Friday, August 27, 2010

A tower of tandem pursuit

Observation Tower River Mur, Austria

Approaching an entire month (can you stand it) of existence, a blog may lay aside pangs of guilt for weeks of play, to get one thing right for the sake of the children. Not, of course, one’s known readers. Rather, those inquiring, hypothetical relic-sifters of our stalwartly busy generation, mediating between themselves and context, their entitlement.

Naturally, on short notice one turns to another blog, where an announcement was lately made of a new edition of Scott Fitzgerald, which was met with a convivial conversation. Here, one title is reproduced for anyone’s enticement, who can accept metric emphasis on precisely the wrong term in both phrases, that least Fitzgeraldian of gestures. But the quality of the news in this case is that fine literature is restored in fine new editions, not that the Scribners ever let their writer or their reader down. 

To anyone attached to the relevance of metre in American prose, as in Hawthorne, Melville, or Capote, the emergence of Scott Fitzgerald did not come 90 years ago or last week, it came yesterday as an unstoppable current, it came today, and it will come tomorrow. Fitzgerald is to prose as the sommelier's insight is to wine: it doesn’t matter how it tastes, what matters is how it behaves. Fitzgerald is our master of metric currents and cross-currents, and The Beautiful and Damned (1922) is a triumph of that flux.

Famously a novel on the pursuit of fortune, precariously including love, the story is structured as two pursuits, Gloria’s and Anthony’s, in awkward juxtaposition. To Anthony’s is given Fitzgerald’s gaudiest laments, to Gloria’s his most austere, and their interplay in dialogue, internal monologue, and in separated sections of the text makes for a tower of extravagant risk on each side, and of course for great dramatic interest in its resolution. Repeatedly, Fitzgerald allows these pursuits to loose themselves under their own power. I’d wager there isn’t a child born within a hundred years of this text who will not remember Anthony’s rush to Gloria at the Astor ballroom, or hers to the rail bridge on a rainy night.

Now we are given the daring structure of this literary tour de force in a physical construction elsewhere, and the world of design has taken abundant notice. Several happier allusions can be drawn from this tower than its resemblance to a forceps, but if its recollection of good writing is unintended, it can’t be dismissed as undeserved. This is not one's Granny’s circular staircase; this is 2 staircases illuminating each other and not entirely without stimulating dissonance of pace and tendency at any given moment, yet plainly fated to seek reconciliation.

For the reader of The Beautiful and Damned it is as if almost every stanza of the staircases evokes one of the book's hottest passages of pursuit - one Anthony’s, the other Gloria’s. Nobody will be able to feel he has climbed these 27-some metres until he’s climbed to the top, both ways; and nothing could be more plain than the treasuring of each stanza of progression as a work in itself. There is F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is not about gossip of friends in the luggage trade, of hacking in Hollywood, of sanitorium, and early death, any more than this Observation Tower is about the cabbage in the lunch of its builders. This is writing for the young.

Shall we hear what they will hear?

First, Gloria in the rain, Book II, Chapter 2: Symposium


She shut her lips tightly to keep from screaming, and increased her gait. Before she had gone another hundred yards the woods disappeared, rolling back like a dark stocking from the leg of the road. Three minutes’ walk ahead of her, suspended in the now high and limitless air, she saw a thin interlacing of attenuated gleams and glitters, centred in a regular undulation on some one invisible point. Abruptly she knew where she would go. That was the great cascade of wires that rose high over the river, like the legs of a gigantic spider...

“Gloria! Gloria!” ...

The siren soared again, closer at hand, and then, with no anticipatory roar and clamor, a dark and sinuous body curved into view against the shadows far down the high-banked track, and with no sound but the rush of the cleft wind and the clocklike tick of the rails, moved toward the bridge - it was an electric train. Above the engine two vivid blurs of blue light formed incessantly a radiant crackling bar between them, which, like a spluttering flame in a lamp beside a corpse, lit for an instant the successive rows of trees... The light was tepid, the temperature of warm blood.... The clicking blended suddenly with itself in a rush of even sound, and then, elongating in sombre elasticity, the thing roared blindly by her and thundered onto the bridge, racing the lurid shaft of fire it cast into the solemn river alongside....

