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Archive for the tag “F. Scott Fitzgerald”

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway…A feast, indeed.

It gets harder to reread books as I get older, I’ve found. As a teen and in my twenties I read and reread books over and over again- up to 3 times or more. But now, I don’t find the same joy the second time around when I revisit a novel. Not so with A Moveable Feast. I think I read the book for the first time only a handful of years ago, and I liked it. I reread it for a Reading Challenge that I’m finishing up from winter 2014 and thought it an absolute delight. I found new themes and passages I don’t even recall reading before. Was I in a fog when I first read it? I do know that I was going through an extremely bad spell at my old job. Perhaps the book just didn’t resonate back then.

Hemingway is difficult to enjoy. I completely understand why someone doesn’t “get” Hemingway. His prose is sometimes stilted and there doesn’t immediately appear to be any point or through line to his writing. His short and precise sentences can easily be mistaken for those of an amateur, and no one can ever accuse Hemingway of “showy” writing. I am, by no means, a Hemingway expert. I’ve only read three of his novels: The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Moveable Feast, now twice. For Whom was a slog to complete, although in the end I found the novel haunting and emotionally rich. The Sun… was one of my favorite novels in my early twenties. While in France on a year abroad, I gave a short presentation on the novel for one of my French classes and declared the book one of the best I’d ever read. The professor wrinkled her nose and asked “Why??!!”.

But his gift is for creating “the truest sentence there is”. Hemingway strove to deliver stories and novels that spoke to simple truths. He believed florid and overly descriptive writing danced around the truth. I wonder if A Moveable Feast is his most honest work. However, I do believe that the honesty and simplicity in his writing is what turns most people off. He’s a storyteller, but he’s not a showman. When you compare his writing to that of Fitzgerald’s, his contemporary and also featured in A Moveable Feast, there is a striking difference in styles. Fitzgerald’s work is vivid and colorful while Hemingway’s is earthy and stark. The Great Gatsby, a book I also reread in 2014 and loved anew, is wonderful. It’s a feast in its own right, but it does make Hemingway’s work look plain by comparison. There are parallels to draw with both authors, however. I can’t say which writer is better; they speak of truths in their own ways.

Here is an example in A Moveable Feast of a delightfully truthful statement:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

What an opening paragraph, and only 3 sentences! Everyone has experienced that one “perfect day” that occurs right at the end of winter. The weather is neither cool nor hot, and flowers start to bloom. Folks stroll outside, holding hands, with a careless ease for the first time in months. Life seems limitless and good. And you don’t want to run errands or meet friends for drinks or be indoors in any way. You want to enjoy the sunshine and the warmth and the beginnings of something. I’ve felt this, have you? He captures that sentimentality without all of the fluffy adverbs and over explaining. I know exactly what he means. He captured a mood in its most simplistic form. This is truth.

What I most enjoyed about the novel this time around that I didn’t particularly catch on the first read, is that Hemingway is writing about becoming the author Ernest Hemingway as we know him. Written only a few years before his death and published just before he died, this is a nostalgic novel. He’s writing as though he is a young man just learning his style. Paris is his muse. I’d like to believe he looks back on this period with extreme fondness- it’s the beginning of something, which he is writing about towards the end of his career and life.

And I encourage everyone to also read Paula McLain’s wonderful The Paris Wife, which is a fictional account of Hem’s wife Hadley during their Paris years. On my first read I thought Hadley had gotten such short shrift. She’s barely in A Moveable Feast, this is true, but on my second turn I found her evermore present within the pages. Apparently she and Hemingway were on friendly terms right before he died. Perhaps this is also his small love letter to her, or perhaps not, but I was moved much more by their relationship on this read.

His experiences with F. Scott Fitzgerald were also more vivid on the second read. When I opened my used copy of the novel, I noticed this inscription, written in ink, that I hadn’t seen the first time:

Ward- Maybe you’ll identify with Fitzgerald.

-John

Maybe Ward was using this book as an intervention? I have no idea what he really means, but I had to laugh. Fitzgerald is portrayed by Hemingway as a complete mess- talented, yes- yet on the verge of becoming a full-fledged alcoholic with a less than sane wife. Hemingway supposedly locked heads with Zelda Fitzgerald on more than a few occasions and you do get the sense that he doesn’t like her here. But you also get a sense of his admiration of Fitzgerald and perhaps even envy. Maybe this jealousy pushed him into becoming a novelist, rather than a short story writer? In my reread, I thought his relationship with Fitzgerald was fraught with boyhood rivalry, but there was a tender almost loving way in which Hemingway cared for and encouraged Fitzgerald. Is he feeling guilty in his later years that he didn’t do more? Fitzgerald obviously plays a very prominent role in Hem’s life, otherwise he wouldn’t get a whole section devoted to him.

The title of the book and the opening quote are my favorite:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feat.

