Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window… This Side of Paradise
for Paul Lisson & Fiona Kinsella
By J.S. Porter
The United States has given the world baseball, movies, Jazz and Blues, flush toilets, and the Irish-American voice of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
So Irish is Fitzgerald’s voice on the page, so Irish his sensibility and longing, so Irish his alcoholism and romanticism, his poetry, his championing of the underdog and his self-destruction, you could rightly claim dual citizenship for him: American and Irish.
Whoever saw the promise of America so enchantingly? When the Dutch sailors first saw New York, and by extension the New World, “for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” That’s Nick Carraway speaking, Fitzgerald’s authorial voice in The Great Gatsby, that tiny perfect novel.
Fitzgerald who had a great love for Keats – you can still hauntingly hear him reading portions of the odes on the Internet—wrote Keatsian prose, prose ever-conscious of voice. Nick describes his cousin Daisy as having a “low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” That’s what “Gatsby” is, that’s what Fitzgerald is – an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.
Nick describes the impact of Daisy’s voice on Gatsby: “His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song.”
Sometimes you need a foreigner or someone who feels himself to be an outsider, someone who takes nothing for granted, to see a country’s promise as Fitzgerald saw it—the promise always on the edge of disintegration. You need the Japanese novelist Murakami in Brick, No. 82, Winter 2009 to see the heart of “the sad, beautiful tale of a single summer,” and register the achievement and loss of Fitzgerald’s voice. “The beauty of Fitzgerald’s fluent, elastic prose lies in his ability to alter tone, pattern, and rhythm to create infinitesimal shifts in atmosphere.” His prose “flows like a piece of elegant music, and his sentences ride upon this rhythm.”
His stories and novels are the most musical, the most rhythmic in the language, consistently even more musical than Joyce. The books, the sentences, are all spoken, from the tongue to the ear, with an undertow of melancholy and loss. The voice glitters “with grandeur,” as Patricia Hampl in “Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime” acknowledges. The strength of the voice: “…the human voice, alone and free, telling its bit of life news to a single listener…”
Fitzgerald’s is a style built by poetry, the trying to write it in prose and the reading of it. Keats again. He tells his daughter Scottie that after Keats all other poetry “seems to be only whistling or humming.”He quotes a line from “Eve of St. Agnes.” “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.” The line “is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement—the limping, trembling and freezing going on before your own eyes.”
Stylistically Fitzgerald is very different from his friend Hemingway. As Princeton professor Christian Gauss grasped: “His [Hemingway’s] rhythm is like the beating of an African tom-tom—primitive, simple, but it gets you in the end” while “You [Fitzgerald] have a feeling for musical intervals, and the tone-color of words which makes your prose the finest instrument for rendering all the varied shades of our complex emotional states.”
According to his biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, “[t]he dominant influences on F. Scott Fitzgerald were aspiration, literature, Princeton, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, and alcohol.” I would add summer, youth, and beauty. He fell into melancholy as Hemingway fell into megalomania—both broken, but broken in different ways. Fitzgerald was the tortoise to Hemingway’s hare but forgot that the tortoise wins the race. He spoke, in his own words, “with the authority of failure” while Hemingway spoke “with the authority of success.” Failure seems more authoritative to us now.
Fitzgerald breaks down, he cracks up, he falls from grace. In a letter to his French Rivera friends Gerald and Sara, he grimaces: “The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden…” By the time of the letter, Zelda is in a psychiatric institution and Fitzgerald has lost the capacity to hope, to believe that the future might be better than the present.
Fitzgerald is the poet of promise, dreams, and longing. He’s also the poet of humiliation, dissipation, and shame. He sings of the day and the night. He sings a deathless song, with a voice you always want in your ear:
“Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.”