When George Lucas said in an interview it was hard for him to accept that he would always be George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas, we would think that Scott ‘The Great Gatsby’ Fitzgerald would be one of those smiling empathetically from beyond the grave. The truth, however, is that Fitzgerald often struggled with financial difficulties during his lifetime, and he probably would have wished that the world had warmed up to the novel earlier. At least George had a mansion in Beverly Hills where he could brood over the sobriquet inflicted on him!
The irony of this entire affair is such that it could have been conceived in a Thomas Hardy novel. Throughout his life, Fitzgerald only achieved financial success for his first two novels, (The Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned) and for his short stories, although The Great Gatsby was ramping up an underground following. The success didn’t last and he endured several years of financial hardship before finally finding a steady income in Hollywood, a work he described as ‘degrading’. It’s always tricky to really know what a man thinks of his life, but several biographers believe Fitzgerald thought himself a failure before he drank himself to an early death.
The Great Gatsby has since sold 25 million copies and is considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Several movie adaptations have raised the profile of the book to a level that overshadows anything else that he wrote. Which is a shame, because while The Great Gatsby is a wonderful book, only serious readers now recognize Fitzgerald’s other highly regarded novels, and few appreciate him for his short stories. The author of this piece has spent the last fortnight hooked on to the latter, and in his opinion, many of his short stories deserve much more attention.
Like ‘The Great Gatsby’, many of his short stories were about love and aspiration, glamour and romance during what he called ‘The Jazz Age’ of the 1920’s, captured beautifully (in different proportions) in works such as The Rich Boy and The Sensible Thing. These are the underlying themes of all his works, but the common criticism that he dealt exclusively with these subjects is unfair. The Basil Stories, for instance, catalogues the emotional growth of a young man, between fourteen and eighteen, and will remind every person of their tumultuous period between adolescence and adulthood. Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s and The Baby Party are heart-wrenching tales dealing with parental love. He has even written a ghost story called ‘A Short Trip Home although Scotty old sport, you were probably out of your depth there.
However, his greatest short story might just be Absolution, initially intended to serve as a prologue for The Great Gatsby before Fitzgerald, in his own words, “cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.” This glorious work about young boy’s complicated relationship with religion is gripping and evocative in equal measure before the climax delivers you one of the greatest literary highs of your life.
Fitzgerald’s talent is that he merges the power to weave together breath-taking sentences (“this night’s dusk would cover up forever the sun and the trees and the flowers and laughter of his young world”) with a keen insight into human nature (“he knew that to be carless in dress and manner required more confidence than to be careful”), albeit one with a lens that bears his unmistakable signature. It’s a power that’s evident in both his novels and his short stories, and there are far worse things to do on a Saturday afternoon than reading Fitzgerald. If presently you don’t have the time to tuck in with ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘Tender is the Night’, then you’ll find that his short fiction.
By Fateh Singh Mann