Jason Cowley
 
 
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  Beautiful but damned

Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship
Scott Donaldson
John Murray, £25, 352pp

Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby
edited by James LW West
Cambridge University Press, £30, 192pp

The Guardian, April 8th 2000

No one has written more elegiacally about America than F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a young man, even as he was enjoying early success, Fitzgerald remained oppressed by feelings of inauthenticity. He felt powerfully that something important was missing from his life, and spoke repeatedly of the "hauntedness" of his novel The Great Gatsby.

It is not difficult to understand what he meant: a sense of lost time and the irretrievability of the past gave Gatsby as well as much of his work - indeed, his life - an undercurrent of mourning. "All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them," he reflected in the autobiographical essay "Early Success", written in 1937 when he had already entered the long twilight of his short career.

More than a decade earlier, high on the thin air of his own celebrity after the triumphant publication of his debut, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald was travelling along Broadway in an open-top car. It was a warm night, and he was drunk and exhilarated. The future seemed infinitely inviting. Then, bafflingly, he began to cry - because, he knew, "life would never be so sweet again".

This story, found in Andre Le Vot's F. Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin, 1984), is archetypal Fitzgerald: at once poignant and self-savouringly sentimental. A similar sense of fragility was present in the distinctive moments of his best work - in Gatsby's doomed quest to recapture the past, in the failed psychiatrist Dick Diver's slow retreat from the world in Tender is the Night, in the unhappy romance of the story "Winter Dreams". Fitzgerald was a compulsive nostalgic, locating happiness in the search for sensation rather than in its realisation; in the dream of desire, not in its fulfilment.

This Side of Paradise was published when Fitzgerald was 24. It amiably recasts the wasted promise of his Princeton years as a frivolous romance elevated by flights of transcendence. This was followed by The Beautiful and the Damned, which is about the excesses of the idle rich; and then, improbably, in 1925, by The Great Gatsby, perhaps the most perfect short novel in the English language. It is on this - along with Tender is the Night, the unfinished The Last Tycoon and some of the more accomplished stories - that his reputation rests.

After Gatsby, it seemed as if Fitzgerald had nowhere else to go. Once past 30, his descent into alcoholism was swift. His subsequent struggles make for a familiar story; indeed, an overfamiliar one. Scott Donaldson, who has been writing about Fitzgerald and Hemingway for more than 40 years, chronicles this narrative of decline all over again: the intense, difficult relationship Fitzgerald had with his unstable wife, Zelda; the ambivalent self-positioning; the aimless wandering in Europe; the last wretched years as a hack writer in Hollywood before his fatal heart attack in 1940.

In one sense, Fitzgerald willed himself into decline. His father was a failed businessman from Maryland, and as a child Scott was encouraged to nurture a wistful romanticism about the American South, with its faded elegance, genteel old families and confederate honour. He nurtured, too, a cult of doomed youth, whereby to be young and beautiful (and certainly rich) was to be most fully alive, and to be old was nothing.

As Hemingway once told him: "You put so much damned value on youth it seemed to me that you confused growing up with growing old." Above all, the young Fitzgerald nurtured the idea of falling in love, preferably painfully with an unobtainable rich girl, which he did soon enough when, before leaving for Princeton, he met a girl called Ginerva King. She would become the model for all those rich, lovely, careless women in his stories and novels.

Yet out of this essentially jejune adolescent sensibility Fitzgerald constructed a poetics of romantic despair, succeeding in conveying, as the critic HL Mencken put it, something of the "inexplicable tragedy of being alive".

You won't find Mencken's remark in Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald. In fact, you will find very little of interest at all if you have read any previous Fitzgerald biographies, notably Le Vot's. Like Jeffrey Meyers, another American much drawn to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Donaldson operates as a kind of high-class literary gossip, scattering speculations about penis size and chatter about money like cheap confetti. He seems unwilling or unable to separate the life from the work, so that every fictional event finds its locus in actuality.

Like Meyers, he writes with mechanical efficiency. Practical criticism and close reading are kept to a perfunctory minimum, and language is hurried into cliché - Hemingway, we are told, "cuts a romantic figure", critics "sing his praises" and, worst of all, his son is "built like a brick shithouse".

What is best about the book is Donaldson's engagement with American literary celebrity. He understands how the great writer's life is a monument of striving, paranoia and anguished rivalry; how competition between writers can be endless. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway urgently wanted early success, as if, like someone with a congenital heart condition, they knew that time was short. Both produced their best work before they were 30.

At first, they were extremely supportive of each other - Fitzgerald in particular, recommending his younger friend to his editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, and offering valuable critiques of what became The Sun Also Rises (1926). Slowly, their friendship was corrupted by competition. Fitzgerald knew that Hemingway was the more innovative writer; that his anti-style, stripped of all excessive ornamentation, was something new in American letters (although the tough journalistic prose of Stephen Crane was a precursor). But above all, Fitzgerald envied Hemingway's vigorous worldliness, his swagger, confidence and adventurism.

As Fitzgerald sickened, becoming less productive and more isolated as he entered his 30s, so Hemingway flourished, even as his own fiction became more formulaic. And as Hemingway flourished, so he came to loathe his former mentor. In private he referred to Fitzgerald as "poor old Scott", mocking his drinking and reliance on his wife, Zelda. After Fitzgerald's death, he wrote: "What a lovely writer he was within his ignorance and lack of education, and his adoration of the rich. He should have been a spaniel."

What is most unpleasant about this remark is the way Hemingway seizes on the widespread idea that Fitzgerald was no more than a literary barbarian, a fool who someone wrote a great novel. Edmund Wilson, an old friend from Princeton, was fond of saying that "F. Scott Fitzgerald mispronounces more words than any educated person [I] know". (Privately, the same Wilson, having re-read Gatsby, could also write enviously of how "much better Fitzgerald's prose and dramatic sense were than mine".)

The real hero of Donaldson's study, though, is neither of the rivalrous writers, but the editor Maxwell Perkins, who never ceased encouraging and believing in Fitzgerald, especially during the nine troubled years he took to complete Tender is the Night. A selection of the correspondence between them is published as an appendix to Trimalchio, an early version of Gatsby submitted to Scribner's during the summer of 1924. It reminds us how important Perkins was in smoothing the novel into the form we know today, encouraging Fitzgerald to rework several chapters and even questioning the position of certain commas.

Fitzgerald, who died at the age of 44, never came close to emulating the achievements of his twenties. His last years, spent in Hollywood, were particularly wretched. His only consolation was the memory of his talent: he had always known that he was good. "I feel I have an enormous power in me now," he told Perkins while revising Gatsby. We still feel that power today, 75 years after the first publication of a novel that is, I think, the verbal equivalent of perfect pitch.


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