handful of short pieces that glitter in the mind and testify to the fact that Fitzgerald was one of those writers, in literature as in life, who was a gorgeous personality but who falls like Lucifer, never to rise again. 

His friend Edmund Wilson, the critic, recounted the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s description of Fitzgerald as being like an ignorant old woman with a beautiful diamond  never more ignorant than in what she said about the diamond. Anne Margaret Daniel, who has edited this volume of Fitzgerald castaways, would have none of this and has assembled these pieces like the biggest diamonds the Ritz ever saw. There are film script treatments for that duo of Hollywood zanies, George Burns and Gracie Allen, there are sketches for movies she thinks Hitchcock could have filmed, there are stories so cheesy and cheap that even The Saturday Evening Post, which had created the taste for this kind of thing, wouldn’t touch them. 

Hemingway and Fitzgerald were both popular writers in a way that’s hard to get your head around for people we’ve seen for a long time as creators of modern classics, but it’s Hemingway who was resolutely serious as a fiction writer and Fitzgerald who was the commercial hack. 

“The rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “Yes,” Hemingway replied, “they have more money.” But it went beyond that with Fitzgerald, and the portrait of Daisy and the ghostly never-quite-credible gangsterism of Gatsby himself are expressions of some intimation of an aristocracy of the spirit that is golden with the legend of riches as the tokens of hope. 

This volume drips with the grandeur of a man who strove to write for a fortune and could use every formula in sight in order to conjure huge fees from magazines with readerships that devoured him the way we watch long-form television such as The Crown

And what charm he had even when he was at his most ruined. A young doctor calls into a house, somewhere on the leisured Atlantic seaboard, and meets a delicious haughty girl. He’s substituting for the senior partner, but he has to minister to a truculent 13-year-old boy. Then there’s a mad scene in a car with a jealous husband and he’s rescued by the punk kid who pretends to be a gangster. And how does he go with the girl? Well, just you guess. 

In another story, a characteristically cool young damsel has a tiff with her Ivy League boyfriend – he’s destined to be an archaeologist, the kind of profession Fitzgerald plucks from the air like a butterfly – and in order to torment him and herself she attaches herself by an act of will to a likeable dumb hunk of a college footballer and becomes involved  – quite improbably – in handling his worldly fortunes by conniving at a scheme to get him money, which in fact violates his amateur status. And then, to make matters worse, blackmail comes into the picture. Guess who she ends up with? 

These sorts of stories have a honeyed charm, they are skilful and slick and they keep you reading like so many flickering impossible-to-look-away-from images on the TV screen of the mind. 

Most of the stories in I’d Die for You are not in this category. It’s not that the very best of these stories are art, but they are accomplished entertainment; most of the things here are commercial writing that hasn’t been properly finished or polished. 

Sometimes they’re about visions of the Madonna, sometimes they’re about couples ready to separate, terrorised by other couples who serve as butler and cook. 

They are fodder for scholars besotted by Fitzgerald, but not for tragics who can – with a few exceptions here – content themselves with the pre-existent collections. 

But what a charmer he was, Fitzgerald. The birds in the trees, the sharks in the sea, who could ever resist him?

When T. S. Eliot said The Great Gatsby was the most interesting novel he had read since the death of Henry James, James had been dead only a few years. But what a power of prophecy that remark had. Poor Scott and Zelda, with their tragic marriage, became the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of literary legend, the consummate icons of style and dysfunction. The funny thing was that in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald had been something else – a Nijinsky figure, deranged and damaged, but an incomparably great artist.  QSS

Scribner, 384pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’d Die for You". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: QSS