Wonder

Michael Wood

When asked what part of the Middle West he comes from, Jay Gatsby says: ‘San Francisco.’ This is usually taken as a sign of his shaky geography or his eagerness to cover up his origins, or both. But the response seems too blunt and broad for that – too blunt and broad for either Gatsby or Fitzgerald. If Gatsby were at all given to making jokes, we might think this was one.

There is an American myth, Fitzgerald’s myth, in which the West and the Middle West are one: they are not-the-East. The East is New York City, Harvard, Boston, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Long Island, various ritzy, long-settled provinces, or just poor and ancient ones. The West is everything west of Chicago, and there is no south or north. ‘That’s my Middle West,’ the narrator says at the end of The Great Gatsby, ‘not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.’

The place sounds, not accidentally, like the setting of Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons or Minelli’s Meet me in St Louis. This is the West not as the future or the frontier, but as the unspoiled past, the impeccable past of nostalgia, not a snowflake out of place. We look at it from the perspective of a remorseless East-ernising which appears to be synonymous with the movement of history itself. The narrator of The Great Gatsby says he sees now ‘that this has been a story of the West, after all – Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.’ Or not so subtly, since Gatsby is dead, and Tom and Daisy Buchanan are said to be ‘careless people’, who ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together’. The West is not innocence but a fantasy of innocence; not old American history but the place where history hasn’t happened yet. In the West, the trains always take you home, and the American dream becomes not a hope but a fantasised memory: ruin rewritten as a fresh start, or rather, the only start, the old promise and the old ruin both thrown out of the window as if they had never been. Fitzgerald understood as few writers have how appealing and impossible this scenario is, how touching and how reprehensible. When he said there are no second acts in American lives, he was not stating the obvious but pointing to the irredeemable. The thought makes serious sense only if we imagine someone, perhaps a whole culture, actually shocked by it, anxious to deny it, the way Gatsby responds to the truism that you can’t repeat the past: ‘Why of course you can!’ This is not naivety but principle; it is part of what the narrator means when he identifies ‘a romantic readiness’ in Gatsby, and suggests that this garish, touching and unscrupulous man ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself’.

Long Island, east of the American East, described as ‘that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York’, was once a distant, western sight for Dutch sailors’ eyes, and the novel’s conclusion reminds us of this:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder

The trees have vanished, and the continent’s east is full of oil refineries and urban sprawl; it is the valley of ashes over which the eyes of Dr T.J. Eckleburg preside. But there’s always the West? No, there always was the West, the West is always gone, there is only the memory of wonder. The tell-tale verb is ‘pandered’, and even the dream is long since over.

The wonder, in Fitzgerald’s mythology, is what can only be lost, even in the moment of its apparent possession; and a sense of this curious, precocious disaster is the tune behind all of Fitzgerald’s best sentences. Behind quite a few of his worst sentences too. The sentences go wrong, I think, when Fitzgerald tries too hard for the grandeur of loss, or tries to name what it is that’s gone: ‘he came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour.’ ‘He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star.’ It’s as if Conrad had been reading True Romance and was working for Disney. The narrator goes on to comment on Gatsby’s ‘appalling sentimentality’; but it’s not the thought that’s sentimental here; it’s the writing.

Here, though, are Daisy and Gatsby, driven out of the story, left to the wreckage of the idea of their love. ‘They were gone, without a word, snapped out, made accidental, isolated like ghosts even from our pity.’ Here is Tom, the stupid, lost, rich man, ‘forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game’: ‘There was something pathetic in his concentration as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.’ Here is Gatsby’s smile: ‘It was one of those rare smiles ... that you come across four or five times in life ... It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished.’ And here is Fitzgerald himself, evoking his own success and sense of the Twenties: ‘And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.’ What the notation catches is not what is lost but the moment of losing; loss itself as a flickering experience; the past at the very instant that it becomes the past.

It makes sense, then, that Fitzgerald should think of calling what we know as The Last Tycoon, the novel he worked on from early 1939 until his death in December 1940, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. But not because he was writing, in Matthew Bruccoli’s words, ‘a novel about the last American frontier, where immigrants and sons of immigrants pursued and defined the American dream’. This is just the novel he wasn’t writing. Monroe Stahr, the hero of the work, is a movie producer in love with his dead wife, whom he finds reincarnate in the person of an English girl who strays into the studio on the night of an earthquake. Hollywood is Western, in Fitzgerald’s terms, because it repeats the past, because its simulacra point to real loss. The narrator describes the studio back lot in the moonlight as ‘thirty acres of fairyland,’

not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French chateaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway at night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire. I never lived in a house with an attic but a back lot must be something like that and at night of course in an enchanted distorted way, it all comes true.

The earthquake causes a flood, two women have taken refuge on ‘a huge head of the god Siva’, which is ‘floating down the current of an impromptu river’. The head is halted, the women helped down, Stahr does not answer his assistant’s question about what is to be done with them.

