The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Show Mr. and Mrs F –’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On the essays shelf:

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The byline here is “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald”, and the date is “May-June 1934″.

They got married in 1920. He was newly famous because of his first novel. They were both young and good-looking. They had more money than they knew what to do with. They spent the 1920s traveling, carousing, and having a hell of a time. They had a baby, and that slowed the pace for about a year or so. Fitzgerald published more, Zelda caused scenes, that were funny and shocking, and then not so funny. She aspired to be a writer, too. Fitzgerald often used her as inspiration in his own work, something that caused much resentment. She felt like he was stealing her best material, material that SHE could use in her OWN work. She did publish a couple of things, including reviews of some of her husband’s work (one in which she says in a smart-alecky tone that she recognizes some of the passages in her husband’s work from her own diaries. She concludes, “I suppose plagiarism begins at home.”) The press/public, who loved them as a couple, ate all of this up, but there were serious undertones. Zelda wasn’t just an unsung artist. She was mentally ill. This, of course, went undiagnosed for many years, and Fitzgerald could be a stabilizing influence on her. But eventually she “cracked up”, in 1929/1930. She became obsessed with ballet, and would dance for sometimes 8 hours a day. She began to have delusions. She was already too old to “make it” as a ballerina, but that did not stop her pursuit. She would dance for the guests, she would answer the door in her tutu. Some of the first-hand accounts of her around that time are heart-rending. Finally, she was put in an institution, she was analyzed by Jung, she was released. But from that point on, she was never really well. Finally, she was put in the institution in Asheville, where she would eventually die (when the institution burned down: she was in a locked ward. Horror.) Fitzgerald had died at the age of 40 eight years before. One can only imagine how she must have felt, locked away, hearing of her husband’s death, knowing that literally the only person on the planet who cared for her in the way that he did was gone … the only one who “had her back” … who kept her calm, who remembered her when … was now dead … The mind goes blank with the tragedy of it all.

Fitzgerald had ambivalent feelings about her writing. He encouraged her, and obviously felt she had a gift of expression (otherwise he wouldn’t have been inspired by her). But he also felt some professional jealousy as well as anxiety. He was the one who lived with her. He knew her lack of discipline. He knew how despairing she could get. He tried to prop her up, he set her up with contacts … but there was still the fact of the matter that she was his wife, and maybe he had some traditional ideas about that, after all? Who’s to say. What can be said is that while Zelda certainly did have a way with words, she lacked the gumption to keep at it when things got tough, something her husband had in spades. The pieces they wrote together (and there are two in this collection) are list-oriented. It’s like they act as Curators over their own Relationship. This becomes explicit in the next essay in the collection, but here in “Show Mr and Mrs. F –”, its a long long LONG list of places they stayed over a 14-year period of time.

While there is very little introspective pontificating here (not too much “we felt” or “we thought”), this is a deeply introspective piece. It has the Fitzgerald stamp of elegy and nostalgia, a sense that he is looking back on his youth from a great and sad distance (and he wasn’t, he was only in his 30s!), and that far too much had happened for him to ever re-capture insouciant joy. It’s haunting. The long list of places, Pisa, Venice, Paris, Monte Carlo, starts to sound manic after a time. It is impossible to read this essay and not think at one point, “What the devil are you two running from?”

At first it seems hopelessly glamorous and fun. To them as well. But as the piece goes on, the imagery starts changing. There’s a strain of unease. A minor key playing in the distance. They both seem to feel it as well (although I assume that Scott wrote the majority of this). The hotels starts to get dingier. There are ominous signs of poor weather. Why can’t these two sit still, for two seconds? They cannot.

On the surface, ‘Show Mr. and Mrs. F–’ is a list of hotels in the hot spots of the American ex-pat community in the heyday of the 1920s. Underneath is the rupture of a culture, the rupture of calm, peace. Deep undercurrents swirl, never named. I find the piece quite disturbing.

Here’s just one excerpt.

The Crack-Up, ‘Show Mr. and Mrs F –’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

1929

We went to America but didn’t stay at hotels. When we got back to Europe we spent the first night at a sun-flushed hostelry, Bertolini’s in Genoa. There was a green tile bath and a very attentive valet de chambre and there was ballet to practice, using the brass bedstead as a bar. It was good to see the brilliant flowers colliding in prismatic explosions over the terraced hillside and to feel ourselves foreigners again.

Reaching Nice, we went economically to the Beau Rivage, which offered many stained glass windows to the Mediterranean glare. It was spring and was brittly cold along the Promenade des Anglais, though the crowds moved persistently in a summer tempo. We admired the painted windows of the converted palaces on the Place Gambetta. Walking at dusk, the voices fell seductively through the nebulous twilight inviting us to share the first stars, but we were busy. We went to the cheap ballets of the Casino on the jettee and rode almost to Villefranche for Salade Nicoise and a very special bouillabaisse.

