Over the past week or so I’ve been reading The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, an excellent collection that, for me, was full of surprises. I knew little about Fitzgerald, as it turns out.
I was familiar with the story of Benjamin Button — I read a similar story (inspired by it, even if I didn’t know at the time) when I was a teenager, in a science fiction short story collection, and it blew my mind. The original (i.e. Fitzgerald’s) is better written, and I enjoyed it very much indeed. The absurd image of an newly born old man forced into a cot, with his legs dangling over the sides, — the father’s helpless but stubborn denial in which he forces his ‘old’ son to wear little boys’ clothes, when dressing him as a grown man would have drawn far less attention — The story is great. I admit I have not seen the movie they recently made of it, but I’m sure I could not enjoy it more than this. To fill 90 minutes to 2 hours with this short, intelligently funny, tongue-in-cheek story without it becoming boring or soppy or weakening it in other ways must have been a really difficult task for the director & whoever wrote the adaptation. I wonder how successful they were.
While we’re talking movies, here’s a story from the collection that I’d love to see as a children’s adventure movie: ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.‘ Yes, I said, children’s adventure movie. It would probably also make a wonderful illustrated children’s book. It’s a fantasy story full of luxurious and harsh landscape, it has princesses, a hidden palace with lush gardens, there are abductions, a murderous criminal, tax evasion, and a ‘knight in shining armor’ rescue scene where the central character, a young boarding school boy, helps the princess escape. There is plenty of action — even airplanes and anti-airplane cannons. And, of course, a diamond as big as the Ritz. It’s great fun, and at the same time not shallow or simple. There are race issues that could be explored, class issues, gender issues — You can read the whole story here: http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/224/tales-of-the-jazz-age/
Now, ‘The Ice Palace‘ is another story that impressed me. It starts out slow, but the last two pages or so have such strong emotional momentum — a Southern belle leaves her small town goodie two-shoes boys and family behind to marry a Northerner and experience more than she feels she could in the South. There are issues of culture clash, of class, and of self-definition. The final scene, where she gets separated from her fiancee in a dark ice labyrinth and is overwhelmed by her fear, encapsulates the conflict between the two worlds and finally helps her know what it is she must do. ‘The Jelly Bean,‘ another story found in this collection, was meant as a sequel to ‘The Ice Palace’ (142) and revolves around one of the young men the Southern belle is friends with before she leaves to marry her Northerner. It’s set in small-town Georgia.
Finally, there’s ‘The Off-Shore Pirate,‘ a story which Fitzgerald himself has called his favorite (182). Spoiled, pretty, and headstrong, Ardita does not see eye-to-eye with her aunt and uncle who she’s living with. On a yacht trip, she explains to her uncle that her only reason for coming along was so she could meet up with (and marry) a certain man in Palm Beach. Meanwhile, the uncle refuses to give up on trying to play matchmaker and introducing her to Colonel Moreland’s son Tony. When he leaves her by herself on the yacht to go to shore, a young musician and his band, — self-styled pirates — take over the vessel and take her along. Ardita grows to like the musician and head of the pirates, and when they arrive at their secret island hideaway, she is (at least for a moment) tempted to run away with him to India. They spend several days talking, swimming, diving from cliffs, and lying in the pure white sand while the rest of the pirates, all black, provide for everything. Eventually, a heavily armed ship appears, and Ardita is distraught when it becomes clear that the pirates — including ‘her’ pirate — will have to give themselves up. Together, they await capture on board of the stolen yacht. And wouldn’t you know it, just as they are about to be boarded, ‘her’ pirate gives her the precious Russian bracelet she had hoped to get from her Palm Beach beau. He stands up to her uncle, impressing her more, and so when she finally realizes that it was all a ruse, she likes him too much to be angry with him. You see, the charming pirate was Tony, the Colonel’s son, all along. Happy end.
A theme that runs through all of these stories is that of social success. How do others see me? How do they respond to me? What am I worth, what position do I inhabit in the society I am a part of? These considerations lead Benjamin Button’s father to reject his unusual son, they motivate the Southern Belle to leave her small town for a Northerner and then change her mind, they lead the richest man in the world to lead a life of isolation, seclusion, and criminal conduct in order to protect his wealth and his children.
There’s a lot more that could be said, of course. Still, I think this is more or less a decent introduction to give you a basic idea of Fitzgerald. I really highly recommend reading the Diamond story. And I do hope someone will make it into an amazing children’s book or just as amazing a children’s movie some day.
A Brief Life of Fitzgerald: http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/biography.html