ESSAY

THE
GAT BY
MA Ie
HOW F SCOTT FITZGERALD
CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE
By Andrew 'Hagan
I N

Fitzgerald, aged
27, was a
young writer
on the turn. He
had blazed into fame with his debut
novel two years earlier and was close
to being a burnt-out case. Iffame
is a mask [hat eats into {he face, t hen
Fitzgerald was quite repulsive to
himselfas the J azz Age reached its
height. He'd drunk too much
champagne and told too ma ny lies,
ruining both his const itution and
his innocence, and before he wrote
The Great Gatsby, he thought life was
a joke at his own expense.
At the height of his fame,
Fitzgerald made and spent over
$400,000. "He sallied forth onto the
streets of New York," wr ites Scott
Donaldson, his latest biographer,
"with $20, $50, $100 bills pokingout
of his vest a nd coat pockets. For the
benefit of grateful bellhops, he kept
a plate of money on a table in his hotel
room, When at restaurams, he
sometimes tipped more than t he bill.
In France, his pockets were always
full of 'damp little wads ofhundred-
franc notes that he dribbled out
behind him the way some women
do Kleenex'," More than one wimess
at the t ime said he was headed for
catast rophe, and they were right.
But not before Fitzgerald turned his
interest in money into the greatest
American novel of the 20th century.
T
he book appears so
inevi table now,
so complete, but there
was a time when he felt
it was beyond his grasp.
Anybodywhowrites novels knows
that period of secret vertigo, when
your book seems a long way down
and your head spins and your heart
races just to t hink of it. But the year
before Fitzgerald began The Great
Gacsby he believed he had dried up.
"I doubt I'll ever write anything
again worth putting in print," he said.
However, by June 1922, Fitzgerald
ESSAY
had overcome these insecurities and
begun to plan t he novel. He initially
thought it would be set in t he Midwest
in 1885 and would be short on what
he called "superlative beauties"but
with a Catholic element. That was
soon dropped when the world of rich
phonies engulfed hi s imagination.
Hewas livingby then in Great Neck,
what would be fictionalised as the
nouveau riche West Egg in Gatsby, on
Long Island among the swells. Movie
mogul Samuel Goldwyn and writer
Ring Lardner were neighbours; [he
silent screen star Mae Murray and
celebrated war hero General Pershing
could be found nearby walking thei r
dogs. "They have no mock-modesty,"
he wrote, "and all perform their
var ious stunts upon t he faintest
request like a sustained concert."
There is no birthing plan for
masterpieces. A genius book arrives
not like a lottery win, out of good
fort une and [he weird mechanics of
chance, but out of a brilliant collision
between a writer's talent and the
period in which he or she happens to
be wr it ing. Living on the Long Island
Sound, no matter how messily,
Fitzgerald st ill had the creat ive
readies. When he looked around him
at t hese rich people in thei r vast
carelessness on the brink of the
Depression, when he looked inside
himself and saw a people-pleasing
drunk in t he era of Prohibition, he
realised a perfect storm had arrived
on t he coast of hi s abilit ies. He knew,
in imaginative terms, he had adeep
connection with his own fer ment and
the ferment of his times, and a book
began to emerge that couldn't have
been written by any other person in
any othe r time. That, I believe, is what
we mean by a literary masterpiece.
Fitzgerald sta rted the book at
Great Neck. He was in a S[ate while
writi ng it , both knowing how good it
could be and worrying he might flunk
it. "I feel I have an enormous power in
me now," hewrote in one of his letters,
"more than I've ever had in a way but
it works so fitfully and with so many
bogeys because I've talked so much
and not lived enough within myself to
develop the necessary sel f rel iance ..
r don't know anyone who has used up
so much personal experience as I have
at 27 ... So in my new novel I'm thrown
directly on purely creat ive work - not
trashy imaginings as in my stories but
the sustained imagination of a sincere
and yet radiant world. So I tread
slowly a nd carefully and at times in
106
F Scott
Fitzgerald, wife
Zelda and
daughter Scottie
at their home in
Paris, 1925
(above)
Robert Redford
as Jay Gatsby
in the 1974
fi l m The Great
Gatsby
(above right)
considerable distress." For Fit zgerald,
writ ing, like living, could be a
delirious sickness, and t he boozing
threatened to tear down everything
about him. Anita Loos, author of
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, once had
to hide under a table at Great Neck ( 0
get away from his rage, Mortal with
drink, he threw "two enormous
candelabras with lightedcandles,"
she said, "a water carafe, a metal wine
cooler and a silver platter."
