Archive for December 14, 2011

Tales From the Jazz Age by Francis Scott Fitzgerald

December 14, 2011 36 comments

Tales From the Jazz Age by Francis Scott Fitzgerald 1922.

When I got The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for September’s book club meeting, it was included in a collection of short stories entitled Tales from the Jazz Age. I decided to read the other ones too. I always find it difficult to review short stories; I never know if I’d better concentrate on the ones I liked or give the general tone of the book. In this case, as the writer himself gathered these stories, I think it’s relevant to evoke the atmosphere and themes rather than focus on the stories.

I wasn’t blown away by The Great Gatsby and I rediscovered here how gifted a writer Fitzgerald was. The stories take place in the South or in New York. Several of them are about a golden youth who has fun but under the golden layer of entertainment, Fitzgerald manages to pick serious topics: aging, social justice, relationships, marriage, dreams, lost opportunities. He captures very well the fleetingness of life. Sure these stories cover the same range of feelings than jazz, from the merriest tune to the most melancholic one.

Fitzgerald is excellent at describing shortly a situation, a person or a place in a vivid manner:

The hall had an ancient smell—of the vegetables of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when “Adam-and Eve” Bryan ran against William McKinley, of portieres an ounce heavier with dust, from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into patch-work quilts. This smell would pursue him up the stairs, revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.

I’m walking down the hall with him, climbing the stairs, almost smelling the vaguely nauseating smell of cabbage soup and accumulated dust on creaking wooden stairs.

The Jelly Bean and The Camel’s Back are cruel Southern tales. The Jelly Bean is a young man who lacks willpower. He’s lazy, content with his idle life until a girl gets in the way. He wants her bad enough to shake his torpor and wake up his ambition. What will come out of this regained energy? By the way, I didn’t know what Jelly Beans were and someone helped me. I ended up hunting down Harry Potter Jelly Beans for my daughter’s birthday. Really, literature can lead to unexpected paths. The Camel’s Back is a funny one about marriage and love. It’s full of the fun of the 1920s and hides a smart exploration of tainted relationships between men and woman. Under the casualness, a sharp vision of humanity.

In May Day and O Russet Witch, we are in New York. In May Day I discovered the riots against socialist groups at the time. It shows the contrast between a rich youth who parties and a poor one who works. I wasn’t aware of that urban violence. O Russet Witch is a more private tale. It relates the expectations of a man named Merlin. Clearly he’s no magician and his life lacks glamour. He’s fascinated by a woman he named Caroline and who represents his wildest dreams. One passage struck me in this short story, it’s about aging and it shows how our vision of it has changed in these last 50 years:

The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. For most men and women these thirty years are taken up with a gradual withdrawal from life, a retreat first from a front with many shelters, those myriad amusements and curiosities of youth, to a line with less, when we peel down our ambitions to one ambition, our recreations to one recreation, our friends to a few to whom we are anaesthetic; ending up at last in a solitary, desolate strong point that is not strong, where the shells now whistle abominably, now are but half-heard as, by turns frightened and tired, we sit waiting for death.

Who think they’re old after 35 nowadays? Not me. We forget that medicine, better food, improved working conditions and domestic comfort brought us many additional years in good shape and our idea of old age is now at least beyond 70.

I thought that The Lees of Happiness was a bittersweet tale, I was sorry for the lost happiness of the characters. I noticed an interesting quote about pink, when a protagonist, Roxanne, visits an acquaintance who loves pink:

almost instantly she remembered a round-the-corner bakery of her childhood, a bakery full of rows and rows of pink frosted cakes—a stuffy pink, pink as a food, pink triumphant, vulgar, and odious.   And this apartment was like that. It was pink. It smelled pink!

I wonder how Fitzgerald would describe the alleys dedicated to girl clothes and girl toys in our contemporary stores. Ialso want to wink at the Booker Prize jury with this last quote by the author himself, introducing Uncclassified Masterpieces:

This don’t pretend to be “Literature.” This is just a tale for red-blooded folks who want a story and not just a lot of “psychological” stuff or “analysis.” Boy, you’ll love it!

These short stories are highly readable because they tell good stories in a great style. Classy tales, my dear Francis. Real Literature.


Here is the list of the stories:

  1. The Jelly-bean
  2. The Camel’s Back
  3. May Day
  4. Porcelain and Pink
  5. Fantasies
  6. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  8. Tarquin of Cheapside
  9. “O Russet Witch”
  10. Unclassified Masterpieces
    1. The Lees of Happiness
    2. Mr. Icky
    3. Jemina
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