On the essays shelf:
The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Most writers keep notebooks. It’s a good way to jot things down, to not “lose” anything, a stray thought, an opening line, an overheard snippet of dialogue, a description. For a writer, everything may be “of use” someday. For a writer, you know the horrors of writer’s block, you know the dread of the blank page. Keeping a notebook, something you can flip through on days when inspiration does not come, is a way to stave off the horror. Perhaps one of these snippets will launch something? Perhaps one of these caught descriptions will be the start of something substantial? One can only hope. Writers live in fear of not being able to write.
Along with the essays in The Crack-Up, editor Edmund Wilson (who had been a great friend of Fitzgerald’s) also includes Fitzgerald’s writer’s notebooks (with over 2,000 entries). It’s odd reading: it has a tendency to wash over you: pages and pages of one-liners. But cumulatively, it’s fascinating stuff. In it, you can see Fitzgerald’s supple curious mind at work. You can see what caught his fancy. You can feel him working. By the time Fitzgerald began these notebooks, his real productive days were done. Perhaps keeping these lists helped him feel that … something was ahead, that someday he would make something out of all of this. And who knows, had he lived, he might have.
He kept lists. He writes about that often. Most writers do. It’s a way to collate, organize, the mess of life, of words, into something that might be useful. Fitzgerald’s notebooks are organized alphabetically. Fitzgerald indexed his lines by category (loose categories): I imagine this was a way to easier find stuff, should he need it. Okay, I need a funny quip here, I need a description of a summer evening, I need a description of an old man … He would be able to check his notebooks. The alphabetical titles are, for example: ANECDOTES, CONVERSATIONS AND THINGS OVERHEARD, EPIGRAMS WISECRACKS AND JOKES, SCENES AND SITUATIONS, etc.
It’s really cool because you are seeing Fitzgerald’s brain working here, in a casual work-process way. Many of the lines included in the notebooks are brilliant, in and of themselves. I am sure others have gone through and figured out which lines he actually used, and which ones he didn’t. I like to just pick up these notebooks, open up to a random page, and read. Every page is filled with interest.
Here is an excerpt from the section Fitzgerald entitled DESCRIPTIONS OF GIRLS.
The Crack-Up, ‘Descriptions of Girls’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
¶ Becky was nineteen, a startling little beauty, with her head set upon her figure as though it been made separately and then placed there with the utmost precision. Her body was sturdy, athletic; her head was a bright, happy composition of curves and shadows and vivid color, with that final kinetic jolt, the element that is eventually sexual in effect, which made strangers stare at her. (Who has not had the excitement of seeing an apparent beauty from afar; then, after a moment, seeing that same face grow mobile and watching the beauty disappear moment by moment, as if a lovely statue had begun to walk with the meager joints of a paper doll?) Becky’s beauty was the opposite of that. The facial muscles pulled her expressions into lovely smiles and frowns, disdains, gratifications and encouragements; her beauty was articulated, and expressed vividly whatever it wanted to express.
¶ Anyone looking at her then, at her mouth which was simply a kiss seen very close up, at her head that was a gorgeous detail escaped from the corner of a painting, not mere formal beauty but the beholder’s unique discovery, so that it evoked different dreams to every man, of the mother, of the nurse, of the lost childhood sweetheart or whatever had formed his first conception of beauty – anyone looking at her would have conceded her a bisque on her last remark.
¶ She was a stalk of ripe corn, but bound not as cereals are but as a rare first edition, with all the binder’s art. She was lovely and expensive, and about nineteen.
¶ A lovely dress, soft and gentle in cut, but in color a hard, bright, metallic powder blue.
¶ An exquisite, romanticized little ballerina.
¶ He imagined Kay and Arthur Busch progressing through the afternoon. Kay would cry a great deal and the situation would seem harsh and unexpected to them at first, but the tender closing of the day would draw them together. They would turn inevitably toward each other and he would slip more and more into the position of the enemy outside.
¶ Her face, flushed with cold and then warmed again with the dance, was a riot of lovely, delicate pinks, like many carnations, rising in many shades from the white of her nose to the high spot of her cheeks. Her breathing was very young as she came close to him – young and eager and exciting.
¶ The intimacy of the car, its four walls whisking them along toward a new adventure, had drawn them together.
¶ A beauty that had reached the point where it seemed to contain in itself the secret of its own growth, as if it would go on increasing forever.
¶ Her body was so assertively adequate that someone remarked that she always looked as if she had nothing on underneath her dress, but it was probably wrong.
¶ A few little unattached sections of her sun-warm hair blew back and trickled against the lobe of her ear closest to him, as if to indicate that she was listening.