In Paris we economized again in a not-yet-dried cement hotel, the name of which we’ve forgotten. It cost us a good deal, for we ate out every night to avoid starchy table d’hotes. Sylvia Beach invited us to dinner and the talk was all of the people who had discovered Joyce; we called on friends in better hotels: Zoe Akins, who had sought the picturesque of the open fires at Foyot’s, and Esther at the Port-Royal, who took us to see Romaine Brooks’ studio, a glass enclosed square of heaven swung high above Paris.

Then southward again, and wasting the dinner hour in an argument about which hotel: there was one in Beaune where Ernest Hemingway had liked the trout. Finally we decided to drive all night, and we ate well in a stable courtyard facing a canal—the green-white glare of Provence had already begun to dazzle us so that we didn’t care whether the food was good or not. That night we stopped under the white-trunked trees to open the windshield to the moon and to the sweep of the south against our faces, and to better smell the fragrance rustling restlessly amidst the poplars.

At Frejus Plage, they had built a new hotel, a barren structure facing the beach where the sailors bathe. We felt very superior remembering how we had been the first travellers to like the place in summer.

After the swimming at Cannes was over and the year’s octopi had grown up in the crevices of the rocks, we started back to Paris. The night of the stock-market crash we stayed at the Beau Ravage in St. Raphael in the room Ring Lardner had occupied another year. We got out as soon as we could because we had been there so many times before—it is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.

At the Jules Cesar in Aries we had a room that had once been a chapel. Following the festering waters of a stagnant canal we came to the ruins of a Roman dwelling-house. There was a blacksmith shop installed behind the proud columns and a few scattered cows ate the gold flowers off the meadow.

Then up and up; the twilit heavens expanded in the Cevennes valley, cracking the mountains apart, and there was a fearsome loneliness brooding on the flat tops. We crunched chestnut burrs on the road and aromatic smoke wound out of the mountain cottages. The Inn looked bad, the floors were covered with sawdust, but they gave us the best pheasant we ever ate and the best sausage, and the feather-beds were wonderful.

In Vichy, the leaves had covered the square about the wooden bandstand. Health advice was printed on the doors at the Hotel du Parc and on the menu, but the salon was filled with people drinking champagne. We loved the massive trees in Vichy and the way the friendly town nestles in a hollow.

By the time we got to Tours, we had begun to feel like Cardinal Balue in his cage in the little Renault. The Hotel de l’Univers was equally stuffy but after dinner we found a cafe crowded with people playing checkers and singing choruses and we felt we could go on to Paris after all.

Our cheap hotel in Paris had been turned into a girls’ school—we went to a nameless one in the Rue du Bac, where potted palms withered in the exhausted air. Through the thin partitions we witnessed the private lives and natural functions of our neighbors. We walked at night past the moulded columns of the Odeon and identified the gangrenous statue behind the Luxembourg fence as Catherine de Medici.

It was a trying winter and to forget bad times we went to Algiers. The Hotel de l’Oasis was laced together by Moorish grills; and the bar was an outpost of civilization with people accentuating their eccentricities. Beggars in white sheets were propped against the walls, and the dash of colonial uniforms gave the cafes a desperate swashbuckling air. Berbers have plaintive trusting eyes but it is really Fate they trust.

In Bou Saada, the scent of amber was swept along the streets by wide desert cloaks. We watched the moon stumble over the sand hillocks in a dead white glow and believed the guide as he told us of a priest he knew who could wreck railroad trains by wishing. The Ouled Nails were very brown and clean-cut girls, impersonal as they turned themselves into fitting instruments for sex by the ritual of their dance, jangling their gold to the tune of savage fidelities hid in the distant hills.

The world crumbled to pieces in Biskra; the streets crept through the town like streams of hot white lava. Arabs sold nougat and cakes of poisonous pink under the flare of open gas jets. Since The Garden of Allah and The Sheik the town has been filled with frustrate women. In the steep cobbled alleys we flinched at the brightness of mutton carcases swung from the butchers’ booths.

We stopped in El Kantara at a rambling inn whiskered with wistaria. Purple dusk steamed up from the depths of a gorge and we walked to a painter’s house, where, in the remoteness of those mountains, he worked at imitations of Meissonier.

Then Switzerland and another life. Spring bloomed in the gardens of the Grand Hotel in Glion, and a panorama world scintillated in the mountain air. The sun steamed delicate blossoms loose from the rocks while far below glinted the lake of Geneva.

Beyond the balustrade of the Lausanne Palace, sailboats plume themselves in the breeze like birds. Willow trees weave lacy patterns on the gravel terrace. The people are chic fugitives from life and death, rattling their teacups in querulous emotion on the deep protective balcony. They spell the names of hotels and cities with flowerbeds and laburnum in Switzerland and even the street lights wore crowns of verbena.

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