Something Gorgeous Without God
The photographs don't convey Zelda either. Before her breakdown in 1930 everyone described her as one of the most beautiful women of her era, vividly present, graceful, with red-gold hair. But she stiffened in front of cameras. Even in the early photographs her features seem harsh, her expression austere. And her coloring is lost. As early as the spring of 1919, shortly before her 19th birthday and several years before their fame, she sensed that she would be inaccurately remembered. "In an hundred years," Zelda wrote to Scott, "I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes are brown or blue -- of course, they are neither."
To sense their reality, we can depend only on words.
They would have liked that. Beyond everything else, they cherished words. They discovered early that the happiness they'd dreamed of was impossible, so what was left was to use words unflinchingly and beautifully.
Scott, from The Great Gatsby, in what could be a kind of epitaph: "Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something -- an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever."
Zelda, from Save Me the Waltz: "Looking for love is like asking for a new point of departure." And: "Anything incomprehensible has a sexual significance to many people under thirty-five." And: "We are certainly accountable for all the things manifest in others that we secretly share."
It's easy, when considering literary folk, for people who are not writers to make this mistake: to think, "They had their art and that gave them meaning, but I'm not an artist so that doesn't work for me." It's the other way around: they had their meaning and that gave them art.
Not a meaning that could be summed up in pithy aphorisms. Nor a meaning to be analyzed in the multi-syllabic treatise of an academic (whose typical sentence, if diagrammed, would look like a train wreck as seen from the air). Scott and Zelda's meaning, like the meaning of any worthy artists, was a stance toward life, unspecific and fierce. It has to do with those words I used before: unflinching and beautiful. If happiness and philosophy were both, by turns, impossible and unreasonable, there was still the ability to look at any particular moment unflinchingly and search for its beauty.
They believed that an unflinching eye and a search for beauty are things possible to anyone, and that art exists not so much to teach that stance as to share it.
Scott wanted and tried to be a traditionalist, but it wasn't in him. In the great story "Absolution," he wrote: "There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God." Two thousand years of Christianity burned alive in that sentence. He was uttering what amounted to the battle cry of the 20th century, but he hadn't especially wanted to utter it. It was just that, as he said in that story, "the honesty of his imagination had betrayed him" -- it had left him beyond the pall with nothing but his unflinching hard green eyes and his passion for beauty.
Most critics were dismissing Fitzgerald a decade before he died (at which time, none of his books would be in print). But when Tender Is the Night, my favorite of his works, was being condescended to in the press, Zelda wrote him from her mental hospital: "Don't worry about the critics -- what sorrows have they to measure by or what lilting happiness with which to compare those ecstatic passages?"
Scott defined love as "a wild submergence of soul." It is too exacting a definition for most people to live with, but that wasn't his problem, nor Zelda's, and they knew it. Were they excessive? Of course. Drunk on booze and fame and each other... in a haze of cigarette smoke and a rush of extravagant words... hungry for the impossible... full of rages and despairs whose sources they never discovered... they reeled from day to day and crack-up to crack-up without any skill at conserving their energies, unable to spare themselves or each other or anyone else. But they never pretended to be models of behavior. They took their risks and then their risks took them.
"Don't look for comfort," Zelda wrote to Scott, "because there isn't any; and if there were, life would be a baby affair."
In fact, it was Scott who popularized the phrase "crack up," in his 1936 essay of that title. Others idealized him, but as soon as the bloom of youth wore off he never idealized himself. He had been the symbol of his generation, he'd cracked up, and he was letting his generation know: "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day." He was describing it; he wasn't inviting anyone to join him.
He cracked up, but never lost his mind. In that essay, he offered a definition for the highest practical function of the mind: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."
That is the best description of intellectual courage that I know.
He was a writer heart and soul, but unlike most of us he didn't glorify writing. From The Last Tycoon: "While I like writers -- because if you ask a writer anything, you usually get an answer -- still it belittled him in my eyes. Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person." And in his notebook Scott added: "There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn't be. He is too many people, if he's any good."
Fitzgerald knew how dangerous it was to be "too many people," and he didn't encourage it in the young. At the same time, he wanted to be heard: "Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story." This is always what the best writers demand of us; that we listen to them not from the safety of our assumptions but from the edge of the precipice.
Often I've walked past his last address, an apartment on Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood. The building is still there, in good condition -- a vintage example of the Los Angeles that Raymond Chandler (borrowing many of Fitzgerald's methods) described so poignantly. It's fronted by cedars, and then there are several steps to a walkway, and you stand looking at another era. He lived on the third floor. In the end, his heart was so bad he couldn't make it up the stairs. His last few days, he moved one street over to Sheila Graham's because she lived on the first floor. In those small apartments, he fought to finish The Last Tycoon. He didn't make it. He was only 44, but as he'd said, "I am willing to die with my boots on -- I just want to be sure that they are my own boots and that they're all on."
For years, Zelda had been in mental hospitals on the East Coast. Not long before Scott died she wrote him: "I love you anyway -- even if there isn't any me or any love or even any life." Another letter: "And maybe everything is going to be all right, after all. There are so many houses I'd like to live in with you. Oh won't you be mine -- again and again -- and yet again -- "
She died in 1948, age 48. When she was a girl in Alabama, she became notorious for standing on the roof of her home yelling, "Fire! Fire!" When the firemen came, she laughed and did a little jig. Some would call it irony; some, prophecy; some, destiny. She died in a fire in the mental hospital. They were able to identify her body because she'd fallen on her beautiful dancing slippers. The slippers, protected by her fall, were intact.
By the time Zelda died she knew what Scott could not have known: that he'd won. She lived to see all his books in print again, his influence recognized, his image (and hers) glorified. But she couldn't know that she'd win too -- win all that was left to win, since happiness and fulfillment were long gone. Her remarkable novel, dismissed in her own time, would come into print again and stay in print.
In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter: "I never blame failure -- there are too many complicated situations in life -- but I am absolutely merciless toward lack of effort." Lack of effort was the one sin he never committed. He always wrote, no matter what. Let the final words be his, from one of his last stories, about a writer: "The words fell wild and unreal on [his] burdened soul. But even though he now knew at first hand what came next, he did not think that he could go on from there." n