I will freely admit to not being a great fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald to date, having read The Great Gatsby and finding it dull and superficial. This rather underwhelming reading experience has meant that I have not read Fitzgerald for about 20 years (!). However, I am of the opinion that you should sometimes return to authors who you have previously found uninteresting and uninspiring as tastes change as you get older in many things and this is true of reading as much as it is for food or culture.
I knew the tale of Benjamin Button from the film with Brad Pitt, although I have to confess that I have not watched it and had no idea that it was based on a Fitzgerald story. However, the premise of the story did pique my interest as it’s absurd, isn’t it? That a man is born aged, in his seventies and on the verge of dying only to then get gradually younger as the years go on, ending his life as a baby, losing his memories and awareness and reverting to a blank canvas again. Bizarre. I was interested to read it.
I have to say that this collection started off well and it took me a long time to reach the actual story of Benjamin Button as it was one of the tales right at the end of the book. But the getting there was not wholly unpleasureable.
The book opens well with its first story called The Offshore Pirate which is a quirky love story that involves the hijack of a boat, a hidden island and some idyllic living away from society until it encroaches on their paradise once more. It was romantic and warm and light-hearted in a style reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse. It made me laugh and reminded me of old school Hollywood movies with its technicolour idealism and happy ending.
And this is true of many tales in this collection that tell of society’s privileged white folk in the fin-de-siécle period of the 19th century and the new indulgences of the 20th. There are parties, drunken high japes, love affairs and broken engagements, all jolly with some elements of mild distress but nothing Earth quaking.
However, the latter part of the book becomes considerably darker and I can only guess that this is as a result of our author becoming more experienced throughout his life and being exposed personally to the bleaker aspects that this earthly existence can throw at a person. It could well be the World War at the start of the 20th century that marred the frivolity of his characters who previously prospered in the early stories. There is nothing like a war to create sobriety of mood.
I don’t know much biographically about Fitzgerald so this turn of tone could well be a reflection of something that happened to him solely but whatever it is that influenced him is manifested in stories like The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and May Day, which gives them a gravitas, a weightiness that permeates his narrative and is more solid throughout the storytelling, and the humour, if there is any, is definitely less light-hearted.
This is also true of Tarquin of Cheapside which is set in Tudor London and tells of a man escaping his pursuers by hiding at a friend’s house. It is quite unsettling on many levels as it seems to suggest that a bastion of English Literature wrote one of his works as a result of a reprehensible assault on an innocent, his chasers being the protective brothers of the victim. I don’t like having my view of someone who I see as venerable tarnished and I’m not sure if there is any historical grounding for this story but it has skewed a perspective of mine that was previously certain.
The Diamond as Big as the Ritz requires some discussion as it is one of the stories which is well known independently of this collection. It tells the story of John Unger who is invited to his friend, Percy’s home in the Montana mountains. Percy maintains that his father is the richest man in the world, his mansion and its environs having been built on top of the biggest diamond in existence. Percy’s ancestors have mined this resource for years and this has caused their enormous wealth but the struggle to keep this to themselves for their sole benefit has taken a toll on their moral fibre, causing them to become ruthless in their pursuit of maintaining secrecy.
There is a sense that this tale is an allegory, a parable of some sort: the preservation of wealth to the Washingtons has become all-encompassing so Fitzgerald is deriding greed at the expense of humanity; John comes from a place called Hades and has to return there at the end of the story with the surviving Washingtons; the school that John attends and where he meets Percy is called St. Midas; when Percy’s father, Braddock Washington, sees his empire threatened, he attempts to bribe higher powers to save it.
I’m not sure if it’s meant to be humorous; I suspect it is as Washington’s determination to preserve his elevated position is ludicrous but as with all good black humour, it walks a very fine narrative line between what seems too ridiculous to be believable and what we can recognise from ourselves and what we know of the society we live in.
Benjamin Button indeed may be the pinnacle of this malaise permeating the tales. On reading it, there is no doubt that Fitzgerald was trying deliberately to turn things on their head: that much is obvious from the story’s premise. Button’s life feels like an unfulfilled existence; the only real pleasure that he gets is from the glory of war although he does excel at university too. He marries a young woman when he looks like an older man but is a youngster himself; he finds his wife’s ageing is a turn off as she begins to look more homely as he becomes smoother skin-wise and more athletic; his regression to youth is one in which he gets comfort, attending kindergarten with his grandson.
Indeed, for a remarkable life of inverted progression, it is really quite unremarkable.
I’m not sure if this was Fitzgerald’s point: that Button is a miracle but this is not reflected in his existence which is pretty standard in so many ways. Button could be seen as a freak and indeed this is the reaction that Benjamin’s father receives when he first attends the hospital after his son’s delivery but that does not come out further in the text really. Even his son finds his dad’s return to youthfulness a hindrance and inconvenience to be endured rather than fascinating. And this is what I mean about malaise – there is very little joy in these later stories. They are mildly oppressive to read and are a very different reading prospect to the ones that open this literary experience.
One last thing that needs mentioning in this review is the lack of maternal figures. Women, yes and fathers too but a distinctive lack of mothers. Is this a reflection of a patriarchal society where women were at home and expected to be homebodies with few opinions of their own and certainly none that would differ from their husbands? I noticed this most in reading Benjamin Button as there is no reference made to how the mother felt about giving birth to an old man and I have to say that I find this a little peculiar. I don’t think that she died in childbirth as there is no expression of grief in the story but her absence, I think, is curious. Was it a complication that Fitzgerald didn’t want to deal with? Too messy or incidental to his purpose? We will never know.
But to me it seems significant as it would have been a perspective that I would have liked to have presented to me.
So, not a five star read by any stretch.
However, that being said, I did quite like my return to Fitzgerald and I think this reading of his short stories was a good way to reintroduce myself to him. I’ll never rave about him but there were definitely some good moments here and thought-provoking too, in trying to glean his purpose in writing some of these stories.
Has it made me want to reread The Great Gatsby? No, it hasn’t.
Will I read Fitzgerald again? Maybe. But I probably won’t rush to do it.