¶ A square-chinned, decided girl with fleshy white arms and a white dress that reminded Basil domestically of the lacy pants that blew among the laundry in the yard.
¶ He saw she was lying, but it was a brave lie. They talked from their hearts – with the half truths and evasions peculiar to that organ, which has never been famed as an instrument of precision.
¶ “I look like a femme fatale.”
¶ After a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty girl is as pretty as another.
¶ Shimmering with unreality for the fancy-dress party.
¶ Popularly known as the “Death Ray.” She was an odd little beauty with a skull-like face and hair that was a natural green-gold – the hair of a bronze statue by sunset.
¶ He rested a moment on the verandah – resting his eyes on a big honeysuckle that cut across a low sickle moon – then as he started down the steps his abstracted glance fell upon a trailer from it sleeping in the moonlight.
¶ She was the girl from the foreign places; she was so asleep that you could see the dream of those places in the faint lift of her forehead. He struck the inevitable creaky strip and promptly the map of wonderland written on the surface of women’s eyebrows creased into invisibility.
¶ His brisk blond sidelocks scratched her cheek while a longer tenuous end of gold silk touched him in the corner of his eye.
¶ She wore the usual little dishpan cover.
¶ She was small with a springy walk that would have been aggressive if it had been less dainty.
¶ Her mouth was made of two small intersecting cherries pointing off into a bright smile.
¶ What’s a girl going to do with herself on a boat – fish?
¶ The girl hung around under the pink sky waiting for something to happen. There were strange little lines in the trees, strange little insects, unfamiliar night cries of strange small beasts beginning.
Those are frogs, she thought, or no, those are crillons – what is it in English? – those are crickets up by the pond. – That is either a swallow or a bat, she thought; then again, the difference of trees – then back to love and such practical things. And back again to the different trees and shadows, skies and noises – such as the auto horns and the barking dog up by the Philadelphia turnpike….
¶ Her face, flowing out into the world under an amazing Bersaglieri bonnet, was epicene; as they disembarked at the hotel the sight of her provoked a curious sigh-like sound from a dense mass of women and girls who packed the sidewalk for a glimpse of her, and Bill realized that her position, her achievement, however transient and fortuitous, was neither a little thing nor an inheritance. She was beauty for a hundred afternoons, its incarnation in millions of aspiring or fading lives. It was impressive, startling and almost magnificent.
¶ Half an hour later , sitting a few feet from the judgment dais, he saw a girl detach herself from a group who were approaching it in threes – it was a girl in a white evening dress with red gold hair and under it a face so brave and tragic that it seemed that every eye in the packed hall must be fixed and concentrated on its merest adventures, the faintest impression on her heart.
¶ Women having only one role – their own charm – all the rest is mimicry.
¶ If you keep people’s blood in their heads it won’t be where it should be for making love.
¶ Men get to be a mixture of the charming mannerisms of the women they have known.
¶ Her air of saying, “This is my opportunity of learning something,” beckoned their egotism imperatively near.
¶ A frown, the shadow of a hair in breadth, appeared between her eyes.
¶ The little fourteen-year-old nymph in the Vagabonds.
¶ Wearing a kimono bright with big blue moons, she sat up among the pillows, drawing her lips by a hand-glass.
¶ He had thought of her once as a bubble and had told her about it – an iridescent soap-blown bubble with a thin delicate film over all the colors of the rainbow. He had stopped abruptly at that point but he was conscious, too, of the sun panning gold from the clear brooks of her hair, of her tawny skin – hell! he had to stop thinking of such things.
¶ She was eighteen, with such a skin as the Italian painters of the decadence used for corner angels, and all the wishing in the world glistening in her grey eyes.
¶ Wherever she was became a beautiful and enchanted place to Basil, but he did not think of it that way. He thought the fascination was inherent in the locality, and long afterward a commonplace street or the mere name of a city would exude a peculiar glow, a sustained sound, that struck his soul alert with delight. In her presence he was too absorbed to notice his surroundings; so that her absence never made them empty, but, rather, sent him seeking for her through haunted rooms and gardens that he had never really seen before.
¶ The glass doors hinged like French windows, shutting them in on all sides. It was hot. Down through three more compartments he could see another couple – a girl and her brother, Minnie said – and from time to time they moved and gestured soundlessly, as unreal in these tiny human conservatories as the vase of paper flowers on the table. Basil walked up and down nervously.
¶ Life burned high in them both; the steamer and its people were at a distance and in darkness.
¶ What was it they said? Did you hear it? Can you remember?