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Freedom From Frat Boys

Posted by Deborah Courtnell

Freedom From Frat Boys: F. Scott Fitzgerald & the Phone Box

Today, finally, after months of torment, I have finished and am done forever with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
     Today, when the rain stops, I am going on a voyage of discovery with two paperbacks in my bike basket. I'm going to find a red telephone box not far from here, where there operates, or so it's been whispered to me, a village book exchange.

       Don't get me wrong - I'm really looking forward to seeing the latest movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby by Australian director Baz Luhrmann, though I think British Carey Mulligan is oddly cast as porcelain beauty Daisy Buchanan, previously played by Mia Farrow.

     But, with the two exceptions of The Great Gatsby, which I would happily re-read once a month and even learn by heart, and a single short story, The Cut Glass Bowl, which has a diamond-like brilliance, I will never read another word written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

     I will go to my grave without reading The Beautiful and Damned, This Side of Paradise or The Last Tycoon. Nothing and no-one can persuade me otherwise.

     Life is too short.

     I am sated on the words of Fitzgerald like a horribly sated thing. I feel as overfed and immobilised by his prose as Jabba the Hutt.

     I never want to hear about another Hollywood has-been like 'Pat Hobby' loitering on the back lots, ogling the secretaries; no more ineffectual Frat boys ‘drifting’ or  ‘floating’ or ‘wandering’  between dances and poker tables and high-balls and the Biltmore and Delmonico's; no more vacuous or scheming little  rich girls, contemplating the shapeless hazy vista of married life to this square-jawed jock of a jack-ass suitor or that slack-eyed narcissistic WASP.

     I have only myself to blame. But I prefer to blame the internet and the ease of buying books on Amazon and the consequent lack of choice in the local book shops.

     So enraptured was I, after re-reading The Great Gatsby for the first time in decades last Autumn, I sent off, like some addled One Direction fan, for Tender Is the Night and Flappers and Philosophers, The Collected Short Stories.

     If I'd found them in a conventional bookshop I would have realised the sheer weight and heft of the books and thumbed through them and questioned the proliferation, like so many flowering weeds, of Yale boys and silly and deeply unsympathetic women, all banging their vain little heads against the glass of their sealed hothouse windows.

     Because, unlike The Great Gatsby, there is no universal appeal to be enjoyed or recognised in these stories and none at all that I can find in Tender Is the Night which is a confused and clouded mirror of Fitzgerald's own life  story and none the better for it.

     The insular, privileged worlds Fitzgerald suggests in these books are more locked and impenetrable to the modern reader than any novel by Evelyn Waugh and devoid of Waugh’s humour.

     Tender Is the Night afforded me no reading pleasure whatsoever. Reading it across weeks that drifted into months, was to suffer, like the characters, an interminable stasis, a present tense without a horizon let alone the prospect of a future.

     My own increasing disappointment tipped into incomprehension.

    Wait! Was all that stuff on the beach and the party afterwards, was that one gigantic flashback? Or is this  a flashback I'm wading about in right now? Where the hell am I in this airless Riviera time and space continuum?

     I felt so cross with myself  that to
punish myself I lurched zombie-like into a further 643 pages of the bedtime reading torture that I found Flappers and Philosophers, The Collected Short Stories to be.

     Now suddenly it's May 2013. Where has my life gone? I could have read another ten, 12, 15 books in the time I have struggled with these two.

     I vowed when I graduated that I would read only for pleasure and I have avoided book groups like the plague for that reason.

     But when you embark upon a 'classic' an intellectual snobbery kicks in, spiked with a reading habit formed over decades and a  feeling of guilt if you don't persevere. All exacerbated by the fact you've spent good money. Result?  I can’t give up on a book.

     Ahead of the visual feast promised by The Great Gatsby trailers, American academic Sarah Churchwell ( Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia) presented 'The Gatsby Factor' on Radio 4 last week.

     It was such great radio I listened to it twice. I was riveted by Churchwell’s tender dissections of this slender novel which does continue to fascinate readers and exerts a particular hold over successive generations of Americans.

     Sarah Churchwell says: 'Although the surface of The Great Gatsby glitters like few other novels, much of its lingering power lies in the deeper, elusive suggestiveness of its dazzling prose. The novel is about the way that reality falls short of our dreams. It is about the power of imagination, what Fitzgerald calls Gatsby's capacity for hope. And this makes it distinctly hard to film.'

     And totally compulsive and gripping to read, precisely because of those magical, glittering sentences in which Fitzgerald leaves so much to the mind of the reader.

     And quite unlike the short stories in which nobody ever shuts up. There's more dialogue per page than in an average episode of East Enders. It's hard to follow who is saying what to whom never mind what the point of any of this inconsequential verbal diarrhoea might be.

     As well as the Frat boys and their brittle, acquisitive women, there are stories which are beyond quirky: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Diamond Big As The Ritz - both every bit as preposterous and tiresome as someone laboriously recounting a dream they had the night before.

     Sarah Churchwell also wrote the introduction to my (Penguin Modern Classics) copy of The Short Stories.

     In her introduction she outlines the alcoholism that so fatally undermined Fitzgerald: he died seemingly sober but aged only 44. But many of the short stories were written early, in his twenties and for me that’s part of the problem. They are too often about his contemporaries: characters whose, 'romantic ideals were always curbed by a sharp sense of irony...' Churchwell talks about many of the stories as 'a series of elegiac farewells to lost youth and lost opportunities' and also refers to others as 'sketches'.

Series, sketches, repetition.

     I should have stood in the bookshop and read the introduction. But smaller High Street bookshops, usually Waterstones, do not carry everything and once you've had to order something, well, you feel duty bound to buy it don't you? And you feel if they're going to order it then you might as well order it yourself and have it delivered to your door.

     There are so many books I've had recommended to me or heard or read good reviews of or books that I  just know about and want to read. And our bookshelves are bulging with old favourites we feel loathe to part with. There’s no room for books we don’t like.

     At least I'm free again.

     Top of my list is Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig which I witnessed the New Friend devouring on a rainy afternoon at Stockbridge Town Hall. Sadly, it wasn't hers to lend.
     I loved Wolf Hall so I'm longing to read Hilary Mantel's follow- up Bring Up the Bodies; pundits on Radio 4 introduced me to the author Dave Eggars and his latest novel A Hologram for the King and the James Lasdun book, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. I've never read The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghust...The list is long and growing.

     When the rain stops I'm going to find that phone box.


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