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Fitzgerald’s ‘Radiant World’

All that Perkins singled out for praise—the narrative method, the individual scenes, are of course carried forward intact from Trimalchio to Gatsby and so too is that light dusting upon existence for which Perkins could find no better word than “glamour” and neither can anyone else.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. There was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

There is no need, surely, to rehearse the plot of “probably the most widely read novel written by an American in the twentieth century.” The opening chapters of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby are pretty much the same, barring the kind of fussing every writer does with galleys. The chief changes come in Chapters Six and Seven of Trimalchio, and the long, late chapter, as Gatsby and Nick sit by the open French windows in Gatsby’s house, the dawn after Myrtle’s killing, when Gatsby breaks out “exuberantly”: “I’ll tell you everything. The whole story. I’ve never told it to anyone before—not even Daisy. But I haven’t told many lies about it, either, only I’ve shifted things around a good deal to make people wonder.” And shifting things about is what Fitzgerald, his creator—one of his surrogate fathers, like Cody and Wolfsheim—now proceeds to do. Perkins had surely been right: Gatsby’s story comes to us much more persuasively measured out among chapters. And it has effects that could not have been anticipated. It is right, for example, that we should learn, much earlier, that “Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that.”

In a jubilant, indeed cocksure letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald reported that he had brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the second party scene and the climactic scene at the Plaza, and successfully broken up the long, autobiographical scene at Gatsby’s French windows. In brief, by an act of stylistic legerdemain, he had addressed all of Perkins’s concerns. What he had not addressed were his own misgivings about the novel’s emotional center, or rather, its lack of one.

There is a moment in Trimalchio at one of the parties, when Daisy and Nick are dancing and Daisy, leaning backward to look into his face, tells him that she just wants to go, and not tell Tom anything. She is afraid of the riskiness of Gatsby’s world, afraid of “some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion.” A few weeks later, the lights failed to go on one Saturday night, and “as obscurely as it had begun his career as Trimalchio suddenly ended.” “I’m very sad old sport,” he tells Nick a few days later. “Daisy wants us to run off together. She came over this afternoon with a suitcase all packed and ready in the car.” In other words, Nick tells him, understandably if a bit brutally, you’ve got her—and now you don’t want her. What Gatsby wants, as far as he had figured things out, is that he and Daisy should go back to Louisville and be married in her house and start life over. The bewilderment which this bizarre enterprise might cause in that conventional household seemed to him of no concern. As he walks frantically up and down, he seems to be in some fantastic communication with time and space. With a bit more experience, Nick could have pointed out to him that when you mess around with an excitable young married woman, you are buying yourself a peck of trouble.

It is at this point that there occurs the passage that, when carried over from Trimalchio into Gatsby, has caused much spilled ink. Gatsby remembers the time, five years before at the change of the year, when he kissed Daisy, and knew that now 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. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

The extremity of the language is necessary, though, if the relationship of these star-crossed lovers is to be grasped, and it is at least possible that Fitzgerald has conjured into being sets of feelings that run on different tracks. Daisy lives in the world we like to call real, in which women, real women, stuff their suitcases with real silks and drive real cars over to a lover. A bit headstrong, perhaps, but none the less real for that. But Gatsby lives in the world of romantic energies and colors, a world shaped as a conspiracy between himself and the writer who has been creating him. It is the world of Emma Bovary and Julien Sorel and Balzac’s heroes. How it was wandered into by a cornball from the shores of Lake Superior must remain, no doubt, a mystery. But there you are.

