Saturday, November 16, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up

On I press with the posthumously-collected Fitzgerald.  This one was published in 1945 and consists
of three sections.  First come essays - short non-fiction pieces from his 1930s, most of which were actually published during his lifetime.  Second is something called "The Notebooks," which it appears that Fitzgerald had compiled before his death, but which also seems to bear the mark of editor Edmund Wilson, pretty deeply.  Third is letters, both to and from FSF.  My short take is that the first section is brilliant, I should have skipped the second section, and I did skip the third section.

The essays are the best thing of Fitzgerald's I've read outside of Gatsby.  Maybe better than that, although I'll admit that one probably wouldn't bother to read these if it wasn't for that.  But they're good enough to make me suspect that the essay might have been Fitzgerald's true metier, something that never could have been allowed him in his day because of the overwhelming prestige, in America, of the Novel.

Partly they're brilliant, but doomed to obscurity, because of their autobiographical nature.  This is clearly true of the title essays, dealing with Fitzgerald's own problems with alcohol.  These are full of insightful, beautifully embittered writing, and as Patricia Hampl points out, they were decades ahead of their time.  His decision to deal with his problems in non-fiction form (however successfully he obliqued them in these essays) seems to have been seen as an admission of artistic defeat by his peers, or worse:  sensationalism.  Now it's much easier to recognize that therein lies the art.  Now we've realized that Literature can, and in fact always has, included non-fiction writing.

I don't know, though;  maybe I'm a little more conscious of that than some?  Steeped as I am in the J-lit, where this kind of thing is not just accepted, but expected.  Any 20th century writer with an audience seems to have volumes and volumes of this kind of thing.  Not just the confessional, but also the ruminative, the playful, the acerbic, the documentary - all notes that the other essays in this volume hit.

Anyway, any reader who at all cares about Fitzgerald simply must read "Echoes of the Jazz Age" and "My Lost City," since they contain some of his most enduring writing on his own age.  And any reader who's interested in Fitzgerald as a modernist, an experimental writer, needs to read "Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number - ", cowritten with Zelda;  nothing more than a long, vivid catalog of hotels stayed in, making the reader feel at first dazzled, then nauseated, then amused, then somehow enlightened.

It's worth noting that FSF's writing, his style, in these pieces is polished to the highest sheen.  He reads like a man unleashed here, allowed to concentrate on the words because the story has taken care of itself.  Check out this sentence, from the eulogy to Ring Lardner, "Ring":  "His intentions, his will, once in motion, were formidable factors in dealing with him - he always did every single thing he said he would do."  Note how perfectly the words fit together, but also how the sentence does what it describes:  it starts slow, convoluted, like a man whose intentions aren't yet sorted out, but then as it progresses it starts to move and takes on a single-minded purpose, so that it culminates in that glorious string of monosyllables.


The Notebooks sounded like a good idea at first, but that was because I misunderstood what that idea was.  They looked to me like a kind of Pillow Book, like a collection of random, or random-feeling, jottings on various topics, where the variety and unstructured nature is part of the charm.  Coming straight out of the essays in the first part of the book this seemed promising, but in fact it got tedious very quickly.  There's just too much randomness here - unlike Sei Shonagon he's not actually consciously addressing any of the categories these fragments are placed into.  Rather it seems that these are bits and pieces he either jotted down or lifted from short stories he otherwise didn't want to preserve;  the categories were imposed after the writing.  And the fragments mostly read like snippets from longer, more coherent pieces.  Not a satisfying read at all.

Especially because I started in on Bits of Paradise right after, and am finding passages from the Notebooks right and left in these stories.  And they work much better here.  The Notebooks can be skipped.

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