Somehow, I made it through my school career and subsequent adulthood without reading any of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. I don’t blame my teachers for this: I was a cunning and resourceful cheat when I wanted to be. However, at some point I must have felt guilty about missing out on so many classics, as this copy of Babylon Revisited is one that I purchased not very long after I left high school. The fact that, some twenty-plus years later, I finally got round to reading it should speak for the value of having your own library without my having to say anything further.
I made notes of each of the stories as I read them, particularly since I was repeatedly struck by elements of Fitzgerald’s writing and didn’t wish to forget some of the salient points of each story.
The Ice Palace (1920) – quintessential Southern daughter Sally Carrol Harper travels north with her fiancé, and discovers what lies beneath the ice. A wonderfully, thermally evocative story. When I first started this book, many years ago, this was the only story that I read before being distracted by something shiny, and on re-reading, it was completely unfamiliar.
May Day (1920) – Gordon Sterrett is down on his luck, and his tale intermingles with those of socialist publishers, soldiers newly returned from the Great War, and former school-mates in this tale of lives shaped and destroyed over a day and a night in May. The resonances of a May Day in 1920, before the American fear of socialism had driven the suppression of the May Day holiday in favor of the watered-down September incarnation of Labor Day, may not be immediately apparent to modern readers.
The Diamond As Big As the Ritz (1922) – a particularly baroque piece of fantasy, in which John Unger visits the home of a school friend, Percy Washington, who lives in a secret valley in Montana. Washington’s family live on the profits of the vast diamond which exists under their secret valley, and have built a small empire unchanged since the ending of the Civil War. They live in fear, however, of a newcomer to the scene… the aeroplane.
Winter Dreams (1922) – if my twenty year-old self had only read this story, how different might my life have been? This is the quintessential tale of the boy who chases the unobtainable woman, and who longs for her and ultimately comes near to ruining his life because of her. My own thoughts on love might have evolved considerably and for the better had I read this story in time. Dexter Green, an up-and-coming young man with a string of early successes, falls under the sway of the fickle but enthralling Judy Jones. When he professes his love, she laughs it off, but when he finally moves on she reappears and does still more damage to him. A cautionary tale from ninety years ago …
Absolution (1922) – a Catholic story, so a little lost on me. A boy fears his father, but unfairly fears confession and taking the communion more. The dialogue between priest and young man took on a certain curious inappropriateness considering recent history.
The Rich Boy (1926) – Anson meets Paula, but they are driven apart by his fecklessness. He spends the ensuing years trying to find a similar happiness, but instead finds himself aging, with an ever-diminishing circle.
The Freshest Boy (1927) – a young boy goes off to prep school, accidentally makes enemies immediately in his first term, must suffer the consequences.
Babylon Revisited (1931) – a man returns to Paris, having rebuilt his life following the Crash and the death of his wife, to negotiate the custody of his young daughter with his sister-in-law.
Crazy Sunday (1933) – evoking the first Golden Age of Hollywood with almost journalistic immediacy, this is actually a tightly-wound tale of competing jealousies and temptations.
The Long Way Out (1937) – a heartbreaking tale of a woman in a very specific oubliette of her own. Again there is a coincidence of circumstance – the woman falling ill and going into a sanatorium – and her husband’s ill-fated attempt to take her on a holiday.
The rest of the review: I think that Fitzgerald, who I can’t believe that I’ve avoided reading for this long, is one of my new top favorite writers. I know that I have a few others of his books around, I just need to find them, to see if I can confirm this initial enthusiasm.
What is compelling to me about these short tales is their stark simplicity and poignancy. In a way, each is an homage to something lost, but also filled with some hope for something to be regained. These are tiny, capsule worlds, which with only minor changes could be shifted from the veniality of the 1920s and 30s to the vapidity of the early 21st century. It is as though, in a way, the cultural milieu of Fitzgerald’s heyday is with us still. His characters are beautifully frozen moments in time: contemporary, yet ahistorical and timeless.
So I enjoyed them all, as may be evident. On to Gatsby. For Babylon, five stars, and an addition to my “favourites” shelf.
Originally reviewed 6 January 2013.
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