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An American Tragedy

ISSUE:  Spring 1984
F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. By André LeVot. Translated by William Byron. Doubleday. $19.95.

Moralists wear many disguises, perhaps none more intriguing than the particular concealment practiced for so long by F. Scott Fitzgerald—an alcoholic, moneyed self-indulgence which fueled a relentless self-examination, not to mention stories and novels whose social scrutiny over a half century ago of America’s values still works rather well when applied to our contemporary life. Fitzgerald has not lacked for the attention of critics or biographers. In a concluding section of this latest effort to comprehend as gifted and intriguing a literary personality as this country has produced in this century, Andre LeVot (a professor of American literature at the Sorbonne) offers a bibliographical essay titled “Fitzgerald’s Posthumous Glory.” We learn about hundreds and hundreds of reviews and critical essays and theses and memoirs written by friends and acquaintances. By now some 200 books have been given over entirely or in major part to him and his work—and surely none of them offers the interested reader a better sense of who this complex writer was and what he was trying to do with his short, hectic, driven, persistently and fiercely expressive life than this new biography.

LeVot’s biography is in the tradition of storytelling—a given life as an occasion for clear narrative presentation rather than as an excuse for the assertion of one or another ideological claim. This century has been dominated by sociological and psychological speculations, by materialist convictions with respect to the nature of our personal lives or our historical past—to the point that one is almost shocked by Professor LeVot’s manner of approach to his subject. Moreover, F. Scott Fitzgerald was hardly a writer who managed to live a quiet, stable, uneventful life—reserving high drama, not to mention emotional turmoil, for his various fictions. I remember, as a matter of fact, a spirited panel discussion on Fitzgerald’s work at Harvard in the late 1950’s. I was all full of psychiatry then—taking my training in it. “Poor Scott,” one elder statesman of the English department whispered to another—”they’re devouring him.” The “they” were critics rather uncritically infatuated with the blandishments of psychoanalytic psychiatry, and I fear I was one of their enthusiastic listeners. Lest a pair of elderly gentlemen get in our way, even through the discreet choice of a barely audible comment to a nearby colleague, I took upon myself the obligation of defense—and the best kind, we know, is an attack. In my mind it went like this: poor old creatures, blind to the truths of psychoanalytic formulations, hence fearfully willing to identify themselves with a very, very sick man.

Nor is such self-protective idiocy only the property of naive young “trainees,” as we were called.(We were, alas, the same age then as the author of The Great Gatsby was when it was published!) I expected Professor LeVot to remind us that alcoholism is a serious psychiatric disorder and to show us how Fitzgerald’s literary work reflected his mind’s disorder—those preoccupations we’ve learned to connect to this or that kind of psychopathology. I also expected to hear more of what I’d heard back then at Harvard—the well-known folie à deux: mad Zelda and her wild-living husband Scott. Yet Professor LeVot is French, and not once does that term get used. But then we’d learned more than 20 years ago that the French had never really taken to psychoanalysis the way Americans had—a certain national or cultural “resistance,” perhaps. Of course these days, with Lacan and his school so evident, one remembers that all “resistances” aren’t bad— and as a matter of fact one is saddened, in this instance, at the inroads made upon a particular nation’s posture of skepticism.

For a particular French intellectual, however, the old-fashioned psychology of F. Scott Fitzgerald (who knew a thing or two about how the mind works) is still suggestive and compelling enough to require no faddish additives— reductionist schemes so many of us find necessary. LeVot’s biography is intensely loyal to the particulars of a given time spent on this earth. He has immersed himself in factuality, so that he can chronicle not only the big, important moments but the illuminating details of everyday life—and, of course, Fitzgerald was never one to get lost in boredom. For instance, in June of 1925 Fitzgerald sent The Great Gatsby to Edith Wharton, whose writing he had long admired. She was impressed, and replied with a “detached analysis” of the book’s strengths. She also invited Fitzgerald to lunch, and eventually he would go. LeVot interviewed Esther Murphy, who drove the young American to the much older American’s home. Here is the way LeVot describes the trip: “Zelda, not very interested in being judged by a woman of the world known for her caustic wit, refused to go along, and Fitzgerald, full of apprehension, went without her. He stopped frequently in cafes along the way for quick drinks to calm his nerves. According to Miss Murphy, this took so much time that she had to phone Saint-Brice [Mrs. Wharton’s home] to warn that they would be late for lunch.”

