Size isn’t necessarily substance

Gatsby aside, F. Scott Fitzgerald — the Jazz-Age chronicler — is dispensable

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The place of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the pantheon of literary greats is supposedly unassailable, with two of his novels — effectively half his long-form corpus — regularly featuring in critics’ polls of greatest works of fiction. Admittedly, one of those books — The Great Gatsby — justifies its high esteem and any writer who manages to create such a masterpiece before an untimely death at 44 is rightly celebrated. Yet, Gatsby aside, the Jazz-Age chronicler is dispensable.

Fitzgerald’s iron-clad reputation owes much to the fact that, apart from some excavated juvenilia, he was never an unequivocally bad writer, elegant even when he was insubstantial, audacious even when he was boring. Witness his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Published in 1920 when he was just 23, it’s a bildungsroman with a difference.

Fitzgerald’s short stories actually range wider, sociologically and stylistically, than his novels

Parts of it are rendered as verse, parts as playscripts, and even those passages that proffer merely conventional prose exhibit a facility some spend an entire career straining for. It also contains a genuinely eerie section wherein protagonist Amory Blaine is convinced a man he sees at a party is Satan.

Yet it suffers from the same massive flaw as Fitzgerald’s second novel. The Beautiful and Damned (1922) is informed by the spirit of Zelda Sayre, the Southern belle whom Fitzgerald famously fell for, married and then had to nurse through debilitating mental illness. She provides the model for Gloria, wife of protagonist Anthony Patch.

Zelda’s background gave Fitzgerald an insight into a province far removed from his preferred East Coast elites and he would acquire an unlikely flair for good-ol’-boy vernacular as a consequence. However, Zelda — whose father was a judge — was no horny handed daughter of toil. Gloria’s biggest crisis comes when the movie role she is offered is that of a middle-aged woman, not the spry siren she still imagines herself to be. Patch, meanwhile, is a bourgeois but profligate young man fighting a drawn-out battle to overturn the will of a grandfather whom he disdained but sucked up to in order to become his main beneficiary.

Fitzgerald is not uncritical of such people, but the rarefied air in which his characters operate is still suffocating for the reader. There is rarely a sense of consequence. The people dotting his vistas of debutante balls, country clubs, chic hotels and European beaches might occasionally suffer a social, financial or emotional tumble, but only so far as a goose-feather stuffed safety mattress. Fitzgerald couldn’t help where he came from, but neither can we help thinking, “Who gives a toss about these people’s problems?”

Fitzgerald published as many story collections (four) as novels, and there were oodles more of his short-form works dotting the pages of the likes of Collier’s, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post that wouldn’t be anthologised until after his death. Only a handful of his shorts, however, have substance, such as the surprise-ending, jilted-then-unjilted suitor story “Presumption” (1926). Similarly “The Vegetable” (1923) is a clever, amusing, risqué and innovative chronicle of a negligibly ambitious postman whose marriage to a social climber somehow propels him to the presidency, all written in mock-playscript form.

Fitzgerald’s short stories actually range wider, sociologically and stylistically, than his novels. In “The Offshore Pirate” (1920) he tells the tall tale of a spoilt young woman whose heart is won by a destitute but charismatic buccaneer who turns out in fact to be a well-heeled imposter who has cooked up a plot to thaw her frosty heart.

In “The Ice Palace” (also 1920) the author evocatively describes a terrifyingly labyrinthian, man-made frozen structure which acts as an allegory for a Southern woman’s disillusion with her Northern fiancé. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (1922) resembles a philosophical twist on the exotic-adventure shtick of H. Rider Haggard, replete with a hidden kingdom, a megalomaniacal billionaire and a mountaintop that’s actually a gigantic gem. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922) impressively sustains a reverse-age conceit.

All such stories are divinely constructed, continually reminding us that this man emphatically knows how to string a sentence together. For all their craft and eventfulness, though, almost none of Fitzgerald’s stories have a sense of a satisfying narrative arc. They merely take us on a comfortable ride to nowhere in particular.

Almost none of Fitzgerald’s stories have a sense of a satisfying narrative arc

One can forgive Fitzgerald a lot because of his third novel. The Great Gatsby (1925) is truly as good as critics say. It’s significant that Fitzgerald is, unusually for his long-form fiction, not dealing in autobiography, which in turn refreshingly results in him depicting across the length of a novel an individual who doesn’t hail from relatively cossetted environs. Although the titular Gatsby has travelled beyond his social rank, the underlying message is not a validation of the American Dream.

It’s implied by bond-salesman neighbour and story narrator Nick Carraway that the felonious way Gatsby has done so is the only one open to someone from his class. This shortish meditation on love, treachery and caste unfurls quite sublimely. Its tone is temperate, its pace smooth, and its facility with language entrancing, which only makes its violent, spite-drenched denouement all the more powerful.

We’re supposed to believe that Tender is the Night (1934), the final novel of Fitzgerald’s lifetime, is on Gatsby’s level. In fact, it’s exasperating. The story of a husband and wife afflicted by alcoholism and mental illness respectively may have a tragic aura through our knowledge of the book’s autobiographical nature, and its subplot about childhood sexual abuse is certainly bold, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an effort to read.

Not only are stretches of it achingly slow, but it veritably lurches between points of view, in some places from paragraph to paragraph. It also proffers some absurdly flowery and meaningless prose (“Rosemary, as dewy with belief as a child from one of Mrs. Burnett’s vicious tracts, had a conviction of homecoming, of a return from the derisive and salacious improvisations of the frontier”).

Fitzgerald’s novels didn’t just get more poncy, they become more exclusive. It’s futile to pass aesthetic judgment on the posthumous, unfinished The Last Tycoon (1941) when its author never signed off on it. But, with its cast of movie-studio moguls and celluloid starlets, one can observe that its depicted tribulations are somewhat mink-lined.

Fitzgerald’s soul-destroying, alcoholism-inducing attempts to make it as a Tinseltown screenwriter certainly prove that the industry can be a bastard, but the contrast between such tableaux and the travails of those at the bottom of the heap in the Great Depression — still ongoing when the book was being written — is rather grisly to contemplate.

When Fitzgerald died in 1940, he left behind a surprisingly large oeuvre, but this just proves that size isn’t necessarily substance. Surveying it, one is left with an inescapable feeling of slightness. Only the deep goodwill engendered by the exquisite Gatsby makes one disinclined to utter the cruel phrase, “One-Hit Wonder.”

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