BOOK REVIEW / A mean trick of a life this side of paradise: Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography - Jeffrey Meyers: Macmillan, pounds 17.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NONE of the guests turned up to the seventh birthday party for Scott Fitzgerald and, as consolatlon, his mother allowed him to eat the whole cake, including the candles. At another disastrous party, given by the adult Fitzgerald for his only daughter Scottie, he re-engaged the hired musicians to play on after the guests had gone, while he sat drinking alone. Fitzgerald's life seems full of such tableaux - he once dressed in full evening clothes, hired a limousine and went to a staging of The Diamond as Big as the Ritz only to find that it was the most casual of student productions, and that the other ten people in the audience were wearing slacks. The recurring image is of a man alone, endlessly misjudging social situations and endlessly exposing himself to ridicule.

Jeffrey Meyers's new biography emphasises the writer's loneliness and vulnerability; from his embarrassingly unglamorous childhood, through his failures at Princeton and in the army, to his career as an author, when every success was tainted by worry that it might be the last, and every increase in wealth spawned expensive habits he could not maintain. Everyone notices that the rise and fall of Fitzgerald's fortunes mirror the boom and bust of Twenties and Thirties America: This Side of Paradise seemed to set the Jazz Age going, The Great Gatsby defined it, Tender is the Night charted its decline, The Crack-Up sounded the passing-bell. The books and the life and the age roll up beguilingly into one ball, and have helped make Fitzgerald a great romantic figure of American literature. But by showing him as an essentially unworldly man, whose brilliant fictional analyses of social standing, money and sex were fuelled by his own acute anxieties about these things, Meyers manages to explain how Fitzgerald could speak for a whole generation and yet always be out of step with it.

Scott Fitzgerald's excesses are legendary. 'Nothing could have survived our life,' his wife Zelda wrote towards the end of it, in one of her fine aphoristic flashes which could have been straight out of one of Scott's novels - or gone straight into one. Their 'wasteful and unpleasant' parties always ended in debacle, their absurd practical jokes often put people in real danger. Fitzgerald had little sense of occasion, even when sober, and tended towards melodrama. When he met James Joyce, he threw himself at his feet (a favourite gesture) and said, 'How does it feel to be a great genius, Sir? I am so excited at seeing you, Sir, that I could weep,' and followed this by threatening to jump from the balcony if Nora Joyce did not say she loved him.

A similar 'morbid belittlement and abandonment of himself' certainly infected his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, which Meyers (understandably, as Hemingway's biographer as well) sees as pivotal. Fitzgerald, at first Hemingway's hero, later became the younger man's abject fan, and was badly inhibited by his success. Though Meyers wildly claims theirs to be 'the most important literary friendship of the 20th century', it seems a much more predatory relationship, a mutual fascination which ran its course, ending in distrust and harsh criticism.

Fitzgerald's marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920 coincided with the publication of his first book, This Side of Paradise, and this linking of literary and sexual achievement continued throughout their volatile life together. Meyers is harsh on 'Zelda's frigidity', while acknowledging that Scott was obsessed with the smallness of his penis, and that his alcoholism 'may even have caused occasional impotence'.

The amount of drink and drunkenness in Fitzgerald's short life is truly phenomenal (to Hemingway's disgust, Fitzgerald could never hold his drink). Meyers highlights the squalor and isolation of the incurable alcoholic, though it remains a mystery how Fitzgerald was able to write anything during the period of the composition of Gatsby, his almost perfect novel. The elements of his style also remain mysterious, and this is the only real oversight in this confident and engaging biography. Meyers quotes Fitzgerald almost exclusively in soundbites - entertaining but insubstantial. Fitzgerald's brilliant use of syntax, his symbolism, fine ironic sense and beautiful prose are not shown off enough, and by the end of the book he remains a writer who is famous for being famous, for being drunk, and for being dead.

'For the majority of creative people, life is a pretty mean trick', Fitzgerald said, with characteristic sympathy, of Zelda's decline into insanity. His devotion to her and his daughter, and the sheer stamina involved in fighting drink, tuberculosis, failure and breakdown as long as he did, indicates the essential toughness of his character. One observer described the 41-year-old Fitzgerald's 'twitching face, with its pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child', but none of the pathos of this would have been lost on Fitzgerald himself. He changed the instructions in his will for a grand funeral 'in accordance with my station' to a wording which is more of an ironic gloss than a contradiction, asking for 'the cheapest possible funeral', and remained tormentingly clear-sighted to the end.

(Photograph omitted)