When I was younger, I read many of the books of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man considered to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
Prized for his literary style – Fitzgerald has been linked to the jazz age, the roaring twenties and the success of young, precocious men. More recently, his legacy has been tied up to the phenomenon of Gatsby parties: decadent events held by companies, nightclubs and private individuals, aiming to recreate that bygone era.
But Fitzgerald’s books and his personal life hide a darker undercurrent – the moment at the end of the party, when one person is left to clean up the mess. When the glamor fades, when the music dies down and the revellers go home – they leave an emptiness in their wake. It is in this emptiness that Fitzgerald finds himself. And it is in this emptiness that his writing starts to sing.
This is the world according to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald believed in the possibility of eternal youth. The idea that we can cling onto certain moments in life and never let them go, if only we cling on tightly enough.
The belief began in his early 20s. At 23 he published This Side of Paradise and the book became an instant success, winning him fame, fortune and the love of his life, Zelda, who had agreed to marry him on the condition that he became a published author.
This Side of Paradise reads as a typical coming-of-age novel. It’s semi-autobiographical, reflecting on Fitzgerald’s time studying at Princeton. He writes fondly of his university years, reflecting on youth as a time of love and beauty, of eternal romance, a time when the whole world lay at his feet, waiting to be discovered.
His writing is lyrical and poetic, with an internal rhythm. A beat that thrums beneath the prose. A lilt and harmony that captures the highs and lows of those young years:
Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light – and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets.
Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all God’s dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…
In his mid-30s, Fitzgerald looked back on these early years. His thoughts were filled with nostalgia and longing. No matter how hard he tried, he could never recapture the man he used to be. He wrote years later:
There are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream.
Fitzgerald repeats this idea of the perfect moment in time often in his novels. The moment when everything felt good. The moment we all want to go back to in our lives. It’s there in his most famous work, The Great Gatsby – a story of longing for a past that no longer exists.
The Great Gatsby begins with Nick Caraway, the observer-protagonist, spotting his neighbour, the elusive Gatsby on his lawn, standing at the edge of his mansion by the edge of the sea.
Nick is about to say hello when he hesitates. He explains:
I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched his arms toward the dark water in a curious way… Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.
The light belongs to the house of Daisy, Gatsby’s long-lost love – the love he wants more than anything to recapture and restore to its former glory. It is at once a symbol of the past and a symbol of a glorious future.
Gatsby sets about his task, holding parties every week and inviting everyone in the neighborhood. One day, he hopes, Daisy will attend one of the parties, they will meet and he will win her back again – and those days will come full circle.
The plan hinges on a single gambit. If Gatsby can present himself as perfect – the rich, popular man in the mansion, the dream of success – then Daisy will have no choice but to fall for him. In trying to capture the perfect past, he must make himself perfect in the present. To reclaim the young relationship, he must be everything that youth symbolises – newness, vibrancy, spontaneity, and bursting with popularity.
When they do eventually meet again, the gambit pays off, at first. Daisy is impressed by this new Gatsby. She is dazzled by the world he has constructed for her. She laughs in joy at his crisp, new shirts, at this dazzling man who seems almost too good to be true, because he is.
But there is a sadness too.
She is not the woman he once fell for. Married to the brutish Tom Buchanan, she has become – like her partner – a force of destruction. Tom and Daisy are corrupted by the world and corrupting of the world, intentionally blind to the damage they cause to the people they say they love. They not only destroy each other – they destroy everyone in their path.
By the end of the book, Gatsby is dead. The dream is dead with him and in some ways, it is the dream itself that killed him.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further… And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
In my opinion, the saddest scene in the book is Gatsby’s funeral. The man who had it all, who had parties with hundreds of guests and knew people all over the world, is left utterly alone. No one turns up to say goodbye.
The trajectory of Gatsby’s life matches the real-life trajectory of F Scott Fitzgerald.
Following his early success with This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote increasingly about personal tragedy: the breakdown of his marriage, his wife Zelda losing touch with reality, and his own disintegration into alcoholism and self-doubt. This culminated in the Crack Up, as he called it, a complete mental breakdown – where he moved away from old friends and his old self entirely.
Fitzgerald’s later books, Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and the Damned, show us what happens when the dream is over, when the cold indifference of reality comes crashing down. Like the end of the roaring twenties, Fitzgerald’s own boom years ended in misery and loneliness. Estranged from his wife and friends, he died in the apartment of his then-mistress, Sheilah Graham, trying and failing to make a new life for himself in Hollywood. He would never again capture that early feeling of success.
The most heartbreaking part of Fitzgerald’s story is this moment. The moment when you realize that the past is never coming back. That the old you is gone and died away. That you must become someone new to survive in this new age, and worse still, that you might not be up for the challenge.
When I first read Fitzgerald’s work, I wrote down a poem to capture my impression of nostalgia. This is how it goes:
How can we long for a past that no longer exists? To return home and find all our memories waiting, each set in place: eager to surprise us on our arrival. We question, how long have we been away? Our friends appear faded with time, surprised to see us and us them, halted as they’ve always been.
The surprise however, grows duller by the year. Some faces fade; some disappear. Soon none will be waiting and the room, it will stand empty. All but a picture frame, firm as the day it was made. The one moment everything was perfect.
Surely that, will never fade?
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