Posts Tagged ‘F-S Fitzgerald’

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by Francis Scott Fitzgerald

September 2, 2011 13 comments

The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. 1922

This short story was our first try for our newly founded book club I baptized Les Copines d’Abord. I suppose most of us have heard of Benjamin Button after the film by David Finchet with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet. I haven’t seen it. I may watch it now that I’ve read the short story.

Benjamin Button was born in a hospital in 1860 in Baltimore. But when his father Roger comes to see him, the nurses lead him to his son and “Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age.” He is devastated. His son has the appearance and the mind of an old man. The first moments are huge fun: Mr Roger Button tries to cope with the news

People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say? He would have to introduce this—this septuagenarian: “This is my son, born early this morning.” And then the old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market—for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black.

Imagine how low he is: we’re in 1860 and that Southerner from a good family would rather have a black son than this one!! Fortunately, the Civil War breaks out shortly after Benjamin’s birth and the gossips fade away. The story continues, relating Benjamin’s life and his difficulties. Childhood is complicated: he’s bored by children games and needs to dye his hair in a vain attempt to hide his body age. His best friend is his grand-father. As a young man, he’s a lot more serious than others and he’s more interested in working than in having fun. He becomes a successful business man, marries a beautiful young girl who likes older men. The problem is that Benjamin doesn’t grow up but grows down…

I LOVED this text. I read The Great Gatsby a long time ago and I vaguely remembered something about partying and idle life. I don’t recall it was funny. But here, I thoroughly enjoyed Fitzgerald’s sense of humor. Like here, when Benjamin was born:

A few people who were unfailingly polite racked their brains for compliments to give to the parents—and finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby resembled his grandfather, a fact which, due to the standard state of decay common to all men of seventy, could not be denied.

The moment when Mr. Button needs to buy clothes for his “baby” son is absolutely hilarious. Fitzgerald thought about every detail turning plausible moments into black comedy. This story is part of Tales of the Jazz Age and the title is so appropriate. It’s like jazz. Sometimes terribly light and entertaining, sometimes very sad and serious. I have mentioned the fun, but it’s also thought provoking.

It tells something about the Southern society: the allusion to black people, the customs and the society. Women have no voice. Benjamin’s mother is nowhere to be seen. She delivers a baby and she’s never mentioned again.

Fitzgerald wrote in the introduction that ‘this story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying the experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given his idea a fair trial,’ Benjamin’s youth isn’t enviable. He’s ill-fitted in this world. The dean in Yale refuses him as a student; he looks so old he doesn’t believe the age written on official papers. He spends his ‘youth’ earning money and when he has worked for twenty years and can let his son take the business after him, he’s getting younger and younger. He’s in perfect health to enjoy the pleasures of life when he’s middle-aged and rich. Problem: his wife gets older and he finds her less and less attractive.

Benjamin was a burden and a shame for his parents. He becomes a burden and a shame for his son. The ending is quite sad, actually.

And what about Mark Twain’s assertion? Benjamin is a freak and totally misunderstood by his family. His father tolerates him. He encumbers his son. His wife never admitted that he wasn’t getting younger on purpose. He had his good years like everyone else, not more, not less. I don’t think his situation is enviable in that context as he’s an outsider in his world.

What if everyone were like this? What would it mean for progress and creativity? At the time you start your professional life, your brain is slow and not in the best shape. So is your body. Would it mean a more conservative society? Or in the contrary, would it really be better: our brain would be at his best at a time when we have both experience and possibly money. So: would it dope progress, inventions and arts since the creators would have the means to experience everything they have in mind? I don’t have the answers but underneath the lightness of the subject and the apparent fun lay real questions.

This is what I wrote before meeting my friends and discuss the book.

What came out of our meeting last night?

J. didn’t like it as much as me and C.: the SF elements bothered her since what happens to Benjamin isn’t possible. C. & J. have read the bilingual editions and had comments on the translation by Dominique Lescanne. Sometimes, it’s far from the original or it brings new elements. For example, “small boy clothes” are translated by “costume marin”, ie sailor suit, the kind of outfits children had in the past. In another sentence, “costume” is translated by “déguisement”. In French, the word “costume” exists and has the double meaning of “suit” and “costume” for carnival. For us, using “déguisement” is interpreting. I could give many examples.

The first thing that came out spontaneously is that women don’t matter. They have no voice in this society, they deliver babies, act pretty. They are exotic plants. Benjamin’s mother delivers a monstrous baby and Fitzgerald never tells how she felt about him. How does she accept her abnormal son? Her absence is shocking, we wondered how she reacted. When Benjamin falls in love with his wife, it’s because she’s pretty. Is she intelligent? No one cares as long as she’s beautiful, well-bred, rich and with good manners. Men stay with men and spend some amusement time with women but don’t really share their lives with them. Benjamin gets along with his grand-father but where are his grand-mothers? He talks to his son but what relationship does he have with his daughter-in-law? In every situation, he only interferes with men and females are like vague shadows.

In this tale, Fitzgerald also criticizes conformism. It’s done on a light tone but the attack is serious. To each age of life he associates standards (clichés?) of what a person should be. And age is defined by the body appearance, even if a birth certificate contradicts what the eyes see. Of course that’s what we do everyday when we meet someone. We measure his/her age according to what the person looks like. The way our body looks defines our age, even if our mental age is different and usually our bodies age more quickly than our minds. People often say “I’m 50 but I don’t feel 50 in my head” But what should it feel to be 50? No one can really tell. Here, each age corresponds to defined activities, tastes, behaviors.

We also thought that there isn’t much love in Benjamin’s world. Social duties and conventions prevail. It is sad to realize that the Buttons never really adapt to their son. They can’t handle the difference and thus the story lacks of love. Fitzgerald never say they love their son anyway and accept his difference. Would they have fared better with a handicapped son? They want him to meet their expectations, even if it is ridiculous. Mr. Button is particularly stubborn and persists in acting as if he had a normal baby. Here he is, buying baby toys to his septuagenarian son who can speak and read:

He brought home lead soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals made of cotton, and, to perfect this illusion which he was creating – for himself at least – he passionately demanded of the clerk in the toy-store whether “the paint would come off the pink duck if the baby put it in his mouth.”

When you’re expecting a baby, you can’t help imagining what he/she will be or what you want to share with your child. I think it’s an important part of the process in becoming a parent when the baby arrives. Of course, what you expect stems from your own experience and from what the society defines as “normal” for a child. You need to adjust when the child grows up but some parents can’t. Mr. Button has an imaginary son and denies him the right to be different and his behavior is even cruel sometimes. They all deny him the right to be different: his father, his wife, his son. They’re irritated by what they think is a sort of stubbornness on his side not to submit to social conventions. His wife doesn’t support him either.

We thought it was a fantastic tale, easy to read, fun and deep at the same time. I’ve read a few of the other tales and they are the same mix of social criticism, political and psychological questioning.

Next month we’ll be reading L’Amour commence à la lettre A by Paola Calvetti, an Italian novel. (Original title: Noi due come un romanzo) It is not available in English as it will be published in 2012. However, it is also available in German (Und immer wider Liebe: Roman). Our meeting is scheduled on October 27th, review the day after.

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