The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

Thanks to all the read­ers who sent in their thoughts on in­ap­po­site apos­tro­phes and other gram­mat­i­cal grem­lins. You made me laugh. I’ll share them here in a week or two. I’m back here in the bleach­ers to­day, not in my usual spot, be­cause of F. Scott Fitzger­ald. Well, any edi­tor un­will­ing to take a step back for him would be a crack-up. As it hap­pens, I think Fitzger­ald’s new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, I’d Die for You, is the first apos­trophised book ti­tle of his ca­reer. We have pub­lished one of the sto­ries, The I.O.U., on pages 16-19.

It is a new col­lec­tion, 76 years af­ter Fitzger­ald’s death at age 44, as some of the sto­ries have not been pub­lished pre­vi­ously and some are un­fin­ished. Most were sub­mit­ted to mag­a­zines. It’s there­fore a mixed bag but it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to read for the in­sights into Fitzger­ald. Each story comes with a pref­ace by edi­tor Anne Mar­garet Daniel that puts the fic­tion in the con­text of the au­thor’s life. The dark ti­tle story, I’d Die for You, is from the time of Fitzger­ald’s sui­cide at­tempt. “I’m afraid it’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to sell,” agent Harold Ober ad­mit­ted in a let­ter to his star writer.

The I.O.U. is the ear­li­est story, writ­ten, but not pub­lished, when Fitzger­ald was 23. It’s a witty piece about pub­lish­ing and a chal­lenge that re­mains just as rel­e­vant to­day: the line be­tween non­fic­tion and fic­tion. Read­ing it, my im­me­di­ate re­sponse was, “Gee, he can write, can’t he?” Five years later Fitzger­ald pub­lished The Great Gatsby, which re­ceived mixed re­views and did not sell well. Money was a peren­nial prob­lem, even though at one point The Satur­day Evening Post paid him $US4000 a story, the equiv­a­lent of $US55,000 to­day. But the life he and Zelda led was ex­pen­sive.

As Daniel notes, Fitzger­ald felt he had been pi­geon-holed as a writer of the Jazz Age, light and flappy, and peo­ple were less in­ter­ested in the more se­ri­ous sto­ries he wanted to write in the 1930s, when he was un­well, and so was the Amer­i­can econ­omy. He was proud of some of the sto­ries in this book, and dis­ap­pointed at their re­cep­tion. “The more I get for my trash the less I can bring my­self to write,” he said in a let­ter to edi­tor Max Perkins. He wrote on, so he could pay his debts and work on his nov­els. But he didn’t like it. Nor did he like work­ing in Hol­ly­wood as a screen­writer or “script doc­tor”, as he was on Gone with the Wind. “As soon as I feel I am writ­ing to a cheap spec­i­fi­ca­tion my pen freezes and my tal­ent van­ishes over the hill,” he said in a let­ter to Zelda. Aas the 1930s went on, Daniel writes, Fitzger­ald “re­fused to sub­mit to the ex­pec­ta­tions of those sur­prised to find in him a broad streak of re­al­ism, or a pro­gres­sion into the bleak­ness and bro­ken styles of High Modernism, or just plain some­thing they thought ugly”. He pub­lished five nov­els be­fore his sec­ond and fi­nal heart at­tack: This Side of Par­adise, The Beau­ti­ful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, Ten­der is the Night (my favourite) and the un­fin­ished, posthu­mously re­leased The Last Ty­coon. Read­ing this new book I could only won­der at what might have been. Book prizes con­tin­ued. Su­per-tal­ented Syd­ney writer Fiona McFar­lane has be­come the sec­ond Aus­tralian to win the £30,000 ($52,700) Dy­lan Thomas Prize, for her short fic­tion col­lec­tion The High Places. Our pre­vi­ous win­ner was Nam Le, for The Boat in 2008. North­ern Ire­land-born Mel­bur­nian Adrian McKinty has won an Edgar Award, the US’s crime fic­tion Os­car, for Rain Dogs, the fifth book in his su­perb se­ries cen­tred on Sean Duffy, a Catholic de­tec­tive in a Protes­tant po­lice force. His re­sponse, one I also could imag­ine hear­ing from Duffy, is our quote of the week: “Holy shit I won the Edgar!’’ Fi­nally, not­ing the NSW Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards fic­tion short­list last week, I left out Nick Earls’s novella Van­cou­ver, part three of a five­book se­ries by the Bris­bane au­thor. Apolo­gies to him and his pub­lisher Inker­man & Blunt.

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