Fitzgerald ditched a lot of the
early Gatsby manuscript he produced
during that first summer and over
t he following year and by April 1924
he had "a new angle". Heand his
famously erratic wife Zelda moved
to t he French Riviera, where,
despite drink, quarrels, a nd other
distractions, the work lOok on fresh
momentum. Every itch and pulse of
his idealism went into the book; he
•••
II
II
I
knew he could make something new,
something pure. "I hope I don't see
a soul for six months," he wrote.
"My novel grows more and more
extraordinary; I feel absolutely
self-sufficient and I have a perfect
hollow craving for lonel iness."
The name Gatsby might have been
stolen from the Gadsby that appears
in the work of Mark Twain, but it
seems more likely, given Fit zgerald's
immensely echoing style, that the
author formed the name from the
slang term for piscol, Gat. The house
- that unforgettable house, with its
lawn and blue gardens, where "men
and gi rls came and went like moths
among the whisperings and
champagne and the stars" - was
thought to be modelled on the
luxurious home of Herbert Bayard
Swope, editor of the Ne-w York World.
Gatsby, the enigmat ic bootlegger
ESSAY
IF FAME WAS A
MASK THAT EATS
INTO THE FACE,
THEN FITZGERALD
WAS QUITE
REPULSIVE TO
HIMSELF AS THE
JAZZ AGE REACHED
ITS HEIGHT
107
and new-monied dreamer, began
as a version of severa I shadyTwenties
businessmen but ended up taking a
great deal from Fitzgerald himself. He
later acknowledged all his characters,
the women as well as the men, were
little Fitzgeralds. Someone once said
a ll good novelists are hermaphroditic:
Fitzgerald would have agreed. He said
there could never be a good biography
of a novelist because a novelist, if
he is any good, is too many people.
"Well, I sha ll writea novel bener than
any novel ever written in America
and become, par excellence, the best
second-rater in the world," he said.
In November 1924, he fini shed the
novel in a flurry of revisions, but he
still wasn't happy wit h the title. It was
called Trimalchioin WescEgg.
(Trimalchio, mentioned in the novel,
is t he party-giving rich character in
The Satyricon by Petronius.) But
Fitzgerald had alternative t itles, each
of which was worse than the other:
On the Road to West Egg, Gold-Hatted
Gatsby, The High-Bouncing Lover,
Gatsby, Trimalchio. For Fitzgerald,
writing a novel was like trying to
grab the breeze or steal a halo: every
beautiful attempt was bound to be
laced with impossibility. He wrote
about failure and he lived with it,
too. "That's thewhole burden of this
novel," he wrote to an old Princeton
classmate, "the loss of those illusions
that give such colour to the world
so that you don't care whether things
are true or false as long as they partake
of the magical glory."
The story is told by Nick Carraway,
one oflife's undecided bit-pan players,
a model narrator, a Yale man and
former soldier who moves to a house
on Long Island next door to a
mysterious mi ll ionaire called Jay
Gatsby. Carraway is a bondsman,
impressionable, likable and lightly
romantic, and his second cousin
Daisy lives on the other side of the
Sound with her husband Tom, a
rich, two-timing Ivy Leaguer with
a heavy dose of brutality. Dressed in
white flannels, Nickgoes to one of
Gatsby's extraordinary parties on that
extraordinary lawn. Although he is
distant and somewhat untouchable,
Gatsby befr iends Nick and soon drafts
him into his plan to win the heart of
Daisy. We find that his whole
existence, the house, the money, the
shins, and the giant parties, too, are
all an attempt to gain the love of the
rich girl who once rejected him. I won't
say more. It all unwinds in ways that
read as if the tragic muse had got
drunk on Chateau d'Yquem and sung
a sublime and moving aria from the
ornate balconyofa priceless house.
Writing the book - orwriting the
book and boozing and trying to live
wit h Zelda - blew Fitzgerald's lamps.
He was never the same man again and
the novel's poor sales only fuelled his
native feeling that failure was h is
destiny. Not long ago, I was in Paris
and I went one evening to 14 rue de
Tiisitt, just off the Champs-Elysees,
where the beamiful orange sky above
the buildings gave me that feeling
(common to Paris) that life might be
as good as it's going to get. Fitzgerald
came to live in the rue du Tilsitt when
he fini shed Gatsby. He was out getting
drunk one night with the boys from
the Paris bureau of an American
newspaper, and he returned here,
totally sozzled, to find Zelda
ESSAY
addressing him from the balcony at
number 14. "You're drunk again, you
bastard," she shouted.
"Not at all , darling," he replied,
staggering up to push at the same
door I was looking at. "I'm as sober
asapolarbear."
