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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Hibernation ends

This is a brief shout-out for Zenrinji, a sister blog dedicated to short form creative writing. This includes examples of haiku and senryu (Japanese micropoetry that partly inspired the name of the blog), limericks and doggerel of various kinds; and also so-called flash fiction, which features short stories of varied length but mostly under about 200 words, along with choice quotes and maybe even the occasional piquant observation!

Zenrinji has been brought out of a summer hibernation (just in time for the winter months, as it happens) but I aim to be less ambitious than when I started it: a haiku a day was the original description, but that discipline soon fell by the wayside.

Background to the blog can be found here https://zenrinji.wordpress.com/about/ but feel free to comment, positively or otherwise; that way I won’t feel I’m broadcasting out into the farthest reaches of space as my personal contribution to the CETI project.*


* Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

Playacting

Dodie Smith: It Ends with Revelations
Corsair 2012 (1967)

July 1967. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed in England and Wales, decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting males aged 21 and over. In the same year Dodie Smith, now aged 71, published It Ends with Revelations (this title a quote from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance), a novel which has homosexuality as one of its main themes. Fifty years later Smith’s novel has some curiosity value — a rather strange period read — considering gay marriage is now legal in Britain. To me it also reflects the ambivalence of the times: even at the height of the Swinging Sixties (the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released) Britain’s ruling institutions still retained a reactionary prewar attitude to personal behaviour, and Smith’s novel rather uncomfortably straddles that transition period.

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What he’d learned

A piece of flash fiction on sister blog Zenrinji, written as an exercise for a creative writing class

Zenrinji

Not long ago – it may be yesterday – there were two children called Alice and Bran. Now Alice and Bran lived in the last house at the end of the estate on the outskirts of a large town. You won’t have heard of this town, so it probably doesn’t matter what it’s called. Every day, Alice and Bran’s parents drove to work in the town and Alice and Bran caught to bus to school. At the end of the day they all came back home, did what they had to do and then went to bed.

On the other side of their house was a wood. Alice and Bran were told never to go into the wood because it was dangerous and you could lose yourself, so they never did. Instead, if ever they went for a walk they took their dog Cerberus around the estate and then came…

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A dark tale for a dark age

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)

It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?

This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?

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Innocence and inanity

A literal translation of Môr a Mynydd o Lyfrau might be “sea and mountain (made) from books”

Bruno Vincent: Five Go Bookselling
Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups
Hodder and Stoughton 2017

Maybe you missed it but Saturday 7th October 2017 was Bookshop Day in the UK and Ireland. I was involved in the third Crickhowell Literary Festival so I could hardly be unaware of it. I picked up this bit of free promotional material to see if I’d changed my mind about this expanding series of “Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups”. I found I had not.

Following on from Penguin Books’ re-vision of the classic children’s mid-20th-century Ladybird picture books allied with cynical new texts (on Mindfulness, The Mid-Life Crisis and the like) Hodder and Stoughton sought to cash in on this nostalgia trend with their updating of the Famous Five books. Do they work?

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A Week in Provence

The statue of Cézanne that stands near the modern hub of Aix-en-Provence: he looks towards Mont Sainte-Victoire while nursing an empty bottle some wag has left for him

Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors)
Les Architectes et la Ville
Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix

In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.

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