Babylon and F Scott Fitzgerald Revisited

babylon

I was introduced to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald by one of my teachers, David Gowers. To prevent anyone who is interested in English cricket from thinking I am well connected with the sound of leather on willow. I am afraid my teacher was not the David Gowers who played for England. Mind you he could thwack a good boundary when the opportunity was bowled at him.

The book Mr Gowers lent me was ‘The Great Gatsby’ from his own collection. Our school’s library stock did not venture much beyond the boys’ classics such as Treasure Island, Oliver Twist and those oh so middle class and terribly English series of stories of public school with Jennings or of Biggles giving Johnny Foreigner a good beating in the skies over distant lands of the rapidly diminishing British Empire. No, a book like the Gatsby story was probably far too racy for the library of a 1960’s comprehensive and worse still, was American.

I read Gatsby avidly. I had been lent a book by ‘sir’ from his own collection. It was about big parties, fast cars and city life. I gleaned only a superficial understanding of what the story was about. Coincidentally the movie starring Robert Redford was released about the same time as I read the book and even after seeing the movie I still was not gripping the deeper meaning of the story. It was not until much later that I sat with my wife and watched the movie that the true depth of what Scott Fitzgerald wrote broke through like the clear sunshine breaking through dark clouds just after a storm and giving everything their rain has hit a vivid clarity of colour.

In the intervening decades from school to watching the movie with my wife I did pick up a collection of his short stories which was a travelling companion on train journeys. The book got left on a train from Waterloo to Brockenhurst, unfinished and unclaimed by me at lost luggage. I hope the person who found it was, unlike me, able to read it from cover to cover enjoyably and like me, even experienced the same post storm enlightenment I had over Gatsby.

The name F Scott Fitzgerald has held a fascination for me ever since I first read Gatsby. What was he like as a person? I know he had a drink problem which may well have been the cause of his death at an early age. I know he was married to Zelda who also had a drink problem and was an author in her own right. They had a daughter ‘Scotty’. They lived in hotels and motels quite a lot where he frantically turned out articles and short stories for magazines as well as scripts for Hollywood that he sold to maintain their almost hand to mouth existence. I vaguely remember seeing a movie of their life and being aware of a motel room and a typewriter in the room.

I use his name as a conversation opener in the book sections of charity shops or second hand book shops. If I am asked if I am looking for anything specifically I answer ‘I am trying to find something by Scott Fitzgerald and should I be looking under ‘S’ or ‘F’ in the fiction section or the classics?’ Most times the response is ‘I don’t think we have anything by him…..is he a new writer?’ Or, occasionally the person working in the shop has had librarian experience and knows the Dewey system. Their response is ‘He will be under ‘F’ in either the fiction or the classics….let me see, I am sure we have something by him…..yes, here it is ‘The Great Gatsby’. I explain that I already have a copy and then have a conversation with the shop assistant about Scott Fitzgerald and books in general.

Recently in a charity shop on a wet Saturday I picked up a little Penguin pocket book scantily larger than a postcard and not much thicker than a CD case called ‘Babylon’ by F Scott Fitzgerald. It contains three short stories, one of which is titled ‘Babylon’ which happens to be the first in the trilogy. The backdrop of this story about a father and a young daughter is that the father lost a fortune in the 1929 Wall Street Crash. He and his wife lived the high life spending like there was no tomorrow. His wife died and gave instructions that there only daughter be taken into the guardianship of her sister. The story takes place in Paris where the sister and her husband, both American, are living and caring for the daughter. The father, recovering from a drinking problem, is rebuilding his life and his wealth in a business in Prague. And so like Gatsby, we are never told what exactly this business is. Is it legal? Is it illegal? Or is it in that grey area between the two haunted by the dark side of governments and racketeers. Only Scott Fitzgerald would be able to answer that question.

Some of the father’s problems stemmed from his own choices, living the high life and drinking, but other problems were beyond his control, the Wall Street Crash and losing his wife. He appeared to be making valiant efforts to get his life back on track, taking control and wanting to have his daughter back to build a family life but would circumstances beyond his control connive to rob him of this ambition?

Sorry, you will have to read every single page to find the answer.

The second story is ‘The Cut Glass Bowl’. This about how a present of a glass punch bowl and set of glasses from an ex-lover to the main character, Evelyn, in the story takes a central position in the family dining room and a catalytic centre stage for the events that dramatically change the lives of the members of the family. As with ‘Babylon’, some of those events are caused by choices and others are beyond anyone’s control.

The quote I like from this story is when the ex-lover gives Evelyn the bowl says ‘…..a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as see through’. Some people in real life fully deserve that line.

The cut glass bowl enters the story very early, in the about the eleventh paragraph, with a gentle introduction. Then the noise of it being knocked accidentally sets off a train of events. Mistrust in the marriage, a minor cut to a thumb, too much alcohol, venting of feelings and too much coarse behaviour. This all culminates on the last page with Evelyn clutching the bowl as she takes it into the garden of the house. How does it all end? Symbolically I guess is the best adjective to use.

The third story in this collection is ‘The Lost Decade’. This is about a magazine editor, Orrison Brown, who fell from his esteemed role and ended up as the office junior. ‘….a curly-haired man who only a year before had edited……was now only too glad to take the undesirable assignments around the office’. That was his true role but he still maintained the pretence away from work that he was an editor.

One of his ‘assignments’ was to take a guest of the real editor out to lunch for a couple of hours in New York in the 1930’s. Brown’s editor wishes them well ad comments that the guest has been very ‘lucky’ having been away for twelve years. He would have been, ne missed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Brown and the guest have lunch together and walk around New York. All the time Brown is trying to figure out where this guest has been and where he vaguely remembers him from but he can never really answer his own questions. In that way the reader is also left with their own set of unanswered questions as well. Were the years lost in prison? Were they lost through alcoholism? Or, did the mystery guest just go away somewhere so isolated he missed hearing about economics?

None of these stories finish with a killer punch line that makes you think ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting that’ that appear when the outcome is completely opposite to what was expected but in hindsight was logically possible. What all of the stories do finish with is the leaving of questions for the reader to ponder and explore which then puts them into the position of looking at themselves. Are they truly happy? Is life empty and transparent? What choices have I made? Could I do more to find happiness?

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About alangrenville

I live in southern Britain near the fabulous New Forest. While studying for a BSc in International Studies I have developed a strong belief in 'NIBAW' or 'nothing is black and white'. Hence my favourite saying "Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought" (John F Kennedy).
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