Monday 19 February 2018

'A ragtag bundle of surprises and delights'

Fiction: I'd Die For You And Other Lost Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Scribner €15.99

Family album snapshot of the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda sitting on a lawn at her mother’s home
Family album snapshot of the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda sitting on a lawn at her mother’s home

Ben Lawrence

Dorothy Parker once said that F Scott Fitzgerald "can write a bad piece, but he can't write badly". Fitzgerald himself was often dismissive of his work, particularly the short stories that dominated the two decades of his writing life.

He saw them as unimportant trifles, preludes to his novels, and many critics tended to believe him.

But among the several hundred stories in print, which span the brashness of the Jazz Age and the introspection of the inevitable comedown, there are several masterpieces: The Baby Party, Babylon Revisited, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, each deftly evoking a place and a time - usually a party of the Bright Young Things - before disorienting you with the sudden appearance of a big, intoxicating theme, a universal truth.

This much-vaunted collection of lost stories, each with a useful preface by the book's editor, Anne Margaret Daniel, is a ragtag bundle of surprises, curios, irrelevancies and delights. There are no shiny ingots, but many enrich our understanding of Fitzgerald, a man riven by insecurity, irritated by impecunity and nearly broken by his own mental fragility and that of his wife, Zelda.

In fact, psychiatric instability features more than once, most notably in Nightmare, which gulls you with a typically patrician vista. "In a pleasant section of New Hampshire, on a hill that is white in the winter and green in the summer, four or five houses stand near each other. On a spring afternoon all the doors and windows of the largest and most elaborate house are thrown open towards the tennis courts; often the sound of a violin and piano drifts out upon the summer air." In fact, it is a mental hospital, with soft edges smoothing over jagged secrets.

The title work, rejected by several magazines for being a "suicide story", considers death at your own hand to be "like jumping into a basket of many-coloured skies". It also touches on the emotional harm done to those living inside the Hollywood bubble. "I was never so disillusioned as when I saw the real Versailles and thought of the one Conger built in '29," notes the assistant director Wilkie Prout. With reality such a disappointment, you know that things are going to end badly.

Indeed, the curse of Hollywood permeates this collection. Hack work such as Gracie at Sea, a vehicle for the nauseating Gracie Allen, shows that Fitzgerald had little but disdain for what he was being expected to write. The same is true of Travel Together, which is the story of a screenwriter with writer's block who meets a pretty girl on a southern train bound for Nowheresville, and silver-screen inanities burst forth: "The white glints in her eyes cracked the heavens as diamond would crack glass."

Those critical of Fitzgerald's short stories will often cite his preoccupation with external beauty and the emerging fissures as reasons why they are inferior to his weightier undertakings. Certainly that is validated here in entries such as Offside Play, about romance among Ivy League jocks. "At present I'm one of those dreadful people who have everything," declares Kiki, a vapid New Englander who does little to make the reader care about her or the story.

But elsewhere, Fitzgerald surprises you. Thumbs Up and Dentist Appointment are variant versions of a tale about the American Civil War (Fitzgerald always maintained that he wanted to write an epic novel on the subject). Sometimes it feels as if he is projecting his own contemporary preoccupations on to the 1860s - "She stood desolately looking at the torn rosettes in the soup dish of felt. All her experiences with Tib had been like that," - but at others he does succeed in evoking a period only known to him through the long lens of history - the betrayal, the paranoia, the uncertainty.

Readers will have to wade through 250-odd pages until they get to the best material, shards of Fitzgerald's greatest work. Salute to Lucy and Elsie is a queasy, rather shocking story about a father who intercepts his son's letters and builds a fantasy about his sex life.

The Couple is a strange, fantastical piece about a man and wife on the brink of separation whose hiring of an eccentric, malevolent English couple as domestics draws them back together. Some of it plays out like a wonky farce (particularly the passage containing the fate of Twine, the family's miniature poodle), yet it is always anchored to the usual concerns of damaged relationships, described in a beautifully lapidary style: "The culmination of the tragedy took place on the great wide comfortable sofa, which was almost the oldest possession of their married life."

The fact that many of these stories were composed in the grip of alcoholism is astonishing. Sometimes Fitzgerald appeared to be a jovial boozer; in an article for The New Yorker in 1929, he compiled a diary of his life in drinks: "1922: Kaly's creme de cacao cocktails; 1923: oceans of Canadian ale." But the writer Louis Bromfield, who knew the Fitzgeralds in Paris, found that alcohol inflamed his insecurities: "Like many Irishmen [he was born in America, but both his parents had Irish ancestry], when he became drunk he usually became very disagreeable and rude and quarrelsome, as if all his resentments were released at once."

A little drink helped Fitzgerald to write; a little more made him write drivel.

Ultimately, this is an uneven collection - and Fitzgerald himself would say as much - but we can still marvel at the strength of his imagination, his display of elegance and precision.

© Telegraph

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