Fairyland

Bruce Bawer

  • Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by James Mellow
    Souvenir, 569 pp, £15.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 285 65001 7
  • Home before Dark: A Personal Memoir of John Cheever by Susan Cheever
    Weidenfeld, 243 pp, £10.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 297 78376 9

Scott Fitzgerald – who was renowned in his lifetime as much for his escapades with Zelda as for his contribution to literature – would doubtless be gratified to know how profoundly most literate citizens of the English-speaking world now admire The Great Gatsby, Tender is the night, and a number of his short stories. Yet one wonders how he would react to the news that, in 1985, the world continues to be even more fascinated by his magical, misguided life than by his fiction. Certainly there cannot be many who are unfamiliar with the outlines of the Scott Fitzgerald story: the early years in St Paul as the humiliated son of a failed businessman (and as the inordinately proud descendant of Francis Scott Key, author of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’); the glorious salad days at Princeton University, which he left without a degree; the wartime courtship of Zelda Sayre, the belle of Montgomery, Alabama; the sudden fame – and the marriage to Zelda – that followed the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920; the wild, drunken parties in New York and Maryland, on Long Island and the Riviera, during the roaring Twenties; the flapper stories for the Saturday Evening Post which set the tone of the ‘Jazz Age’ while paying the Fitzgeralds’ bills for a decade; the friendships with Edmund Wilson, Ring Lardner, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and above all with Hemingway; the insanity that crippled Zelda during the Thirties, and the alcoholism that devastated Scott; the prolonged composition and demoralising failure of Tender is the night; Zelda’s institutionalisation in North Carolina and the attempted resuscitation of his career by means of a scriptwriting stint in Hollywood; the affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who helped him climb back on the wagon and encouraged his return to novel-writing with the never-completed but extremely impressive The Last Tycoon; and, finally, the heart attack at the age of 43.

It’s a legendary American story, a beautiful and damned American dream turned nightmare, and in the past five years alone three biographers have seen fit to tell it yet again. In 1981, Matthew J. Bruccoli, archetype of the preposterously prolific modern American literary scholar (in the past decade or so, he has not only collected Fitzgerald’s letters, screenplays, notebooks and minor stories, but written Brobdingnagian lives of John O’Hara and James Gould Cozzens), produced a sloppy, simple-minded, adoring doorstop of a biography entitled Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. André Le Vot, a French scholar, followed in 1983 with a graceful English translation of his stately, sensitive and painstakingly researched F. Scott Fitzgerald. And now James R. Mellow – who in a brief period has turned out gargantuan lives of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein (and is at work on Hemingway) – has weighed in with Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The most noticeable distinction between Bruccoli and Le Vot, on the one hand, and Mellow, on the other, is that the latter is not a scholar but a ‘writer’, a literary journalist. Most of the facts in Invented Lives have been cheerfully glommed from those who got there before he did – not only Bruccoli and Le Vot, but the earlier Fitzgerald biographers, Andrew Turnbull and Arthur Mizener, Zelda’s biographer Nancy Milford, and Sara Mayfield, author of Exiles from Paradise. Mellow relies so heavily upon his predecessors, in fact, that Fitzgerald fans who have only recently read the Le Vot book may find passages in Invented Lives bringing on attacks of déjà vu.

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