The subtitle of this book is Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby and the blurb on the cover says: A suggestive, almost musical evocation of the spirit of the time - from the London Review of Books.
The book is the story of the Fitzgeralds’ life and the places and happenings which shaped it, including the story of a local murder which took place just ten miles from where they were living and which the author thinks gave F. Scott the idea for Gatsby.
It goes into detail about their lives over the years and given the amount of booze which they both guzzled in those prohibition days it is quite amazing that they didn’t both peg out a lot earlier than they did. It was the days when it was sensible to have your alcohol checked out by a chemist, just to make sure that it wasn’t going to make you go blind overnight as apparently happened to lots of people.
This was a bit of library serendipity for me as I had been meaning for ages to read Save Me the Waltz and Tender is the Night in tandem to compare the two and when I picked them off the shelf I saw this one out of the corner of my eye on my way out, it was sitting on the ‘new books’ shelf.
I enjoyed reading about what was going on in the US at the time, it was when modern America was coming into being, but for me that local murder played too large a part in the book. Really it wasn’t that interesting and in my experience most authors don’t travel that far from what is going on in their lives or in the news for inspiration.
I was incensed on Zelda’s behalf when her husband went nuts because she had the temerity to write a book too, and of course his main gripe was that she had been too autobiographical and had told too many secrets. As if he hadn’t done that in all of his fiction over the years – no wonder Zelda suffered from mental anguish and ended up in mental hospitals.
It was very interesting to read that just before F. Scott died at the age of 44 he received his last royalty statement which reported the sale of nine copies of Tender is the Night and seven of The Great Gatsby. He had not sold a single book outside the US in the last year of his life. The royalty cheque added up to $13.13.
When he died he wanted to be buried beside his father but the Catholic priest refused to allow him to be buried there. In the end an Episcopalian minister buried him and took the opportunity to say, “The only reason I agreed to this service was to get the body in the ground. He was a no good drunken bum and the world was well rid of him,” – a bit harsh I would say. His funeral was spookily similar to that of Gatsby.
Death for an artist is often a great career move of course and it just shows you that reviewers can be powerful people, it was only when an influential critic, Lionel Trilling started to compare Fitzgerald with 19th century French novelists, English Romantic poets and Goethe that people began to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books again. Barbara Pym was another writer who benefitted from the vocal praise of an influential personage.
All in all it seems that success for Fitzgerald came too early and went to his head, he was so well paid for writing short stories that he could afford a sumptuous lifestyle on the French Riviera. At one point he realised that in a whole year he had averaged only 100 words per day when he was supposed to be writing a novel. All his time was taken up by partying and entertaining crowds of hangers-on. Does that remind you of anything?!