Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mallick: Fitzgerald, America's prophet on the tragedy of money and hubris

By Heather Mallick, Toronto Star, May 29, 2012
It isn’t the bad economic and social news that eats at me, it’s the eternal sense of novelty with which everyone reacts to it. Hard times that are this crusty, well, it’s shocking, I do declare!
But it has all happened before, many times in fact. Larger forces and greedy people are chewing at us like a vagrant on bath salts. We are fearful, largely unread, too lazy to vote, too incoherent to organize as the Quebec students did, we are older than we realized and we look to . . . who? . . . for guidance.
There’s always Paul Krugman, whose measured blog — one of the most influential in his nation — maps the financial catastrophe using tracing paper from the previous ones, and startlingly breaks the chain with videos of Canada’s Arcade Fire and Feist.
Books and music ease the pain. Out of money, out of luck, we turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote about class, money and yearning for status in a century we are now replaying. This is a big subject for a novelist and he made it his big subject with a formal perfection admired to this day.
On Oct. 19, 1929, 10 days before Black Tuesday ushered in the Depression, Fitzgerald published a story called The Swimmers about an American whose ideals were smashed. (I thank Sarah Churchwell in the Guardian for alerting me to this obscure story. Her book on Fitzgerald, Careless People, will be published next year.) The Swimmers was about sexual betrayal intertwined with dishonesty about money, less compressed than 1925’s The Great Gatsby, a novel in which I cannot find one wrong word.
“It’s the hardest story I ever wrote, too big for its space,” he told his editor, but all writers say that. In The Swimmers, the French wife, unfaithful on her American husband’s money, turns a gimlet eye on the Riviera’s American women, sleek swimmers “who push water” to gain the attention of suitors. She mocks a “stenographer . . . dressing and acting as if she had all the money in the world.”
“Perhaps she will have, some day,” says her husband.
“That’s the story they are told,” the wife scoffs. “It happens to one, not the ninety-nine. That’s why all their faces over thirty are discontented and unhappy.”
Astonishing, this, the Occupy movement’s 1 per cent slogan foretold. The Old World has its history and its land, the husband thinks, “but Americans, restless and with shallow roots, needed fins and wings. There was even a recurrent idea in America about an education that would leave out history and the past.”
More seer points for Fitzgerald, as history and literature fade to black.
Recently the New York Times praised a sentimental damp-eyed teacher of immigrant students for luring them with The Great Gatsby. She told them the novel was about the American dream of becoming rich as Gatsby, as stupid a summary as those written by the reviewers who destroyed the book in 1925 and cracked Fitzgerald “like an old plate.”
Times readers were furious and told the paper so, but it’s clear that Americans still don’t understand the book. Gatsby, a gangster, had money, the great measurer of American life. That’s what killed him.
In 1927, Fitzgerald was interviewed about the future of the Jazz Age. “The idea that we’re the greatest people in the world because we have the most money in the world is ridiculous,” he said. “Wait until this wave of prosperity is over! Wait 10 or 15 years! . . . Wait until the next war on the Pacific, or against some European combination!”
For this, he was ridiculed. Remarks like these made Fitzgerald, already famous as an uncontrollable drinker, a laughingstock. But he understood how things begin and end, what happens to unencumbered people without history to weigh them down.
They take a giant dive, a terrible arc, as did the good careful Dick Diver in Tender is the Night, the last novel published before Fitzgerald died.
He had always been right about descent and despair, always been a boat against the American current. He died thinking himself a failure

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