We learn more, naturally—that the Claudels and Bourgets were also guests at that lunch, that Mrs. Wharton was austere, that Fitzgerald tried to hold himself together, tight as he was, but ended up telling a rambling story about some friends of his who had taken a room in a supposedly quiet Paris hotel which, they finally realized, was a brothel. Mrs. Wharton wanted to know more, much more: who were these people, and how did they respond to this situation? A novelist’s questions all right, to which Fitzgerald had no answers. He was silent thereafter, to the point of everyone’s obvious, continuing embarrassment. Mrs. Wharton put down a single word, “Horrible!” to describe her sense of that event.

The above was no major, dramatic crisis (and there were plenty of such) in Fitzgerald’s life. But this was a revealing episode—one worthy of note not only for its biographical significance but as a moment of sorts in the history of American letters. Moreover, the rhythm of a day in Fitzgerald’s life is persuasively conveyed—and in the manner of a story that needs telling, rather than as yet another illustrative point: alcoholism gaining momentum; writers of distinctively different generations unable to accept each other; the influence of French life on American expatriates who tried ever so hard to lose a supposed “innocence” and gain access to a cosmopolitan culture’s ostensible self-assurance. For LeVot, the ascertained details possess their own cumulative, edifying lesson, at once psychological and moral, as in a well-told story. We see Fitzgerald at the top of his reputation—and still apprehensive, earnestly anxious for approval, and willing to sing for his supper, so to speak. Any conclusions—again, as in a story—depend upon the reader’s sensibility: an inclination toward the younger writer (his fragile pride, his fearful innocence) or toward the older one—her vulnerability and her apprehension of the quite definite limits of mortality, and that of a body of work as well as a particular body.

For this biographer, Fitzgerald lived an exceptionally instructive life. Let others stress the waste, the scandal, the self-indulgence, the impetuous, or the plain stupid; LeVot responds to the moral, even puritanical rhythms of a man whom others choose to view in terms of the theatrical—the comic and the tragic, the farcical and the stagy. Nor is Zelda allowed to take over this story—her loony decline turned into a melodramatic, catchall explanation of another decline, that of her writing husband. Fitzgerald was not only (upon occasion) drinking heavily, but blacking out upon doing so, before he ever met her. Anyway, she inspired him mightily and, it can be said, sobered him up—that is, brought him face to face with the terrible implications of his own wild, hurt, fractious egoism. At the same time, her longstanding, incurable insanity revealed, conclusively, the intricate and unyielding ethical side of her husband’s life. He was a loyal, decent, generous man—and the contrast, say, with Hemingway (a comparison so many have made in a literary or man-to-man vein) is significant with respect to their natures as husbands. Here LeVot is, again, quite detailed—anxious to show us two giants in all their rather evident, flawed humanity. He is, of course, similarly enriching when he renders the expatriate years, all that time the Fitzgeralds spent in France.

Youth, success, fame, money—all of that was unable to protect Fitzgerald from the unnerving demands of his eyes, his ears, his raw intelligence, his passion for telling, telling. He was always at work. At one point LeVot puts the matter this way: “The basic alternative appeared in almost allegorical terms after he came to know the Murphys and Hemingway: to expend his talent in living or in writing.” But living for Fitzgerald was writing; nothing in his life escaped the notice of his feverishly alert, knowing mind—and everything was grist for his literary workings. Put differently, LeVot has written a biography of a writer for whom the short story and the novel were a means of autobiographical comprehension, of performance and, not least, of moral reflection, moral exorcism.

Fitzgerald knew how all of us struggle with vanity, with the pride that the upper intelligentsia is not, in this century, inclined to regard as the sin of sins. In the character of Gatsby, whose evil was no match, really, for ours, and in Dick Diver, whose descent into Purgatory or Hell is almost emblematic for many students (and not only those in medical school) who wonder what will become of them and why, a bold and shrewd writer gave us ourselves, all too covetously enamored of what is all too readily available “this side of paradise.” Dr. Diver, like Dr. Lydgate before him, begs our interpretation—but also our shuddering mercy, we who, in significant numbers, aim to pick and choose our way through the wares (personal and professional both) of this life. Fitzgerald’s moral assumptions were very much like those of Dr. Lydgate’s creator George Eliot—two writers who tried hard but in vain to shake off their Christian scrupulosity and two writers for whom psychology was not a bundle of ponderous terms and self-important pronouncements but the earned wisdom life presents to those who attend closely its various aspects. With this book, as have some of Eliot’s biographers, Andre” LeVot brings us (and himself, of course) closer to their urgently scrutinizing and essentially righteous company.


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