Hemingway and his wife Hadley are dead broke in Paris, but never hungry, neither physically nor emotionally. And Hemingway is never lacking for stories. Paris feeds him. Throughout the entire novel he is almost never sitting still, unless he is in a cafe writing. He’s either walking along the Seine, skiing in the Alps, visiting Gertrude Stein’s apartment, or striding off to the bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Even when’s he writing there is a sense of movement, as if Paris is passing him by like an old theatre diorama. People he knows and friends filter in and out. The seasons change before his eyes. Delicious food and drink passes before him in an endless array.

Sure, you could make the argument that the novel is not very exciting. And speaking of “very”, for a man who shunned adverbs the word “very” shows up in almost every 4th line. His stroll down memory lane in Paris is leisurely at best. There is no real conflict and if I had to make a complaint, I say that his breakup with Hadley could have been explored with more depth. She drifts away in the last chapter and is replaced by his second wife with only a small explanation. This is also why The Paris Wife makes such a good companion piece to the novel: we get to see the before and after and all the in-betweens of their relationship, which is missing from A Moveable Feast.

But again, this novel is about Hemingway the author finding his voice and his place in the world as a writer, not about the breakup of his marriage. I admire that although A Moveable Feast is somewhat of a memoir it does not have the trappings of a linear account of his life from point A to point B. It is clear that Paris remained a magical time in his life for many years. I, too, have felt the magical pull of France. Having lived in Bordeaux for a year in college and returning to France only 3 years ago, it still holds an almost mystic and revered place in my heart.

I hope that the mysterious “John” didn’t take offense to Ward’s gift of this book. I hope he took away some of the lightness and wonder from it that I did, all of Fitzgerald’s heavy drinking and Hemingway’s womanizing aside. I think it’s a novel that gets better with age and experience.

And if I ever need to go back to Paris, I don’t need to travel far. I just need to open a book.

 

Revisiting “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald on audio book last month, I was more than keen to revisit her Zelda’s husband’s works, most notably, “The Great Gatsby”. I first read the novel some 17 years ago when I was a junior or senior in high school, and to say that my life was forever changed by that book is an understatement. It for sure changed the way I read and looked at books. I even think that F.Scott Fitzgerald, along with John Steinbeck, were the ones responsible for me turning towards the historical novel as my go-to genre of sheer reading pleasure.

My first time reading Gatsby was my introduction into the 1920s and The Jazz Age, which would eventually become my passion decade- the decade I hope to time travel to someday (I’m not delusional, by the way, just fantastical), as well as the decade I probably romanticize the most. I remarked in an online post about one episode of Boardwalk Empire on HBO (another 1920s show) that The Jazz Age depicted on the show is no Fitzgerald’s. I’m not the only one who complains that the show is occasionally too dark and emotionally heavy. I should point out that I had “The Great Gatsby” in mind when I made that statement. Now, after re-reading “The Great Gatsby” nearly 20 years later, I may actually revise my thoughts on the decade as a whole.

What do I even remember from my first time reading the novel? What was it that stuck in my mind and soul all these years? I asked myself this before starting the book a few weeks ago. First of all, I remember there was a lot of discussion in class about Fitzgerald’s use of color (greens and blues) and the fog horn that would constantly go on and off throughout the book and what all of that symbolism was supposed to mean. Don’t even ask me if I remember the answers! I vividly remember the car crash, in which the state of the woman’s torn torso and nearly severed breast is graphically described. In fact, I found myself waiting impatiently and in dread for that part of the book to arrive on my second reading and find out if it is as gross and disturbing as I recalled (it is). The party scene stuck in my mind as the epitome of revelry and fun. As far as what touched me emotionally, I’m no longer sure what that specifically was. Perhaps it was the rich language, or the depiction of an era that just seemed to me to be so wonderful and full of life, that has stayed with me all of these years.

Was I disappointed by the book the second time around? No, but the book is definitely different for me now. First of all, I don’t recall it ever being so sad. It is truly a sad, lonely kind of book. That fog horn we talked about in school? I don’t know if there is a lonelier sound, and Fitzgerald uses it here perfectly. Secondly, I actually didn’t remember the ending to the book at all. Gatsby’s death took me completely by surprise. Even the party scenes at his home earlier on in the book were all nearly borderline depressing. At 17, having never really ever been to a raucous affair, this type of extreme partying seemed to me like the ultimate good time. Flappers, champagne, tuxedos, The Charleston, loud cars, and bobbed hair… I wanted to be IN IT. But upon re-reading the book, the party didn’t hold the same joie-de-vivre for me. Sure, Fitzgerald accurately describes folks in full gaiety and frivolity, but it’s all tinged in a drink infused haze that I am well aware now is only make-up for desperate people trying to escape the harsh realities of life. The rest of the novel feels much like a “morning after” hangover.

But, after reading “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” and  knowing what I now know about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his experiences during his marriage and the 1920s party scene, I’m more than convinced that the man was brilliant. He captures struggles with identity, loneliness, alcoholism, sexual frustration, fear of success, and fear of aging so beautifully in this novel. And it’s no coincidence that the main protagonist in Gatsby, Nick Carraway, bears a strong resemblance in character to that of his creator. For Fitzgerald, turning 30 was a career death sentence. He strongly believed that in order to be considered a success, one had to fulfill his dreams before the age of 30. He wrote “The Great Gatsby” when he was around 27, and this fear and anxiety seeps into his work. Nick turns 30 in the book and he views his life as a down-ward spiral with virtually nothing to look forward to. His eventual idol and hero, Jay Gatsby, plays on another of Fitzgerald’s big fears: the fear of becoming an unknown.