Smiling faintly at him from not four feet away was the face of his dead wife, identical even to the expression. Across four feet of moonlight the eyes he knew looked back at him, a curl blew a little on a familiar forehead, the smile lingered, changed a little according to pattern, the lips parted – the same ... Back from the still sour room, the muffled glide of the limousine hearse, the falling concealing flowers, from out there in the dark – here now warm and glowing.

This is not a train setting off for the frosty dark of the West, and it is not loss caught in the moment of its occurrence. It is loss magically and fraudulently cancelled, the ghost is not a ghost. The story is a Western because it believes for a moment that history has been rewound or unwound.

And yet Stahr is ‘the last of the princes’, sentimentally compared to Napoleon as seen by the old guard, to Lincoln as seen by admiring biographers. You can’t repeat the past. Stahr’s new love is not the old one, and he can’t hold onto it anyway. The best thing in the book – apart from some brilliant images of Stahr at work, fixing scripts, bullying writers, sorting out actors – is the tender love affair that can’t quite get started, that is over before it’s begun, and figured not in the apparent resurrection of his dead wife but in her recurring death. ‘He went upstairs. Minna died again on the first landing and he forgot her lingeringly and miserably again, step by step to the top.’

There is a certain amount of mush here too, of exactly the same kind as we find in The Great Gatsby. Its presence therefore indicates not that Fitzgerald was falling apart as a writer, but that he always had difficulty in holding himself together. But there is a new note, brought on by the Depression and Fitzgerald’s response to it. There are marvellously funny stories in this novel about what people are planning to do when the revolution comes – hide out in Yellowstone Park, for example, and get fed by ‘kind Tory bears’ bringing honey; and the equivalents of Tom and Daisy Buchanan are now not just careless and violent, they are scared. ‘I knew,’ the narrator says, ‘that since 1933 the rich could only be happy alone together.’

Both of these Cambridge editions are critical editions, with an elaborate apparatus and much huffing and puffing from the editor, Matthew Bruccoli. ‘The decision not to emend is an editorial act,’ he stoutly says, but in practice this simply means Fitzgerald’s larger mistakes are left alone. The case of The Great Gatsby is fairly straightforward, but The Last Tycoon is immensely complicated in largely trivial ways. ‘Baer looked at him with a genuine looking that had grown over three years.’ Earlier editions have all printed ‘liking’, and that’s what Sheilah Graham thought Fitzgerald meant. Bruccoli’s decision to respect the manuscript seems merely pious, pretty aimless otherwise.

The same goes for the title. Edmund Wilson called the book – Fitzgerald had completed 17 out of 30 projected chapters – The Last Tycoon, and Graham later said she thought Fitzgerald would have preferred this. At the time he was playing with the idea of The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, because he ‘wanted it to sound like a movie title and completely disguise the tragi-heroic content of the book’. This gives a certain authority to the lumpy new title, but Bruccoli’s additional reasons seem muddled: ‘it is close to the title by which the novel has been known and ... it has the Fitzgerald bouquet.’ It would be bad enough for a writer to have a bouquet; awful to think this was it.

Still, this edition does make available all the alternative readings, and it has 68 splendid pages of Fitzgerald’s working notes in facsimile. The explanatory notes, aimed at ‘an attentive American or British graduate’, contain some information that anyone might find useful (it took nearly eighteen hours, for example, to fly from coast to coast in 1936), but generally they are condescending and pointless. If something has ‘gone to pot’ it means it has undergone a process of deterioration; the term has nothing to do with marijuana. ‘Long shot’ means ‘movie footage shot from a distance’. There now.

Jeffrey Meyers’s biography of Fitzgerald is the sort of job often called workmanlike, although most of the workmen I know are subtler than this. Meyers goes in for simple, moralising accounts of instances which cry out their complexity. ‘Fitzgerald inherited his elegance and propensity to failure from his father; his social insecurity and absurd behaviour from his mother.’ All his absurd behaviour? When Fitzgerald, anxious to meet Conrad, whom he greatly admires, gets drunk and dances on the lawn, it doesn’t seem quite enough to say that ‘Scott did not seem to realise that a drunken dance was not the best way to impress the formal old sea captain.’ I have no independent information about this event but I’m prepared to bet Fitzgerald got so drunk because he did realise – because he realised, and couldn’t manage, many things.

Meyers says Fitzgerald as a soldier ‘never realised that it was vitally important to acquire basic military skills’; and his ‘lavish expenditure of money indelibly marked him as nou-veau riche’. Sounds bad. And Fitzgerald’s marvellously tender comment not only on Zelda but on the desolate company she came to keep is brutally turned into hefty sermonising. Fitzgerald: ‘The insane are always mere guests on the earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.’ Meyers: ‘In this cryptic statement Scott meant that Zelda had rejected the moral laws ... that were universally accepted by mankind.’

‘Personality’, the narrator suggests in The Great Gatsby, may be ‘an unbroken series of successful gestures’. It’s a wrong-headed and self-punishing proposition. Both Gatsby and The Last Tycoon are novels which dream of such a personality, but they tell us finally, as Fitzgerald’s life does, that personality can be made of failure too, that a broken series of anything like successful gestures must be more than enough, and is more than most of us manage. It’s just that, for Fitzgerald, the breaking was more than he could bear