Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 14, 2008

The Fitz Challenge

When I first discovered reading, it was mostly short stories – detective stories (Asimov), mysteries (Doyle) and horror (Hitchcock). And then there was F. Scott Fitzgerald – a writer’s writer in a very American way. It wasn’t that he wrote prose as langorous and beautiful as Ray Bradbury (he didn’t); and it’s not that he had the wit of Twain (he didn’t), but he was a keen observer, and somehow he carried you into the story and set you down gently…. as gently and graciously as Jay Gatsby. He had the whole package.

Of course when I went off to really study literature and the like, Shakespeare was modern… and I never got even within 500 years of a 20th century writer. So for as much as I loved F. Scotty, he has remained a mostly a memory for a long, long time. There was of course that very bad movie that came out during the courtship of my first girlfriend – when movies were something you did to get out on your own… and the experience put me off from reading Scott’s most well-known Gatzer novel. It wasn’t a short story, and Robert Redford’s rendition… killed more than Myrtle.

So in filling-in the space between my next Orthobook, I picked up my daughter’s college text of “The Great Gatsby” – complete with all her professor’s lectured notations in the margin. I was done in a blink.. and with these things of course.. someone else’s notes start a dialog in your head.

But let me say what joy there is in reading this unhappy prose, and what a masterpiece of its own in its beautiful account of a period not altogether unlike ours. Talking it over with my wife, I almost want to begin reading it all over again… and of course I’ve started to. It’s not that it is good, but that the art of telling so compliments the setting and the characters as if it were itself the perfect white linen, or a 1920 Pierce Arrow Roadster.

And though I’m struggling to think of one good person in the book, and there’s certainly no conception of this as a description of an Orthodox life, re-reading the opening two-page introduction left me pondering whether there weren’t an Orthodox reading of this. We’re talking about the “reserve of judgment” as a matter of hope after all. And it is this key… this suspension of judgment, this not seeing into others hearts but simply observing them as if from afar that starts the mind along this course.. a sort of ascetic aesthetic. Not suggesting that everytime we see something we have to make a leap into searching for an Orthodox retelling… but maybe it’ wouldn’t be  bad to consider the possibility.

Sure, part of the appeal and wonder of this may lie in the fact that F. Scott’s not a writer of thick Russian books, but rather shared this land (though perhaps through a besotted haze). Though now he lies under a traffic diamond with Zelda in nearby Rockville, Scott knew our people and our dreams. And maybe there is some key to understanding the meaning and place of Orthodoxy in this. Maybe not. Maybe there’s nothing there after all. I’ll have to keep re-reading.

But in the meantime, I’m not the only one with this standard on my shelf. Surely someone else has given it a thought. All I’m suggesting… is that I’m curious. Feel free to chip in.


  1. May I suggest the author Frederick Buechner? If you want fiction, I find Brendan to be his best piece. For non-fiction A Sacred Journey is a must-read to understanding this author. I consider him to be a genius and someone very acquainted with grief.

    I find that for clarity’s sake I need to sprinkle my Orthodox readings liberally with non-Orthodox stuff. And to make it more difficult, I am a very picky reader.

    I have never read Fitzgerald mainly because I have heard that his characters aren’t altogether likable (as you said).

  2. Thanks for the suggestion.

    I think here it is like reading some of the more puzzling Old Testament stories… and that is what I’d suggest. The narrator is a character in the story and doesn’t hold himself above reproach: he has feelings; he acts; he does make judgments… and sometimes capriciously. But in the end, he is faithful or loyal. There is something that keeps him assenting to Gatsby even at the end that I haven’t answered. And there is a telling in this story that captures much of what we’ve come to think of whenever we look on the Jazz Age. You can almost hear the wonder of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” winding up, or Hoagy Carmichael’s settling of the band in “Stardust” – in the better versions.

    I am a subscriber to Jasper Fforde’s premise of the author as agency for an interaction between the reader and the characters in the book. And there is a wistful longing Fitzgerald captures, a nostalgia for “might have been” youth and an age of innocence that is undercut at every turn. And it isn’t so much the lack of good… but also the lack of outright evil.. that makes it remarkable. It is an evil that is particularly American in its comfort, its independence, and its shimmering resplendence… beneath which there is… what? So I guess I look at the whole as an unravelling of sorts.

    But I fully understand your comments and hesitations. Maybe it’s why I’ve waited 50 years to take a crack at it. And maybe for you it would be like watching Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and just wanting to do what you can’t… to grab her (NOT like Mrs. Danvers!), and tell her to just “put a sock in it, suck it up, and stand up for yourself”… but you can’t.

  3. Never cared much for Fitzgerald or Gatsby. I’ve read it but much prefer Faulkner, Styron, Thoreau, O’Connor, Welty and the like. I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and found it to be excellent. Heartbreaking and terrifying and the same time. All time favorite is Beowulf.

    Another really good Southern writer is Fred Chappell. A very good teller of tales. Also Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain.”

    Just started “The Fellowship of The Ring.” Actually I got to thinking about it after reading DebD’s Tom Bombadil story. I read them all many years ago but I already appreciate the story much more now than then.

    Sorry it seems I have wandered off on a tangent. Sorry. It’s just the English major in me.

  4. Frederick Buechner… yes! I LOVED Peculiar Treasures, short anecdotal retellings of the lives of Biblical characters that captured them and their theological significance. His novels are beautifully written too. For sheer poetic writing, Louise Erdrich’s prose is stunningly beautiful and she writes about Native American culture which has a core of spirituality.

  5. […] Asimov, mysteries Doyle and horror Hitchcock. And then there was F. Scott Fitzgerald – a writer??s w Week Ahead: May 25-31 New York TimesA museum exhibition featuring a lot of ???non-objects??? […]

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