Tuesday, November 19, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Bits of Paradise

And further on into the posthumous stuff.  Bits of Paradise was published in 1974 and collects 11
previously uncollected stories of FSF's, plus ten of Zelda's (a later edition added one more FSF story, "Dice, Brassknuckles, & Guitar" - I didn't read that version). 

I didn't read the Zelda stories.  I don't have anything against Zelda, but to be honest I'm not sure how I feel about having her short stories only made available as an adjunct to Scott's;  and I'm pretty sure that if I read her I want to read her separately, so that I can pay attention to her for her own sake, rather than as an adjunct to Scott.  Then again, if I'd been making the publishing decisions back in '74 and I'd had that attitude, it might have meant her stories never got collected at all.  I'm not sure which is worse.  Luckily I don't have to make that decision.  Just when to read her.  So:  later.

The one exception I made was for "Our Own Movie Queen," which is credited jointly to both of them;  the notes say Scott probably only wrote the climax.  If that's the case, then Zelda's a pretty damn good writer in her own right, based on this story and the co-credited essays in The Crack-Up.  The editor's intro doesn't think much of this story, dismissing it as typical popular fiction of the time.  Maybe I'm just responding in innocence, not having read much popular fiction of the time.  But it's a great story - fresh, vivacious, witty, spunky.  '20s in a way that one always comes to F. Scott's fiction expecting but seldom actually finds.

Of the Scott solo stories, many have been reprinted in what's currently the standard Fitzgerald short-story anthology.  And I won't argue with that selection:  "A New Leaf," "The Swimmers," "The Hotel Child," "Last Kiss," these are indeed the best stories in the book.  But the book's worth seeking out anyway, because most of the other stories are almost as good.  In particular, "The Popular Girl" really struck me.  It's double the length of his typical magazine story, which makes it practically a novella, and it has a correspondingly deeper realization of its main character and her storyline.  It doesn't particularly break with convention, and it has a pat storybook ending that I've learned to think is par for the course with his magazine writing, but it's well-written, well-plotted, and the protagonist, a young woman staving off sudden poverty by trading on her looks, hoping for the one big score, is presented in an admirably complicated way.

Most of these, according to the editor, were left out of Fitzgerald's authorized collections because he had taken their best or most meaningful bits for his full-length novels.  That policy of his was a shame, I think, because the short stories, at their best, have a focus and impact that his novels (always excepting Gatsby) sometimes lack, for all their compensating glories.  Take "A New Leaf," "The Swimmers," and "The Hotel Child."  All of them work the theme of Americans in Europe, innocence vs. experience, who's exploiting whom, and one of them throws in alcoholism;  as such they're clearly leading up to Tender is the Night.  But none of them feel too similar to the novel - he obviously transmuted his feelings greatly in coming up with the novel - and so these stories stand beautifully on their own.  In fact they complement the novel wonderfully.  "The Hotel Child" trades in caricature, of vampiric Europeans sucking the life (=money) out of fresh young Americans - but it does it so vividly, and so wittily, that it's hard to object.  And it's balanced out by "The Swimmers," which does a much better job than anything in Tender at getting at why Americans (of that generation) might have preferred living in Europe despite all that.

"Last Kiss" is kind of an exception.  Written in 1940, it wasn't collected primarily because Fitzgerald died soon after.  But even if he'd lived, he probably would have let it languish because it's clearly dealing with material he was working on for The Love of the Last Tycoon.  And while because that's incomplete we'll never know, here too the short story might just be better.  With tremendous economy it suggests all the great feeling behind the romance in that novel, and does a much better job of working in the British-American cultural subject - the unease, the resentment, that can't help but disrupt the relationship.  One empire dying, grasping at the youth of the one about to reach maturity.  It's all here.

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