Thursday, May 27, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I am in the midst of an F. Scott Fitzgerald reading jag. After finishing a forty story collection of his best stuff, I read "The Great Gatsby" and the Pat Hobby stories, some of the last stories he published. "Tender is the Night" left me cold. The first section was disjointed and appeared to reflect the turmoil in Fitzgerald's life at the time. And I can't figure out what triggered Dick Diver's descent into mediocrity. And, by the way, who cares? He was an irritating character as it was. "The Last Tycoon" is an enjoyable read. Too bad Fitzgerald died before finishing it. The romantic elements were slow going, but everything else was riveting. He had Hollywood nailed but good. I'll have to revisit Elia Kazan's film version with Robert DeNiro. It seemed like a failure when I first saw it. Maybe I'll appreciate it more now.

Fitzgerald's prose at times sounds like poetry it is so elegant and beautiful. Time and time again I find myself amazed at his unique turns of phrase. No other writer, before or since, had written such beautiful descriptions.

What I am enjoying is reading the short stories. Presently I am halfway through "The Price Was High," a collection of previously uncollected stories. None are great, not a few are disappointing. But all of them are worth reading. Fitzgerald's worst story is better than some people's best story.

It was a pleasant surprise to find out how funny some of his stories are. His novels are practically without humor, so reading "The Offshore Pirate," about a man and his outlaw jazz band taking control of a yacht with a spoiled rich girl aboard was a delight. "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" had an appropriate revenge at the end after poor Bernice has been tricked into bobbing her hair. The Basil and Josephine Stories, semi-autobiographical in nature, have a nice feeling of melancholy. Fitzgerald wrote them about the time Zelda had her first mental breakdown. They have a flavor of wistfullness tinged with sadness. Fitzgerald is thinking about more innocent days, but with a knowledge that the future is not always as sunny and bright as we hope it will be.

The Pat Hobby stories were written in his last years when he was living in Hollywood. He was considered a washed up has-been by then. Fitzgerald wrote his frustration and anger into a series of stories about an old hack writer hanging on in Hollywood long past his prime. Pat Hobby scrambles and begs for work from his former bosses who give him short assignments purely out of pity. The saddest story has Pat stealing another writer's screenplay and retyping it with his own alterations. When he submits it the producer is more thoughtful of how the botched script reflects Pat Hobby's wounded psyche than angry. The funniest is when Pat Hobby, wearing a false beard, is mistaken for Orson Welles. Seeing Welles as his evil doppleganger, the comparison drives Pat to distraction.

Wuthering Heights

Our perception of classic literature and the reality often times are very far apart. I recently read "Wuthering Heights" and was surprised to find out that Heathcliff is not the brooding, romantic hero that he is commonly thought to be. Rather, he is a psychopath and sadist who does everything he can to keep everyone around him miserable. Ostensibly this is because he yearns for his lost love, Catherine. The reality is that he is unhinged from his obsession with her. And with Catherine dead the only outlet for this obsession is to punish everyone around him for being alive.

As "Wuthering Heights" so little resembles its popular representation, I found it to be a fascinating book. Fascinating by just how terrible Heathcliff is. Fascinated by Catherine's multiple pronouncements that she could never marry Heathcliff as much as she enjoys his company. It is Catherine's perception of and relationship with Heathcliff that motivates all the action.

When first seen Catherine is a spoiled child. When Heathcliff is introduced as the adopted gypsy boy, Catherine enjoys toying with him rather than playing with him. Heathcliff, the poor, confused orphan, is out of his depth and completely captivated by Catherine. When, as a teenager, he overhears Catherine declaring she could never love Heathcliff, he runs away.

When Heathcliff reappears he is a grown man. What he has been doing in the interim is only hinted at, but he has come back a cruel and vengeful person.

Another aspect of the novel I found intriguing was the idea of the supernatural. The supernatural, magic powers, the dead returning as spirits, are all mentioned, setting up the idea that many people believe in these things. This has led to, in my opinion, the mistaken idea that Catherine has come back as a ghost and, when Heathcliff thankfully dies, he joins her.

My belief is that Catherine does not return from the dead. Heathcliff, driven mad by his own obsession, begins hallucinating that he sees her until, in his psychotic state, he starves himself to death. The turning point for Heathcliff is the realization that he cannot keep everyone around him sunk in the same misery he wallows in. Catherine's daughter, forced to live in Heathcliff's home, defies him. She falls in love and declares that no matter what he does he will not prevent her happiness. The moment Heathcliff loses the ability to control those around him, he loses control of himself. It is only after he is defied that his hallucinations begin. And, as unlikely as it seems from all that has come before, "Wuthering Heights" has a happy ending.