The anthologist of this collection begins his otherwise plodding preface with an interesting quotation from Fitzgerald: “We authors repeat ourselves….We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives…and we tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—as long as people will listen.”
This is evident in many of the short stories collections I’ve read. But where Hemingway can keep a story ever-fresh by giving us different episodes told from different angles, it is more Fitzgerald’s fashion to give his characters new clothes and identities and set them off on a familiar course.
In such cases, an anthologist can make or break a collection by his discrimination in choosing stories. And here, Matthew Bruccoli has been over-eager: This 800-page, forty-three-story collection does disservice to Fitzgerald by including weaker variants of his recurring themes. If it instead contained just the fifteen best stories, any reader would conclude—correctly—that Fitzgerald was a surpassingly great writer.
In rare cases, a theme is so good and the execution so brilliant that it can support multiple expositions—Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations are both masterpieces. But, for the most part, variant renderings should be treated as an historical or academic curiosity, rather than something of artistic significance. And academics themselves are famously unable to tell the difference.
Fitzgerald’s earliest stories demonstrate a tremendously acute grasp of psychology—especially of a particular female psychology that must have pained Fitzgerald severely and which reappears throughout his writing career. But it wasn’t until Fitzgerald tried ex-patriotism in Paris and endured the tragic torment of a wife, famed for her beauty, who was also clinically insane, that he gained the necessary spiritual depth for his talent to have full scope. Fitzgerald finally sheds the self-pitying tendency that characterizes his early heroes and learns how to rescue something of dignity in a man whose natural tendency is to be preyed on by women.
Though the stories are uneven from one to the next, the best are extraordinary (and funny—Fitzgerald had great wit). The late pieces approach capturing, within tight confines, everything Fitzgerald had seen and absorbed, and make the return to early themes beautiful—“More Than Just a House” is the best such example. At the end of a short life (he died aged forty-four) the vigor which Fitzgerald maintained against all odds in Europe appears finally swamped by the cynicism of Hollywood, where he went to replace the income from failing book sales and declining story prices by taking a contract with MGM, working on scripts which went largely unused. He hated this job and he chronicles his spiritual dissipation in two successful stories—“Afternoon of an Author” and “Financing Finnegan.” The Fitzgerald that emerges in the closing pages—cut short while working on his great unfinished novel The Last Tycoon—has a sublime, quiet acceptance: he has given up his youthful habit of asking why, and devotes himself instead to simply explaining how it is.
Aphoristic pith: 9/10
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 6.5/10. 9.5/10 for the best stories.
The Short Stories of F Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J Bruccoli, Scribner, 1989, 775 pages.