Monday, May 11, 2009

Fitzgerald's Jazz Endures

by Julia Buckley
"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach, while his two motorboats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends, his Rolls Royce became an omnibus bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains . . ."

So begins Chapter Three of THE GREAT GATSBY, an American classic which demonstrates the music of F. Scott Fitzgerald's prose--which in its virtuosity was like the jazz which dominated his era. Jazz was about taking chances, about improvising, about making something new and fresh, something rhythmic and beautiful. That's what Fitzgerald is for me and for millions--a stylist who made words paint pictures.

I was thrilled, then, to learn of a website that let me get little glimpses of this man that I had never been able to see before. The University of South Carolina has archived the only film and audio clips of Fitzgerald, and for an English teacher this is like finding a city of gold. Look at this clip of a 1920s era Fitzgerald sitting at an outside table and writing something on a sheaf of papers. Or check out this audio clip of Fitzgerald himself reading Shakespeare in a recording made in 1940, the year that he died. Fitzgerald was a young man when he died (he was born in 1896), and he died, according to his biographer Matthew Bruccoli, considering himself a failure.

It was only after he died, and after THE LAST TYCOON was published posthumously, that some critics began to look back at the book called THE GREAT GATSBY and acknowledge that it was, in fact, an impressive work. In the 1920s, H.L.Mencken called the book "a glorified anecdote," and other critics damned the book with faint praise.

By the 1950s, however, The London Times called Gatsby “one of the best--if not the best--American novels of the past fifty years.”

On the South Carolina webpage devoted to Fitzgerald, there are many wonderful links about this terrific writer, including a quotes page. On it is included Raymond Chandler's assessment of the late Fitzgerald and his writing:

"He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, and it's a great shame that the word for it has been thoroughly debased by the cosmetic racketeers, so that one is almost ashamed to use it to describe a real distinction. Nevertheless, the word is charm--charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It's not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It's a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartettes."

(Raymond Chandler, 1950)

If you look on Wikipedia you can see a picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave. On it is the final line of THE GREAT GATSBY: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

(photo link here)


Sandra Parshall said...

Few novels published today have the kind of charm Fitzgerald's work has. Today anything goes, and that permissiveness has coarsened fiction. But writers like Fitzgerald and another of my favorites, Edith Wharton, gave us exquisite portraits of human behavior and interaction in a world that seems remote now.

Julia Buckley said...

Beautifully put, Sandra! And you and Chandler agree on one key word: "charm."

David Cranmer said...

Great look at Fitzgerald. I feel The Great Gatsby is the #1 book of the previous century. I have the film of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and am looking forward to viewing it.

Julia Buckley said...

Let me know if you like it, David. I never read that Fitzgerald story, but it's a great premise.