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Old 19th Jul 2004, 22:34   #1
John Self
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Default F. Scott Fitzgerald

The other week after I vaguely bluffed my way through a defence of The Great Gatsby for Wavid, I thought it might be a good idea to re-read it and remind myself why it really is so great. It's only 180 pages after all.

Then I realised I had another Fitzgerald on my shelves which I had got beached halfway through once before - his 1934 novel Tender is the Night - and decided to have a go at that instead. I was partly impelled to do so because it was in my head for all sorts of other reasons - the fine Blur song which adopts the title, and I recently read about some unlikely public figure or other who had given a copy of the novel to his future bride the day after they met. That, plus the reviews on Amazon which swore blind that this, and not Gatsby, was Fitz's real masterpiece. (As a sworn believer that Joseph Heller and Evelyn Waugh are each famous for the wrong book, it's the sort of sentiment I like the sound of.)

And they were wrong. I didn't finish it this time either - but then neither, by a whisker, did Fitzgerald. He began Tender is the Night in 1925 (the year of its setting), before Gatsby was published, and didn't get through it for another eight years - interrupted by a good deal of drinking and falling down (his own), and nervous breakdowns and emotional entropy (his wife Zelda's). It was in the end, we are told, his attempt to out-Gatsby himself, to write - of course - the Great American Novel. And it's not a bar to that accolade to set it in France - most of the characters are American after all, and weren't most of the novels of those great English writers Waugh and Greene set abroad? - but it is a bar to overdo it so, and have the strain of effort in writing it showing on every page. The words practically have to fit themselves around Fitzgerald's beads of sweat.

The book is about the glamorous couple Dick and Nicole Diver (yeah, Dick Diver - was he trying to outdo Fanny Burney as the literary name most likely to make schoolboys snigger?) on the French Riviera, as viewed by the admiring/jealous figure of Rosemary, a young actress visiting with her mother, who falls in love with Dick. The difficulty with the first section of the book - 120 pages or so - is that there are too many characters introduced all at the same time, all talking and responding at the same time and not many of whom have very distinctive voices. It was all a bit Gosford Park. I got to the end of that section without a very clear idea of who anyone - bar the three principals - was. Then we go flashback, to Dick's time as a psychiatrist in 1917, where he takes over the care of one of his patients - who turns out to be, yep, Nicole. At this point, about 200 pages into it, I realised that at almost every stage of the book, I was reading it not for the ongoing pleasure on a page-by-page basis, but for some nebulous expectation that it would all become great and worthwhile soon. At two-thirds of the way through, I realised that this was one of those promises that was not going to be kept, and shut the damn thing with relief, for the second and I suspect last time.

So was Fitzgerald a one-hit wonder? Others claim his unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon showed signs of a full flowering of Gatsby-plus greatness, but I have this thing about unfinished novels, something to do with my completion fetish. His other novels are This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, neither of which I have tried. I did, just the other week and before I started Tender is the Night, pick up the silver Penguin edition of his collected stories, some of which I had read before and some not. Titles like "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" are familiar to me but the contents are not. I did read his Pat Hobby stories once before, a sort of fictionalised version of his experiences in Hollywood (just as Tender is the Night is said to be a fictional exploration of his relationship with Zelda), of which not much remains in my head other than the hilarious and slightly pathetic extracts from letters Fitzgerald wrote to the literary editor of Esquire in the 30s, trying to get more money for the stories as he wrote them:

Quote:
I think I'll do one more story about this character Saturday or Sunday. In that case - and if you like it - that will give you six of my things. I wish to God you could pay more money. These have all been stories, not sketches or articles, and only unfit for the big time because of their length.
Quote:
Once again the address is the Bank of America, Culver City, and I wish you'd wire the money if you like this story. Notice that this is pretty near twenty-eight hundred words long. I'd like to do some more of these if your price made it possible.
Quote:
Again the old ache of money. Again will you wire me, if you like it. Again will you wire the money to my Maginot Line: The Bank of America, Culver City.
Quote:
This request should have been enclosed with Pat Hobby's Christmas Wish which is three thousand words long if you can't go up by $150 I will have to send it East I hate to switch this series but I can't afford to lose so much please wire me.
Well: I suppose drink was expensive during those difficult Prohibition years.

So was Fitz just the washed-up hack that this obituary from the Chicago Daily News suggests?

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When he died at 44, F. Scott Fitzgerald, hailed in 1922 as the protagonist and exponent of the Flapper Age, was almost as remote from contemporary interest as the authors of the blue-chip stock certificates of 1929. He was still writing good copy, but no-one was mistaking a short story writer for the Herald of an Era.
I suppose I had better leave the assessment to someone who's read more than one of his books in full.
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Old 13th Aug 2004, 14:39   #2
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Default

Remembered recently that the person in the news who had given a copy of Tender is the Night to his future wife the day after they met was none other than Michael Howard. As if that wasn't disrecommendation enough...
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Old 1st Dec 2005, 14:55   #3
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thought I perhaps ought to help John out after my reading of The Great Gatsby, which he was quite right, it turned out, to praise to the rafters.

