Last time we looked into the persistent appeal of The Great Gatsby, a work that has carved its place among the very favorites not only of one generation but of a whole sequence of them. The original novel, published in 1925, was moderately well received, both in commercial and critical terms. While far from a total flop—the book is said to have sold around 20,000 copies in the first year after its publication, and was soon reprinted—it was also not the fist on the table that perhaps Fitzgerald might have wanted it to be, nor the spectacular phenomenon that it later became (and remains to this day: at the time of writing this piece, Gatsby sat inside the top 200 bestsellers in amazon.com, for instance). Today The Great Gatsby serves as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter of introduction—often the only thing anyone needs to read to declare him one of the greatest American writers of all times. But this effusiveness, is it merited? Where does Fitzgerald stand in the Parnassus of American literature—of literature altogether—and why does he belong there in the first place?
One simple answer to that complex question is that Fitzgerald belongs among the best writers of his time simply by association. Part of the fabled Lost Generation, that which had to endure the horror of the Great War and emerged with an intense disregard for social conventions not so much because they were revitalized but because they were irreparably jaded, Fitzgerald’s life is packed with the sort of cliché associated with his times. From his turbulent romance and relationship with Zelda Sayre, whom he would marry in 1920, to his equally turbulent friendship with Ernie Hemingway, his long sojourns in the Paris that to this very day feeds the imagination of the likes of Woody Allen, his opulent spells in the French Riviera, his flirtation with Hollywood, and so on, Fitzgerald is a character who is practically meant to be cherished.
Ironically, during his lifetime Fitzgerald was lauded for his early work, the novels that have not quite survived in our collective memory, and was somewhat reproached for failing to live up to his potential with the works that posthumously have turned him into an icon. This Side of Paradise, his debut in book format, was originally conceived as The Romantic Egotist as early as 1917, when Fitzgerald had been conscripted by the army and was in utter terror of being killed in the war. As things panned out, the world decided to finish its war long before Fitzgerald finished his first full-length piece of fiction—or, for that matter, before he was even shipped out of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Egotist would then be rejected by Scribner’s, but even this setback would serve its purpose because it was during the three years that elapsed from Fitzgerald’s first draft of Egotist (which was lost) to the publication of This Side of Paradise that his relationship with Zelda bloomed as a conflict of purely financial dimensions, which hinged on the vital question of whether or not Fitzgerald could afford Zelda (and her opulent lifestyle). A question, a conflict, an ambition that became central to the final version of the novel.
This Side of Paradise sold out its first print run of 3,000 copies in three days. On the fourth day after its publication Zelda and Francis Scott got married. By the end of the year, Fitzgerald was a celebrity, and by the end of the following year he had sold as many as 50,000 copies of his book. It was time for the follow up to be launched. And it came, right on cue, in the shape of The Beautiful and Damned, a three-part lengthy study of the privileged in the Jazz Age. The Beautiful and Damned was not a fun read back in 1922 when it was published, and it still isn’t over 90 years later. What it is, is a an experimental, carefully crafted and thoughtfully put together analysis of a generation that found itself—and knowingly so—in transition, away from the values of old and uncertain of its destination.
In formal terms, Fitzgerald’s second novel is a mishmash, somehow echoing the anarchic lifestyle of he youngsters it depicts. There’s a combination of prose with drama, of lyrical and more prosaic style, of different perspectives depending on the circumstances, and even of internal voices, that ultimately make the novel spasmodic. Crucially for the modern reputation of his first two books, I believe, the experiments conducted in them—though at times interesting and even elegant—are often unsuccessful, and while they certainly played a fundamental role in the development of Fitzgerald as a writer, they were neither extreme not original enough to be considered seminal in the development of literature in English language: This Side of Paradise has been cited before as the first genuine exploration of the young men and women who were part of the Lost Generation, but it will never be listed among the representative works of avant-garde techniques in the post-war environment.
Which takes us to the core of Fitzgerald’s adult production, and the works that to this day forge his reputation: The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934). When Fitzgerald published Gatsby, just three years after The Beautiful and Damned, he expected (or perhaps just hoped) it would be the work that would propel him to stratospheric levels and cement his place at the pinnacle of the world of American letters. And, of course, it has—quite ironically. But at the time, Gatsby fared no better than his previous novels had (which was well enough, to be sure, but it also represented stagnation in his progress). By far the shortest of his novels, Gatsby is also the only one that clearly moves away from his relationship with Zelda, recreating a reality that was no less troubled but certainly different to his own. In some sense, Gatsby might well be in Fitzgerald’s mind what might have become of his life had he not been able to convince Zelda and her family that he would be able to support her.
While Gatsby constitutes the cornerstone upon which Fitzgerald’s reputation is built, I would argue this spans more from the conceptual notions of the book than from the literary accomplishments in it. Indeed, one of Gatsby’s greatest traits is its length. Practically a novella, Fitzgerald often sidetracks away from the story to build ethical, philosophical and even just anecdotal discourses which often trundle into corny or ponderous grounds. Fortunately, these episodes only last so much, and once Fitzgerald gets back to the tale he wants to tell the reader is again enraptured in the dream of all Americans.
After Gatsby, Fitzgerald took a long break away from full-length fiction, imposed rather by debt and his lifestyle than by design. He turned to the prolific production of short stories to finance his expensive taste and, following film adaptations of The Beautiful and Damned (1922) and The Great Gatsby (1926), he turned to Hollywood as a source of steady income. The seed of Tender Is the Night was planted in Fitzgerald soon after Gatsby, but it was not after Zelda’s battle with schizophrenia in the early 1930s that he embarked on focus work on the novel.
The result is both more flawed, far more uneven, but at times even more mesmerizing than The Great Gatsby. Like The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald’s final completed novel consists of three parts deployed over different timeframes which, however, simply span a period of six years (similar, in this respect, to Gatsby, whose rise and fall takes place within five years). In part one, Dick Diver, a psychoanalyst at the peak of his popularity becomes infatuated with a teenage Hollywood actress. The trouble is that Dick Diver is already married to his own private Zelda—Nicole Warren. Part II tells in enthralling fashion the story of Dick and Nicole, an endlessly rich psychiatric patient who finds in this particular doctor her recipe for sanity. Ultimately, however, their marriage falls apart, with Nicole trading places with her husband, he now an alcoholic, she quite recovered and engaged in an affair of her own.
Like much of Fitzgerald’s fiction, Tender Is the Night is tragic, although the sense of inevitability and the control the male protagonist initially held over the situation allow for a more optimistic interpretation, where perhaps he has planned his own downfall all along. But reading Tender, at times you fall into some sort of trance, imbued, engorged, consumed by the tale of two gorgeous, if somewhat dysfunctional, human beings. Only at times, though. At other times the flow of the narrative becomes clunky, and the pseudo-philosophical, or even purple, Fitzgerald of old resurfaces to the detriment of his own talent. And yet, there is an aura, an energy of sorts, that wraps everything associated with Fitzgerald and his times both in America and in Europe. There is a special romance about the interbellum period that is at once hard to describe, hard to define, hard to explain and impossible to deny. It is just the sort of thing that raise the hair on the back of your neck when you see Man Ray’s portraits of Picasso and Gertrude Stein, of Joyce and Hemingway and Duchamp, of Tzara and Breton, Dali and Ernst—all together. Fitzgerald belonged to this generation, to this miracle, as much as any other of its members, and his novels, though flawed—what isn’t—are integral parts and depictions of a time that was perhaps less glorious than we would like to think, but that should not be forgotten nonetheless. Thankfully, it still isn’t.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on December 28, 2013.