Silence crept down again over the wet country; the faint dripping resumed, and suddenly a great shower of drops tumbled upon Gloria.... She ran swiftly down a descending level to the bank and began climbing the iron stairway to the bridge, remembering that it was something she had always wanted to do...

There! This was better. She was at the top now and could see the lands about her as successive sweeps of open country, cold under the moon, coarsely patched and seamed with thin rows and heavy clumps of trees. To her right, half a mile down the river, which trailed away behind the light like the shiny, slimy path of a snail, winked the scattered lights of Marietta.... The oppression was lifted now -- the treetops below her were rocking the young starlight to a haunted doze. She stretched out her arms with a gesture of freedom. This was what she had wanted, to stand alone where it was high and cool.”


Now, Anthony in the maelstrom, Book III: A Matter of Civilization

“Where’s the Armistice Ball?”
“At the Astor.”

Anthony hung up sharply and rose. Who was Mr. Crawford? And who was it that was taking her to the ball? How long had this been going on? All these questions asked and answered themselves a dozen times, a dozen ways. His very proximity to her drove him half frantic.... Then he found something that made him stop suddenly and sit down on one of the twin beds, the corners of his mouth drooping as though he were about to weep. There in a corner of her drawer, tied with a frail blue ribbon, were all the letters and telegrams he had written her during the year past. He was suffused with happy and sentimental shame....

In the Astor lobby he was engulfed immediately in a crowd so thick as to make progress almost impossible. He asked the direction of the ballroom from half a dozen people before he could get a sober and intelligible answer. Eventually, after a last long wait, he checked his military overcoat in the hall.

It was only nine but the dance was in full blast. The panorama was incredible. Women, women everywhere - girls gay with wine singing shrilly above the clamor the dazzling confetti-covered throng; girls set off by the uniforms of a dozen nations; fat females collapsing with dignity upon the floor and retaining self-respect by shouting “Hurraw for the Allies!”; three women with white hair dancing hand in hand around a sailor, who revolved in a dizzying spin upon the floor, clasping to his heart an empty bottle of champagne.

Breathlessly Anthony scanned the dancers, scanned the muddled lines trailing in single file in and out among the tables, scanned the horn-blowing, kissing, coughing, laughing, drinking parties under the great full-bosomed flags which leaned in glowing color over the pageantry and sound.

Then he saw Gloria. She was sitting at a table for two directly across the room. Her dress was black, and above it her animated face, tinted with the most glamourous rose, made, he thought, a spot of poignant beauty on the room. His heart leaped as though to a new music. He jostled his way toward her and called her name just as the gray eyes looked up and found him. For that instant as their bodies met and melted, the world, the revel, the tumbling whimper of the music faded to an ecstatic monotone hushed as a song of bees.

“Oh, my Gloria!” he cried.

Her kiss was a cool rill flowing from her heart.

Tower Photographs: Abitare & Dezeen
Dust Jacket: The Diary of a Wandering Eye


  1. C'est absolument ébouriffant, mon cher Laurent-qui-ne-dîne-pas-au-restaurant.

  2. I am unalterably opposed to violence except in a good cause by mutual consent. I hope this was such an occasion?

    Thank you for your visit and this most colourful and gratifying comment.

  3. L. I have read several Fitzgeralds- of course Gatsby, after reading this-I feel sadly lacking for not having read the...Damned. For the young-but it's never too late,No? pgt

  4. LA, knowing "The GG" as you do, you know that as boats beating back against the tide, we never grow up. I do think you'd enjoy this one for the reasons suggested by the tower, its openly dual structure. But the prose will not come as any surprise, just as more gosh darned gorgeousness. Can you stand any more? :)