H
owdoyoufilmthe
romanticism that lives
inside the prose of some
writers? How do you
adapt such fineness into
visible cues, speeches, romines, and
actions? The answer, in relation to
Scott Fitzgerald's best-known novel,
is that it probably can't be done, any
more than Joyce's most famous book
can be filmed. There have been four
attempts at The Great Gatsby, each
worse than the last, and the only hope
for Baz Luhrmann's new effort is that
it supplants the book's tender
mystique with a rowdy energy all of
its own. Watching the early versions,
t he one starring Alan Ladd, or the
Seventies one directed by Jack
Clayton and starring Robert Redford,
you come away with a sense that
Fitzgerald's perfect sentences just get
in the way of what fi lm-makers can
actual ly do when adapting the book
for the big screen. Sure, Fitzgerald
wrote in pictures, but it's not the
pictures we remember, it's not the
images or even the plot of The Great
Gatsby t hat sticks in the mind. It is
something beyond paraphrase, call it
subli me grace, call it existence music,
but however we describe it, the thing
that matters is li ke the beat of a
hummingbird's wings, so delicate
and so rapid that a camera struggles
to catch it.
And that might serve as a
description of Scott Fitzgerald's
talent overall. Nothingbecame it like
its fract uring. At the height of his
trouble, not long before his final slide
into death at the age of 44, he wrote a
series of articles for Esquire that will
mean something to every man setting
h is feet for the first time on the terrain
beyond his youth. "Those indiscreet
10 8
WRITING THE BOOK
AND BOOZING
AND TRYING
TO LIVE WITH
ZELDA BLEW
FITZGERALD'S
LAMPS. HE WAS
NEVER THE SAME
MAN AGAIN
Esquire articles," as he later called
them, alarmed people with how
personal they were, speaking up
about the psychic trials of his
generation, and perhaps ours.
"I felt like the beady-eyed men
I used to see on t he commut ing train
from Great Neck 15 years back," he
wrote. "Men who didn't care whether
the world tumbled into chaos
tomorrow ifit spared their houses."
In the midst of financial and emotional
crisis, Fitzgerald had taken that same
look into his own clear Irish eyes.
"My own happiness in the past
often approached such an ecstasy
that I could not share it even with t he
person deares t to me but had to walk
it away in the quiet streets ... and
I think that my happiness, or talent
for self-delusion or what you will, was
an exception. It was not the natural
thing but the unnatural- unnatural
ESSAY
as the Boom; and my recent
experience parallels thewave of
despair that swept the nation when
the Boom was over." The Esquire
essays are liule masterpieces of
self-awareness, and the book they
became, The Crack-Up, could still
serve as a guide to what can happen to
intelligent men at a certain time in
their lives, when all the fancy watches
have been bought and set, when love
is hard, when the good suits are in the
closet but life isn't what you ordered,
and when all around you the dream of
progress is mired in lies.
The season of Fitzgerald is upon
us. It has been coming for a few years
now: I t hought of him t he first time
I heard people us ing the phrase "the
financial crisis". Any of us who spent
the Eight ies and Nineties watching
the growth of money, t he rise in
champagne sales and the explosion of
109
A BOOK BEGAN
TO EMERGE THAT
COULDN'T HAVE
BEEN WRITTEN
BY ANY OTHER
PERSON IN ANY
OTHER TIME
Tobey Maguire
as Nick Carraway
and Leonardo
DiCaprio as
Jay Gatsby in
the new film
adaptation of
The Great Gatsby,
out on 16 May
First edition of
the novel from
1925
spite, then the rapid uncoiling of the
boys in red braces, knew that the man
who wrote The Great Gatsby and The
Crack-Up might come to serve as a
patron saint of our credit-crunching
era. In the last year, Gatsby has been
the subject of a stage play, Gatz,
where the whole text is read a loud in
a modern office. Neweditions of the
book are being prepared as we speak,
Northern Ballet has just put flappers
in pumps and fl oaty skirts, the t imely
pas de deux of Gats by and Daisy
performed under a green light. Baz
Luhrmann chose his moment well,
and let us remember, amid the glories
of costume and excess, choreography
and stardom, (he fragile excellence of
Scott Fitzgerald's message to t he
world of grown-ups.
He wrote it years after he and
Zelda and Scott ie, their daughter,
left the apartment in the rue de Tilsitt,
that place he came to after finishing
the great American novel. Thewords
sang out to me the other day as
I looked up at the windows and felt
the chill of the present day. "We were
goi ngtotheOld World to find a new
rhythm for our lives," he wrote, "With
a true conviction that we had left our
old selves behind forever." For men in
the grasp of their youth, and for men
on the cusp of their changing lives,
the current season might distill that
most Fitzgeraldian of essences -
hope. It is there in the last li nes of
h is great novel. "Gatsby bel ieved in
the green light, the orgastic future
that year by year recedes before us.
It eluded us then, but that's no maUer
- tomorrow we will run faster,
stretch out our arms farther."
We are all Scott Fitzgerald's
children now. E.

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