Gatsby may be great, but F Scott Fitzgerald is greater
Baz Luhrmann's film of The Great Gatsby looks set to entertain, but it's Fitzgerald's life story that has to be seen to be believed
You can't open a newspaper these days without finding someone writing about F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I'm not complaining. Gatsby is the novel – almost a prose poem – I reread every year, and I never tire of its backstory. Although everything I've seen about Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming film fills me with anxiety, I'll be among the first to go and see it. Cinema and Fitzgerald could make an ideal marriage. Why shouldn't a movie director re-imagine 1920s West Egg and give us his reinterpretation of what Fitzgerald christened "The Jazz Age"? It can't, or won't, be the novel, but it might capture something of the madness in which Fitzgerald found himself.
The writer was great that way. A party animal with a line in champagne zingers; endlessly quotable; completely at one with the zeitgeist; a literary artist whose obiter dicta became the soundtrack of his times. For instance: "There are no second acts in American lives." And: "All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath." And perhaps most famous of all, the last line of The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
We're going to read a lot of Fitzgerald quotations these next few weeks. Fitzgerald's admirers will be delighted that he is getting some long overdue recognition, but sad, too, perhaps. When he died in Hollywood in 1940, Fitzgerald was almost completely forgotten. His funeral was attended by just 30 people, including his editor Maxwell Perkins. Sales of his books had virtually dried up. His publishers, Scribners, still had unsold stock from the first printing of Gatsby. He had lived the American dream, and it had turned into a waking nightmare.
But perhaps Fitzgerald's life and work is compelling precisely because it answers, in an archetypal way, what we, the reading public, expect the career of a genius to look like. Consider the bare bones of his story. Comfortable beginnings in St Paul, Minnesota, the heart of the midwest. His mother reports, appropriately, that the boy's first word was "up". First stirrings of the writer's ambition. He moves into the fast track of his society, pursuing literary goals, and goes to Princeton University. Drops out; falls in love and is rejected; writes a novel that's turned down; goes to the battlefields of France; returns to the USA with no prospects. Then ... 1919-1920: his annus mirabilis. Revises his unpublished work. This Side of Paradise is accepted by Scribner, and is published to huge acclaim. Now his sweetheart, Zelda Sayre, agrees to marriage.
Scott and Zelda lead rock star lives in the Manhattan of the 1920s. Burning with ambition for his art, Fitzgerald completes a book whose many rejected titles include Trimalchio in West Egg, the novel the world knows as The Great Gatsby. There's an added myth about its publication: Gatsby did not flop, as is often claimed; it just didn't do as well as had been hoped. TS Eliot, for one, wrote: "It seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James." It was only in comparison with Fitzgerald's astounding debut that it seemed to fail.
Thereafter, Fitzgerald went into a long tunnel of decline, a decade he later described in a controversial sequence of Esquire articles as "The Crack-Up", a rare text recently republished by Capuchin Classics. In search of that elusive "second act", he moved to Hollywood, published Tender Is the Night, a novel that baffled the critics, and began his final unfinished masterpiece, The Last Tycoon. Then dies, aged 44; is forgotten, but lives on through Gatsby. It's a literary life for the ages.
In outline, the F Scott Fitzgerald story is the movie you might want to see. Baz Luhrmann's version will be entertaining. It won't be Gatsby, the novel. But never mind. Many new readers will be inspired to discover the miracle of Fitzgerald's prose, and the strange subtlety of his vision. In 1925, Gatsby was ahead of its time, and almost too prescient. Now, it seems perfectly in harmony with the deepest and darkest chords in American life. That's why, for some, including this writer, it remains the greatest American novel of the 20th century.