This is a beautifully produced scholarly edition of 18 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, none published in his lifetime. Varying in length from three pages to thirty, these stories are peopled not so much with the glamorous but damaged Jazz Age characters familiar to us from his novels but with a poorer, sadder, post-Depression cast including drunks, travelling salespeople, hypochondriacs, divorcing couples, movie producers, starlets, has-beens, and – overwhelmingly – the unwell. The best of these stories glitter with the author’s wit and familiar ability to demolish a character’s pretentions in a sentence. The others, more plodding, will appeal nevertheless to Fitzgerald fans for the light they shine on his preoccupations and problems, and for the glimpse they afford into the seedier side of 1930s small-town American life.
As the editor’s fastidious biographical notes explain, these stories were written at a point in Fitzgerald’s career when his star was waning (the recently published Gatsby was not an immediate success). He was ill, caring for his depressed wife Zelda, living in motels and desperate for money. The subject matter clearly reflects his state of mind, and he explained to his agent that he no longer wanted to write about ‘flappers and fun’. This standpoint also explains why these stories in particular did not find a ready market: the title story is about suicide; another tells of a first world war veteran suffering from shell shock whose identity is stolen, and others feature world-weary characters whose lives are going nowhere. Some were felt by editors to be too long, too short, or too dark. A few are little more than notes for movie plots. One appears twice, with different endings.
Each story is prefaced by an explanation of the circumstances in which the story was written, submitted, edited, rejected or shelved. They are illustrated with photographs of the author and pages of his handwritten or typed manuscript, and other ephemera. What is fascinating from the extracts from his letters is that FSF refused to adapt these stories to appeal to the editors, which in turn gives an insight into his creative process, stubbornness and confidence in his own abilities.
Collections of short stories as a genre are generally viewed by the publishing industry as a hard sell. Individually of course each is quick to read, but taken as a whole they are quite difficult to digest, and this collection is no different. The reader is required to grasp the situation immediately, focus on new characters, work out what is going on, be interested in the plot set-up, and be prepared either to sustain attention, or pick the book up and put it down often. This is made harder here by the inconsistencies of style, length and tone.
I loved about a third of these stories, particularly those that blended humour and seriousness, and those which offered occasional sparks of dazzling writing. Nightmare opens with what appears to be a house party – in fact it is a messy afternoon in a sanatorium – where the Doctor’s ‘eyes were full of tears for the preventable sadness of the world’. The Pearl and the Fur is a morality tale featuring a dreamy 14 year old girl who has an unlikely adventure in a big city; the couple in Day off from Love decide to spend a day away from each other every week with the idea of keeping their relationship alive (but with disastrous consequences) – a great set up which would have been a good start for a novel.
I felt I had to look hard to find in the creator of these stories the same author of the beautiful and sad Tender is the Night and This Side of Paradise. He was there in George in Gracie at Sea who is a ‘fundamentally lonesome and self-obliterating man’, and in Delannux of I’d Die for You who confesses he is ‘a sort of survival from the boom days – tried to drink all the wine in Paris’. In Offside Play, a story about young love and football, we are offered the memorable line ‘as the moment endured, glittered, then slipped into eternity.’ Brilliant touches like this make wading through the more unsatisfying stories worth the candle.
These stories aren’t so much ‘lost’ as the title suggests – rather rejected, ignored and forgotten: most have been languishing in Princeton Library; others in in family archives waiting for scholar and editor Anne Margaret Daniel to unearth them and put them in context. She has done a remarkable job and this would be a wonderful gift for FSF devotees.
A wannabe movie starlet in one story wonders if death might be ‘like jumping into a basket of many coloured skies.’ Reading this collection is a bit like that, but you need to choose the right basket.
I’d Die For You And Other Lost Stories is published by Scribner UK, 384 pages.