Bittersweet

Cleveland, Ohio in the 1920s

F Scott Fitzgerald:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories
Penguin Books 2010 (2008)

This selection of seven short stories, which includes pieces published in 1920 and 1922, plus one from 1932, was issued to coincide with the title story’s appearance as an Oscar-nominated film. Written in the interwar period often termed the Jazz Age, their abiding scent is bittersweet, an adjective frequently applied to Fitzgerald’s work (though I have to confess this is my first ever taste of it). Despite in most cases their being almost a hundred years old the whiff of nostalgia is often overwhelmed by the smells of busy streets, the tang of disappointed relationships and the stench of hypocrisy (which is an everlasting odour).

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922), despite being the item designed to hook the modern reader, is to me the weakest of the stories. It is a one-trick show, an extended tale on how it would be if an individual could live their life backwards. Fitzgerald obviously had fun not only planning out the timeline for this regressive existence but also playing up the reactions of others — appalled reactions, petty resentments, stubborn prejudices and insistence on rejecting the evidence of their senses. At a superficial level it is a comedy of manners (ultimately tinged with the inevitable melancholy) as Benjamin intermittently becomes a nine day’s wonder until the public’s interest wanes or memories fade. As a fantasy though, let alone a wouldbe philosophical statement, it is a metaphor shot with plot holes and extended beyond its proper elasticity.

Head and Shoulders (1920) is another tale where the structure largely determines the narrative instead of the narrative growing organically. Horace Tarbox and Marcia Meadow are two proverbial opposites who attract each other, he a scholarly nerd and she an actress in musicals. As time goes on, however, they somehow reverse roles, with him becoming an entertainer and her a celebrated writer. I wish however we could have seen it as much from her point of view as his — the story ends with him wishing the two had never met. However, the tale is amusing enough, if unlikely, and despite its direction becoming as obvious as the nose on your face I found myself intrigued by how Fitzgerald would carry it off.

The next story from 1920, The Cut-Glass Bowl, is altogether different, a tragedy seemingly brought about by a self-fulfilling prophecy when actually it is human weakness that is to blame. The object in question was a gift accompanied by this portentous speech: “Evylyn, I’m going to give a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” This cursed holy grail of a piece signals a trajectory that leads through betrayal, misjudgement, injury and bereavement all the way to death. A powerful tale, then, spiralling towards its shocking conclusion. Another of the 1920 offerings, The Four Fists, is its fairer twin, in which four punches to Samuel Meredith’s face provide the precise stimuli to give him in his otherwise privileged existence valuable life lessons which no money could buy.

May Day takes us back to 1922, and is the longest item in this collection. At first sight a series of vignettes set against the 1919 May riots in Cleveland, Ohio, we soon discover that the lives of individuals from these vignettes intersect. They are bound together by the enigmatic character of Gordon Sterrett, a veteran of the First World War down on his luck and looking to former Yale associates to help him out. In the canyons of the city mobs roam, looking for socialist and Jewish scapegoats to assuage their discontent, alternating with New Haven graduates celebrating the first of May with a Yale Gamma Psi dance. Fitzgerald explores the interactions of  young men and women from different backgrounds, with different passions and different agendas, and his scrutiny is penetrating and, at the end, a pessimistic one.

Kilmarnok [sic] bookstore in St Paul, Minnesota was apparently the model for the Moonlight Quill Bookshop in Fitzgerald’s ‘O Russet Witch’. Although a St Paul’s native he chose to relocate it to New York,  and describes it as “a very romantic little place, considered radical and admitted dark … truly a mellow bookshop.” In this rather Gothick sanctum we are introduced to Merlin Grainger, whose hopeful but ultimately pathetic story is paraded before our eyes. Entranced by Alicia Dare, the exotic russet witch of the title (whom he thinks of as Caroline) he instead settles for the more mundane Olive Masters. Over the decades brief encounters with ‘Caroline’ make him wonder what kind of life he could have led. Do we feel sorry for him? Do we wonder what we would have done instead? If we too had resisted temptation would we be happier now or more embittered?

Crazy Sunday (1932) is the last and latest of the short stories in this collection. It is a world-weary reflection on the madness of Hollywood, realistic in many ways, and yet has a similar morality-tale feel to it that many of the other tales in this selection exhibit. Joe Coles is a screenwriter whose career we follow in a series of vignettes all taking place on a Sunday. Miles Calman is the great movie director — gifted, successful, idiosyncratic, unpredictable — whom Coles has much to do with professionally. Last in the triangle is Stella, Miles’ wife, with whom Coles is much drawn to. But, as the title suggests, things don’t proceed normally.

I found these stories captivating for their onward narratives, their strong distinctive characters and their evocation of a period now long gone but with aspects many of which still remain with us — films, bookshops, teeming cities, provincial life — the sweet shock of recognition. But how soon things can turn sour, or else putrefy slowly as lives turn to regret, confusion and bitterness.

A russet witch?
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10 thoughts on “Bittersweet

  1. Thanks for this, which further convinces me that Fitzgerald is not my author. I read Tender is the Night in college and felt I got the point: the rich are different from us (Yes, they have more money). I have avoided him assiduously ever since.

    1. I’m not sure I’m ready for a full-length novel of his but I did find these short stories acceptable, as it were. I may search out some more some time, but that’s as far as I’d go! Your strictures on ‘Tender is the Night’ are warning enough …

  2. I’ve read Gatsby, but that’s the only book of his I’ve read. I didn’t really see the appeal – for a story that’s supposedly fuelled by love, I didn’t really empathise with any of the characters and they were all a little cold and unengaging. Have you seen the Benjamin Button film? I loathed it! Thought it was overlong and as you said about the story, a bit of a one trick pony concept stretched too far. Like Lizzie, I wouldn’t be drawn to read more of his work. Thanks for the interesting review, though Chris.

    1. The Benjamin Button film? I had to admire the technical aspects but I was left feeling (as with the original) ‘what is the point?’ The other short stories I found, well, short and sweet in being short, so as I said to Lizzie I’d be prepared to give some more of these a go. But perhaps Henry James before that …

  3. I too find these seven stories captivating. I love your last paragraph, that’s exactly what I got while reading (listening) to these stories. They also work well together, giving us a more rounded feel for that long gone time, and producing an interesting kaleidoscopic effect.

    1. I know these seven are from at least two different collections, but I too felt — with the exception of the Button story — that they worked well together. A worthwhile introduction to Fitzgerald for me, I thought, but I’m not in a hurry to get back to him.

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