The American publishing house Scribner recently announced that it planned to issue ‘the last complete unpublished stories’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald in April. To fans of Fitzgerald, such news would once have brought unalloyed excitement; but after the damage done to Harper Lee’s reputation by Go Set a Watchman, one can’t help feeling apprehensive. Will I’d Die for You (as the collection is to be called) remind the world that his stories are as entrancing as his novels, or will it expose unimagined shortcomings?
Scribner declares that the stories ‘provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career’ and include pieces he could not sell because ‘their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected’. They deal with ‘controversial topics, depicting young men and women who actually spoke and thought more as young men and women did, without censorship’.
The key question is how Scribner defines ‘controversial’. It is not as if Fitzgerald presented a sanitised view of the world: though rightly celebrated as a great romantic writer, what gives strength and credibility to his work is that he never overlooks the mundane and seamy side of life. The most prevalent themes in the already published stories are disillusionment and the power of alcohol to wreck people’s lives: in The Rich Boy it comes between the protagonist and the girl he should have married, in May Day it leads to violent death. Nor does Fitzgerald shy away from sex: his unsparing dissections of married life, such as Two Wrongs and The Rough Crossing, have adultery as a central theme, while his most substantial novel, Tender Is the Night, hinges on the greatest taboo of all – incest.
But he was not entirely wedded to realism, and what is particularly interesting about the short stories is that they venture into a realm which has almost no place in his novels: the Gothic. His best-known story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, is a case in point. As a portrait of a family rich enough to buy anything on earth, it is clearly the wealth-obsessed author’s ultimate fantasy, and he delights in cataloguing their extravagances, such as an ebony-roofed limousine upholstered in cloth of gold. But what seems at first a simple jeu d’esprit has a darker side: the family is served by slaves, and those who discover the source of their wealth must be silenced. The fantasy ends in mayhem and madness.
Some tales belong directly to the ghost- and horror-story tradition: The Cut-Glass Bowl focuses on a wedding present with a curse, while A Short Trip Home involves an encounter with a dead man. Where Fitzgerald makes the genre his own, however, is in stories which combine the disturbing with exuberant comedy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is remarkable not only for its inspired premise (Benjamin is born as an old man and grows younger as the years pass) but also for its hilarious satire: the hero is initially branded a cad for ignoring the laws of nature, but overcomes opposition to his marriage by financing his father-in-law’s pet project – ‘his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers’. The brilliance of The Lees of Happiness – the tale of a man and a woman bound together by their devotion to a stroke victim – lies in the way Fitzgerald gradually modulates the narrative tone in the course of its two dozen pages: opening with an almost Dickensian facetiousness, it turns first to more subtle comedy, then to sober realism, and finally to deep pathos.
His short stories are also remarkable for giving centre stage to seedy characters who would merit only walk-on parts in the high-society world of his novels – above all Pat Hobby, the roguish Hollywood screenwriter who appears in no fewer than seventeen tales.
But the cardinal reason for reading anything by Fitzgerald is the pure beauty of his prose, evoking the elusive and the evanescent, marrying the physical to the abstract, as in Winter Dreams:
‘Later in the afternoon the sun went down in a riotous swirl of gold and varying blues and scarlets, and left the dry, restless night of Western summer. Dexter watched from the veranda of the Golf Club, watched the even overlap of the waters in the little wind, silver molasses under the harvest-moon…It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and everything about him was radiating a brightness and glamour he might never know again.’
If anything in I’d Die for You comes close to that, it will have been worth the 80-year wait.