Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

Stories with a soft touch

THE PRICE WAS HIGH

By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Mathew j. Broccoli: Picador

SCOTT Fitzgerald’s immortality was ensured by “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night” These novels perhaps typify the man who has been called the “Boswell of the Jazz Age". He perceived and depicted an entire generation of the American rich going on the greatest gaudiest spree in history. The nervous energy released after the Great war found its way into defiance of social and sexual convention and the rich began to live with the “insouciance of grand dukes and the cheery casualness of chorus girls.”

But the novels had a lukewarm response when they first appeared. Fitzgerald was known and liked as a writer of short stories. He ranks with John O' Hara and Hemingway as a 20th century exponent of this medium. Sixty-six of his stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Post during the period 1920-37. The Post was then a most sought after magazine and led other popular magazines like the Smart Set, Collier’s and Women’s Home Companion. Between 1929 and 1931, Fitzgerald received his peak Post price - $4,000 per story. The stories were commercial in intent and were meant to give him time and money to work on his novels. He resented the work that went into writing stories and often deprecated them (once going to the extent of calling them “horrible junk”).

Despite their trick plots and recurring themes, the short stories were not hackwork. “ The Ice Palace”, “May Day”, “Rich Boy”, “The Diamond As Big as the Ritz” remain as some of the best pieces in American fiction. His work relied on an emotional capital, on his personal experiences with youth, love, ambition and disillusionment. As he himself wrote in the Notebooks-“The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood, not a fear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had.”

This precious extra has been collected by Mathew J. Broccoli in two volumes entitled “The Prime Was High.” Fitzgerald himself had gathered forty-six stories in four volumes. After his death sixty-one stories were collected in six volumes. The remainder of his stories are in these two volumes-except for eight which his daughter thought fit to be left uncollected. If nothing else. Broccoli’s collection will remove the idea that Fitzgerald’s talent was totally squandered in alcoholic excess. He wrote 164 stories in 20 years (Hemingway wrote 50 odd in 40 years).

The stories in these volumes are not the best of Fitzgerald. But they vindicate Dorothy Parker’s comment about him they although he could not write bad stories, he could not write badly.

The themes and characters are familiar to the Fitzgerald reader. This could be because he often used his stories as a test ground for situations which found place in his novels, recurrent themes are the ruthlessness of the cultural conflict between north and the south and the successful man coming on a pilgrimage to his small town. Stories like “At Your Age” “On Your Own” are easily among the best he ever wrote. The incredibly soft Fitzgerald touch is in evidence as he captures evanescent images and creates redolent emotional effects. Nothing jars. Everything succeeds in merging into an intangible atmosphere in the hands of a talent which was “as natural as the pattern made by the dust on a butterfly’s wing.”