As Fitzgerald wrote to his other literary friend from Princeton, John Peale Bishop, “You are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear myself—for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself—the amalgam was never complete in my mind.” But that would happen always with his central figures—Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch, Dexter Green, Dick Diver, Monroe Stahr. It is a common affliction of the romantic sensibility and still more of romantic aspiration. Small wonder that Keats was his favorite poet—perhaps his favorite writer—or that he wrote to his daughter that The Eve of Saint Agnes “has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare.” It would be somewhere within his mind when Gatsby begins throwing his London-made shirts before Daisy in multicolored disarray, “shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue.” Small wonder that when the single romantic dream shatters, the world disassembles itself, uncreates itself, drains off its colors and names for things. “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found out what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”

Fitzgerald—and Zelda too, in her different way—had received a raven’s wing of that terror of the suddenly unreal in that summer when he was writing Gatsby, and Zelda either became infatuated with or fell desperately in love with a young French naval aviator named Édouard Jozan. He would appear, variously renamed, in Tender Is the Night and in Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz. “Everybody knew it but Scott,” Sara Murphy said. But he found out. They always do. Even Tom Buchanan did when he heard Daisy say to Gatsby: “You always look so cool.” Apparently the jury is still out on whether Zelda went to bed with Jozan, but it might not have much mattered in view of the enormous, the almost Gatsby-like investment which Fitz-gerald and Zelda had made in each other.

Back in 1920, a young woman friend of Fitzgerald’s, bearing the somewhat improbable name of Isabelle Amorous, heard that the engagement had been broken off, and wrote to tell him that from all she had heard he was well out of it. She got an earshot in reply, which is what such people deserve:

No personality as strong as Zelda’s could go without getting criticisms and as you say she is not above reproach. I’ve always known that. Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has “kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,” cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be.

But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything. You’re still a Catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

So much for this “lapsed Catholic sensibility” nonsense. He ends the letter with admirable restraint, perhaps because he is writing from Princeton’s Cottage Club: “And don’t reproach yourself for your letter. My friends are unanimous in frankly advising me not to marry a wild, pleasure-loving girl like Zelda so I’m quite used to it.” To speak of Zelda, then at least, as what he has instead of God (which is eerily prophetic of something Brett says to Jake in The Sun Also Rises) is more than a lover’s rhetoric; it is something closer to the fact.

Now, from the Riviera in August, a month after he has confronted Zelda, and as he is finishing the novel, he writes to another old friend, Ludlow Fowler, the model for Anson Hunter in “The Rich Boy”: “That’s the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”

3.

There remains now only the hygienic task of clearing up a misconception about this novel which has grown mushroomlike beside it, and threat-ens at times almost to replace it. This is the belief that The Great Gatsby is about something called “the Ameri-can Dream.” Scholars exchange their learned articles on the subject, and generations of college freshmen are told about it. If you whispered into a reader’s sleeping ear the words “Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,” she would murmur drowsily “and the corruption of the American dream.” By the time Mizener was at work on his biography, he was writing with confidence of “Gatsby’s embodiment of the American dream.” Subsequent libraries of Gatsby criticism are elaborations of the theme. There probably is an American dream, and it probably deserves some of the things that are said about it. (How else could we have wound up with Gore and Bush—such things are not accidents.) But this is not the subject of Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel, which is “about” our entrance into the world “trailing clouds of glory” until

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

Wordsworth was not in a particularly American mood when he wrote the Immortality Ode. And he even went out of his way to tell us in a long note what he took his own poem to be about. Many times when going to school, he tells us, “have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality.” In his poem, he chooses to regard this “as resumptive evidence of a prior state of existence,” an idea “not advanced in revelation” but with “nothing there to contradict it.” And, if one would want some more recent speculations upon the subject, one might study what Nick feels after Gatsby’s fear that his mind will not romp again like the mind of God:

Through all that he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there were more struggling on them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

That memory came to a first European life in a Platonic dialogue, and since then we have been listening to fragmentary echoes from the Cave. Of course, Fitzgerald has much to tell us about the life and the history of American culture, about the textures, the richnesses and thinnesses of our national life—because after all, as we’ve been told, poetry must have a local habitation and a name. And maybe we have persuaded ourselves that all American novels are really about America, and not about love and eros and death.

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