Not a particularly surprising result, one might think, given the book's standing in the pantheon of Great American Novels; and indeed of Great Novels Printed on Paper. But I really, really thought it was superb. I was half expecting to hate everyone in this book, which I had, for some reason, down as a Vile Bodies sort of thing. But while the majority of the cast of characters are indeed contemptible, the same can't be said for the narrator nor Gatsby himself.

I genuinely hadn't prepared myself for any way for the tragedy at the end, didn't see it coming and its sudden appearence closed the circle of the story beautifully.

The writing is excellent, and while I am not so much of a fan of style as, say, John and HP, I nonetheless took real pleasure in the author's use of language. Brilliant.

I had thought that Owen Meany was a shoe-in for Book of the Year for me, but it would appear that it now has some competition.
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Old 1st Dec 2005, 18:04   #4
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oh Wavid.............Gatsby was a great book but better than Owen Meany ???
Oh Gosh, I think not. The bulk of Irving's book alone must count for a couple of stars.

I read Gatsby a couple of times and I saw the film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow quite a few time ( very well done film, by the way) and I think it a wonderful story. For me one of the determining factors of a "Great Book" is the difficulty factor of translating it to film. Owen Meany failed miserably in the film version..........Gatsby was pretty easy to convert. Great books do not great movies make. Of course this is only my opinion.

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Old 1st Dec 2005, 18:12   #5
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Quote:
Great books do not great movies make.
Er .. Gone with the Wind? To Kill A Mocking Bird? The Grapes of Wrath? The Old Man and The Sea? The English Patient? To Have and Have Not? The Third Man? Brighton Rock?
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Old 1st Dec 2005, 19:53   #6
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

I simply must eat some of my words.....Oh, and I thought the movie "The English Patient" was BETTER than the book. If you were to look at the examples though, I think you would find that most of the films/novels you mentioned were very straight forward.

Maybe it is a matter of taste.........I like an author who uses word play. I like Salman Rushdie, T.R. Pearson and Arundhati Roy. It would be IMHO impossible recreate their stories, as told, in the form of a film.

What about "Shadow of The Wind" ? How could one incorporate all of the subtle humor not to mention all of the story lines into one film.

All that aside............I stand corrected

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Old 1st Dec 2005, 20:27   #7
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have read the Beautiful and Damned (also thinly veiled F Scott and Zelda) and This Side of Paradise, as well as the Great Gatsby.

While the Great Gatsby was fantastic, the other two were merely good. Its been a while since I 've read any of these, but I don't remember B&D or TSOP as being so rich with imagery and symbolism as Gatsby. However, the other two books are variations on the theme of idleness, carelessness and the Nouveau Riche.

I also don't remenber any of them being cluttered with characters, as Tender is the Night seems to be, so perhaps Tender is the Night was an anomoly.

Would recommend any of these three books.

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Old 2nd Dec 2005, 0:35   #8
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

I didn't care for TB&TD at all. I just read it hoping it would turn into Gatsby II, but it wasn't. Flat as a pancake.

One suspects that he got a little lucky with Gatsby in the first place. Maybe he was taking a particularly good drug that year.
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Old 30th Nov 2006, 15:46   #9
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby being one of my favourite-ever books (and not just Fitzgerald's masterpiece but also pretty much a flawless book) I've just been at Amazon trying to order a copy of Tender is the Night to take on holidays next month. I've read it and loved it (sorry, JS) years ago and while I'd agree it's not as great as Gatsby, there are few authors who have done better. My copies are in storage.

Anyway... what I'm wondering is, does anyone know where I can find reference to which version of it (the one where they start on the Riviera, or the one where they start with Nicole's illness) is now regarded as authoritative? I prefer the Riviera beginning and don't know how to work out which one I'll be ordering via Amazon.
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Old 11th May 2007, 9:30   #10
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Default Re: F. Scott Fitzgerald

I just finished The Great Gatsby and have to agree with m.; I don't see what all the fuss is about. There are some impressive turns of phrase, some nice symbolic elements, and an agreeably detached first-person narrator, but I don't think it hangs together. It's also rather parochial. Who really cares about the difference between Midwestern and Atlantic American sensibilities? Is the exploding of a national myth (the American dream) really of interest to readers in London, Paris or Beijing? I don't think this book aims high enough to deserve its current status. I would be amazed if it were still considered classic in 100 years time. The set-up promises more than is delivered in the end...which may be the American way, but shouldn't be the way of the so called great American novel. Maybe my expectaions were too high, and I don't think it's a bad book at all. I just don't think it's great.
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