F. Scott Fitzgerald the man was driven to succeed. He had the chops, he had the talent, and all he craved was the validation. After reading Gatsby a second time, it became clear to me that one of his other greatest fears was that he indeed would become successful, validated, worthy, and famous. And it would eventually be worth nothing. Gatsby dies at the height of his popularity, but he’s remember by almost no one. None of his friends, besides Nick and his own father, attend his funeral. Daisy, Gatsby’s would-be paramour, leaves him in the end without so much as a goodbye. His name and his celebrity die away as quickly as he sprung into the public eye. It’s been described that Fitzgerald was constantly terrified of being abandoned by Zelda and by the publishing industry and literati elite. Not a coincidence at all that abandonment and self-worth are huge themes in this book.

One thing I’m also sure of is that Fitzgerald was the ultimate observer. The way he crafts his characters and scenes can only come from someone who was a constant study of human behavior. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is where Nick Carraway walks the streets of New York City and imagines what would happen if he walked up to this girl or that girl. Would they fall in love? How would his life be different? It reads like an existential search for a soul mate. It’s an achingly isolated guy going through a quarter-life crisis who doesn’t know where his life is going, but he would like it to go someplace better. It was so damn well written, I nearly wept.

I found the below gem in a recent article in The Paris Review with Toni Morrison that I think touches on the very essence of why this book is a national treasure after nearly 90 years:

“I remember introducing Eudora Welty and saying that nobody could have written those stories but her, meaning that I have a feeling about most books that at some point somebody would have written them anyway. But then there are some writers without whom certain stories would never have been written. I don’t mean the subject matter or the narrative but just the way in which they did it—their slant on it is truly unique.”

She includes F. Scott Fitzgerald in her short list of writers with a truly unique slant. Is Gatsby a unique story? Not really. At the end of the day it’s a tragic love story, and one that’s been told and retold several times. But just the way Fitzgerald captured these people and their fears and struggles with and about becoming something great and how he captured a nation in the throes of excess and desperation after having endured one of the most horrific wars in history is pure magic. The beauty behind “The Great Gatsby” is that it really can’t be replicated. Fitzgerald took a written snapshot of a moment in time that was very real and raw.

“The Great Gatsby” is no longer the romanticized fantasy that I once held it to be, nor is it an outdated classic. Sure, some of the slang is dusty and no longer used today and you could argue that Fitzgerald was occasionally guilty of overly florid language, but this is a book that truly stands the test of time. Every theme is relevant today, even if “Old Sport” is not.

You never needed to worry, F. Scott, you will always be remembered. Your greatest fear turned into your greatest triumph, and I am hereto say that my life is better because you were in it.

A word about F. Scott Fitzgerald…

Since the world is gearing up for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” this weekend, I thought I would chime in with my two cents.

I loved “The Great Gatsby” in high school, and I love it now. While I expect the movie to be not so great (I’m sorry, I do), I am excited about a possible revival in all things “Fitzgerald” and “Jazz Age-y”. Regarding my foreboding feelings about the film (and who knows, I may love it), there are just some books that shouldn’t transcend into the cinematic realm, and “Gatsby” is one of them.

Why? I don’t know exactly, but I think it has something to do with the cadence and rhythm of Fitzgerald’s language that is just so hard for modern-day actors and writers to capture. I also think that I don’t want to be reminded that the 20s is a by-gone era. Because to be honest, when you read Fitzgerald, it is almost like you are right there. Put on some flapper costumes and throw in an over-stylized set, and the magic is just gone.

And almost no film should be put into 3-D. Seriously.

But, getting back to my buddy F. Scott, may I suggest two books by or featuring Fitzgerald as an alternative to re-reading (or maybe reading it for the first time) “The Great Gatsby” in anticipation of the film?

“Jazz Age Stories”- F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A Moveable Feast”- Ernest Hemingway

Both novels (although “Jazz Age Stories” is a collection of shorts) offer completely different views of the 20s and the joie de vivre of the age. F. Scott is featured in Hemingway’s novel (they were friends, briefly) around the time he was writing “Gatsby”, and although “A Moveable Feast” is largely fiction, the way Hemingway writes about Fitzgerald as a writer and given that his portrayal is coming from a writer’s point of view (who was somewhat in awe and maybe jealous of Fitzgerald too), his view offers a unique portrait of a sad man writing about a glorious era, while managing to not have a ton of fun himself.

“Jazz Age Stories”, on the other hand, are short vignettes written by Fitzgerald during various stages of his career. Some stories are better or have more depth than others, but all of them are wicked little peepholes into a great time period. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as much as I like Fitzgerald’s full novels, and I think it is a great addition to anyone’s repertoire, fan or not of the author.

If you’ve seen the movie, or have a comment about the book “Gatsby”, please feel free to leave it here!

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