CARPE LIBRUM: The enchanting, dazzling and sometimes horrifying glory of the Fitzgeralds

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

The Last Tycoon
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scribner’s, 1941, pgs. 163

greenfscottfitzI went through an obsessive Fitzgerald phase in my early and mid-20s. I read everything I could find by and about both Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. But the book that fascinated me most, and remained with me the longest, was one Fitzgerald was working on at the time of his death in 1940. The unfinished manuscript was edited by Edmund Wilson and published in 1941. Anyone who reads much of either of their works will learn forthright how both Scott and Zelda wrote about their own lives. Admittedly, they had fascinating lives that brimmed with drama and excitement, even if tragically so. In 1936 Zelda moved into a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, that would remain her home for most of the rest of her life—until her horrifying death in a fire there in 1948.

From 1936 until his death in 1941, Fitzgerald was living primarily in Hollywood. He was an alcoholic, yet still a keen observer and experienced soaked chronicler. Fitzgerald never really found the fame or success in Hollywood he expected. But he did begin writing “The Last Tycoon,” a novel of a movie mogul during the Hollywood studio system. Much like “This Side of Paradise” captures the coming-of-age novel, “The Last Tycoon” really captures the adult realization of how one is at the mercy of something bigger than one’s self. That mercy is financial, but the monetary control exerts a much greater force in our lives that party-happy artists like the Fitzgeralds were known for. It is clearly a book written by a man who is greatly disillusioned by life and art.

The copy I love is green cloth bound, and the back section is filled with his working notes for finishing the book. That, more than the story itself, is what brought me back to it again and again: the chance to glimpse inside the mind. The opportunity to see how he conceptualized a work and brought it together remains irresistible. Enough of the book was finished to really have a sense of the arc, but still, there was room for twists and falling action. As a reader, I wonder what he had planned and how he was going to unveil it. As a writer, I want to know how detailed an outline he worked with and how closely he stuck to it. How much revision are we talking about here? I mined the book for hours at a time, for months on end, to try to unlock the secrets to Fitzgerald’s genius.

It was the closest I could get to asking him questions directly, or sitting on his shoulder and watching him work. We really do see his thought process unfold on the page, the almost-conversations he has with himself. We also see how much the book changed in the writing from its initial concept.

Since that edition was released, the Fitzgeralds myth has grown in the public imagination. Multiple biographies of each of them have been under taken; Nancy Milford’s “Zelda” is my favorite among them. Tennessee Williams wrote a play about them, “Clothes for a Summer Hotel.”  In 2016 “Z: The Beginning of Everything” debuted as a TV series about their lives. Harold Pinter wrote a screenplay adaptation of “The Last Tycoon,” which eerily turned out to be the last film Elia Kazan directed. In 1993 Matthew Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina released a new edition of the unfinished novel he had edited from Fitzgerald’s notes, titled “The Love of the Last Tycoon.” This would be the material used for the TV adaptation released in 2016. Readers can tell the differences in editors. Wilson was a friend and contemporary of Fitzgerald.  Bruccoli was the preeminent Fitzgerald scholar of the 20th century.

The Fitzgeralds were like a train wreck: moving at high speed, they were on a collision course with each other, destiny and everyone around them. “The Last Tycoon” seems to acknowledge that more than any other of their combined writings. It is not the passionate love of Zelda’s “Save Me the Waltz” or Scott’s “Tender is the Night.” Difficult love bound them together and tore them apart—a love so strong they each had to write a novel about it to try to understand it. “The Last Tycoon” is far more cynical in nature, and perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by the process of creating it—and dying before finishing it. Scott and Zelda both died tragically. Scott died of a heart attack at age 44. Of course, Zelda locked in a mental institution, unable to escape a fire, is the stuff of nightmares! Both were past their heyday, when they weren’t just the life of the party but were the party! But they deserved better. Perhaps that is part of why their cautionary tale is so endlessly interesting to audiences. We all wish to fly as high and with as much dazzle as they did, but we do fear the price they paid for such glory.

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