Wednesday, October 23, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Taps at Reveille (1935)

So I'm still occasionally pressing on with my Fitzgerald obsession.  I am obsessive with things like this, and sometimes, when it's driven by past experience and future promise of joy, I consider it a good thing.  But sometimes it's just a neurotic inability to cut my losses and get out.  I was starting to feel that way about Fitzgerald:  after reading Gatsby I decided to read All of Fitzgerald, something I'd long been curious about.  Then I realized that of his novels only Tender is the Night and The Love of the Last Tycoon come close, and not too close at that;  and that his short stories, while sometimes striking and sometimes amusing, don't come any closer.  So I got burned out.  But here I am, reading Taps at Reveille.

It was the last collection he published during his lifetime, the last he oversaw.  The first half of it consists of all of the Basil and Josephine stories he saw fit to reprint, but those are best read in the posthumous collection by that name.   That leaves ten stories, a book-length volume in itself.

The best, by far, is "Babylon Revisited," and since that's frequently anthologized the casual Fitzgerald reader may be better off reading it elsewhere.  It's a masterpiece, maybe the only one of his short stories that I've read that touches Gatsby's power and grace.  It's got his familiar faults - the villain, the obstacle, is a woman, and she's depicted with scant empathy.  But the elegiac tone leaves a deep impression, and the protagonist's guilty self-control leaves a mark. 

Does it gain from being read in context?  Maybe.  The title of this collection asks us to think in terms of elegies, of laments for something that ended before it really even got started.  And a couple of the other stories suggest that theme:  "Crazy Sunday," with its delicious adulterous flirtation turned to ashes in the mouth by the death of the Other Man;  "The Last of the Belles" and "Majesty," two more, but still effective, foxtrots to Fitzgerald's familiar theme of the shockingly precocious young woman whose freshness is belied by her cynicism.  So:  maybe.

The volume also contains some more experiments, along the lines of "Benjamin Button" or "Tarquin of Cheapside."  There's the Civil War story "The Night of Chancellorsville" and the ghost story "A Short Trip Home."  Most interesting of these is "Family in the Wind," because it seems to show Fitzgerald trying to be Faulkner.  It's a failure, even embarrassing - it's not possible to believe Fitzgerald's sudden attempt at empathy with poor rural people - but it's revealing that he'd try this.  And that he'd elect to reprint it in his lifetime, when so many of his other short stories didn't make his cut.

No comments: