I am still not able to read like I used to. I try to just “go with it”, if I feel like reading – but the impulse comes over me intermittently, randomly, and I certainly do not have the concentration to read anything like a novel. Nothing requiring commitment. In the middle of the night, when I am lonely and alert, I’ll suddenly feel like reading Joan Didion, so I’ll pull out one of her books and start to read a favorite essay (not “Goodbye to All That” though – I’m staying far the hell away from THAT one right now) – but I usually don’t make it all the way through. The need to read passes almost the second I take up a book – it is quite strange. It would be like having the voracious desire for sex and suddenly, as you engage, you’re no longer in the mood, with all the desire immediately dissipating. Disappointing, no? And it happens to me repeatedly. (The reading part, not the sex part.) So I’m just trying to go with it, and thankfully I am so busy right now I would barely have time to read anyway. But it is strange and kind of lonely. I do miss reading.
Short nonfiction pieces seem to be all I can handle right now – and even there I can only read one or two paragraphs at a time. Recently, I picked up the collection of nonfiction essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Crack-Up, sent to me by my wonderful blog-friend De a couple of years ago. I have read a couple of them already – it’s more of a dipping kind of book – pick it up, read a bit, put it down. His essay on being an “early success” is pretty much a masterpiece – but so many of these essays are mini-marvels. His writing stuns me. It makes me feel very quiet and still inside, as I try to be placid and open enough to even receive it. It is not complex writing, or clever or pun-nish – it is clear and true … but filled with so much wisdom and piercing insight that it makes all other writing look shallow. It’s hard for me, right now, to “take things in”. Mainly because everything seems to be happening so fast, and I honestly don’t have time (yet) to sit down and absorb what has been going on. Also because I am in denial, let’s not sugarcoat things. Regardless, it doesn’t matter.
I was sitting on a bench yesterday evening, staring out at the Hudson, it was a cool spring night. The lamplights had gone on. People were running by. Big barges plowed through the river, the sun on its way down. I read three pieces (a record!) as I waited to go meet my friend: “Show Mr. and Mrs. F to Number –“, “Auction — Model 1934” and “Sleeping and Waking”. The first and second are said to be written by Scott and Zelda, the last is by Fitzgerald alone.
I know there are people who pretty much only read books they can “relate” to, and I have never really gotten that. I like to be “recognized” by a book, sure, but that’s not my main criteria for liking a book. I don’t feel “recognized” by Imperium or The Great Terror or, for that matter, by most of my books. I like to learn new things. I read mainly to get OUT of myself. But right now, I am the most self-absorbed I think I have ever been – it’s part of hunkering down and recovery, it’s part of being wounded – you hover over your own injury, hard to look around and be interested in other people’s lives and circumstances – that’s all good and right, I feel no pressure to “snap out of it” or anything like that). But I find it hard to concentrate on anything, first of all – because I am too caught up in my own life and circumstances and the unfolding narrative that I keep alluding to but never describe. Not time to describe it yet. So I’m not looking to other people’s words right now to put words to my experience. Not yet. But also, I just flat out can’t concentrate. I can’t “lose myself” in another story. At any other point in my life, I never would have picked up Necessary Sins by Lynn Darling (one of my reviews of it here). Just not my cup of tea, unless I am already a fan of the writer in question. I don’t like memoirs, I don’t like books about marriage, I don’t like touchy-feely stuff in general. But things are different now. My needs have changed. It was almost spooky how much Necessary Sins dovetailed with my own life. There were times when I almost put it down. I’m not saying I gravitate towards mirrors right now – and only want reflections … It’s more complicated than that.
I am trying to figure out what I need. This takes some doing. But at the same time, I am absolutely certain of what I need, and despite all of the inherent risks, and the insanity of opening myself up for possible crushing heartache, here I go again. Because this is not just what I want, but what I need. This is true in the personal/social arena, with men, as well as in the career area, with my writing and other creative pursuits. Fear, resistance, near-panic … that’s the surface. Digging my heels in, saying, “no no no, let’s not go HERE again …” and yet at the very same moment, hands on my back, pushing me towards the future. Because if you know what you need (not what you want, but what you need) – then the choices become clear. “If that is what you NEED, then how are you behaving now helping you towards that goal?” You can strip out the ballast that way. But God, so much of my life has been about ballast. It is hard to distinguish what is necessary and what is not. That is what is happening now. In much of it, it’s totally obvious. To quote Steve Martin in The Jerk, “Oh, I need THIS … I definitely need THIS …” And yet, if you think about that scene, many of the objects he chooses are pretty damn random. Really, hon? You need that? Need? Okay, fine, you know best.
Yeah. That’s me right now.
There is no other place for me to be than where I am. And that place changes from moment to moment to moment. I have family members and good friends, old and new, to help me through and be there for me. Oh yeah, and writers like Lynn Darling and F. Scott Fitzgerald … I pick these people up for deep (and unknown to me) reasons – it’s like they call to me. Okay, fine, I answer the call.
So last night, sitting on my bench, I found myself submerged, totally, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s language, and a part of me started to feel that telltale itch of my attention scattering – there was something there I did not want to face. This is why I say I am not really looking for mirrors. If I am face to face with a mirror, my instinct is to look away. But I stuck with it. I had to go slow. Sentence by sentence. I took breaks. It was exhausting. I’d put the book down, and look around, enjoying the cool air on my skin. Then go back in again.
First there was “Show Mr. and Mrs F –”
This is one of those pieces where I think to myself, “Damn, could I ever write something like that?” When you get right down to it, it is just a list of activities, hotel rooms, and changes of scenery throughout the marriage of the Fitzgeralds. Very little introspection or personal revelation. Just a litany, through the years, of the waiter who was nice here, the chess game they played at this hotel room, the smell of the bougainvillea at this joint … but the overall cumulative effect is shattering. It ends up not just being about marriage, and how certain ideals crumble over time, but it ends up being about the world, teetering on the edge of the abyss before plunging into another world war. The world Fitzgerald describes is now gone forever. And the piece was written in 1934, so there isn’t much retrospect here – but Fitzgerald, from the first second he started writing as a young man, was able to inject nostalgia into his prose for the very time he was actually living in – no small feat. Nearly impossible. Other writers try to do what Fitzgerald did, try to express the zeitgeist, or the general universal mood, but it usually comes off as coy, pretentious, or self-conscious. A writer trying to be the “voice of a generation”. Fitzgerald, who knows why, let’s just call it his genius, had a sadness about him, a loneliness and melancholy, which made him acutely aware of the passing of time (think of that last line of Gatsby). This made him way older than his years, and nostalgic not just for his own past, but the time he was actually inhabiting. And not only that (many of us are aware of the amazing-ness or awful-ness of the time in which we live) – but he could write it like nobody’s business.
How do you describe “the Jazz Age” with any perspective during the Jazz Age? How do you do so without getting a ton of stuff wrong, because you just haven’t lived past it yet? Fitzgerald did. And he did so without a self-congratulatory, “Whoo-hoo, look how fun and fabulous I am” – which would have gotten really old really soon. He did so with a somber and almost worried awareness that this too shall pass. While he was in his own time, he could get up high enough to see it. I’ve tried to do writing like that before. It is extremely challenging. It’s hard not to sound righteous, it’s hard not to brag, “I see it all!!” Yes, you may feel you see it all … but what else is there for you? Are you able to see what you don’t want to see in the time that you are living? Many in the Jazz Age lived in a whirl of denial: the stock market would continue to climb, everyone was going to be rich, and youth was paramount – the most important thing was to live it up while you were young. You can feel it in much of the literature of the time, which does not date well. They did not want to see what was so obvious to someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wasn’t just part of the Jazz Age – he was the embodiment of it. But still, he knew: This all was going to end. The economic boom, the world peace, the tranquility and prosperity, and youth itself … all this would pass. And to him that was one of THE defining characteristics of the Jazz Age: the anxiety of the impending disaster was IN the mania and the music and the parties. Many people could not see this, refused to see it because they were having too much fun, making too much money. F. Scott Fitzgerald was 24 years old and he could see it. It is one of his most startling attributes.
So here, in “Show Mr. and Mrs. F –“, he lists all the places where he and Zelda lived as a married couple. That’s pretty much it. It’s a list. He writes in other essays about his insomnia and restlessness and how, in the middle of the night, he likes to make lists. He had that kind of brain. Most writers I know are compulsive list-makers. He bordered on obsessive. But my GOD, what a list. As the years pass, as the 20s turn into the 30s, the words he uses to describe the various rooms and beaches and bars he knew in his married life shift, transform, and the effect is subtle, like a shadow passing over the land from a cloud. You’re not quite sure at what point things started to go wrong. Fitzgerald doesn’t give much away. There are mentions of all-day ballet classes, and if you know the story of the Fitzgeralds, and Zelda in particular, then you know that her obsession for ballet was the first horseman of the apocalypse of her madness. But Fitzgerald doesn’t mention it in any portentous way. He mentions it as just another fact, like the color of the tile, and the cocktails they had. But the words … the words he uses … begin to insidiously work on you … and you start to feel the bleakness, the loneliness in their peripatetic lifestyle. What are they running from? (But he never asks that question. It is all 100% implied in his descriptive language.) On an even deeper level, though, and this is my own retrospect talking – I live in the 21st century, and I know what was coming for Europe and the world in the mid-1930s. I know that there was a rot at the heart of the culture, the wound festering, poison about to burst forth and spread. Fitzgerald is in the thick of it, and yet he can sense it too. Something starts to change. America starts to feel more unbearable, and yet when they flee to Europe, they begin to find it very quiet. It is that quietness that is so ominous. The stillness before the cataclysm.
It’s an absolutely terrific piece. A real lesson in how to write about something without writing directly about it.
By the end, I was devastated. I, of course, know Zelda’s horrible end. And Scott’s terrible early end. Scott can’t know these things. But he seems to sense it. Something very very bad is approaching. A terrible beast slouching towards Bethlehem.
Some fragments from the essay:
Electric fans blew the smell of peaches and hot biscuit and the cindery aroma of travelling salesmen through the New Willard halls in Washington.
But the Richmond hotel had a marble stair and long unopened rooms and marble statues of the gods lost somewhere in its echoing cells.
Claridge’s in London served strawberries in a gold dish, but the room was an inside room and gray all day, and the waiter didn’t care whether we left or not, and he was our only contact.
In the fall we got to the Commodore in St. Paul, and while leaves blew up the streets we waited for our child to be born.
At the Ruhl in Nice we decided on a room not facing the sea, on all the dark men being princes, on not being able to afford it even out of season. During dinner on the terrace, stars fell in our plates, and we tried to identify ourselves with the place by recognizing faces from the boat. But nobody passed and we were alone with the deep blue grandeur and the filet de sole Ruhl and the second bottle of champagne.
We got to Pisa in the dark and couldn’t find the leaning tower until we passed it by accident leaving the Royal Victoria on our way out. It stood stark in a field by itself. The Arno was muddy and not half as insistent as it is in the cross-word puzzles.
In the Hotel des Princes at Rome we lived on Bel Paese cheese and Corvo wine and made friends with a delicate spinster who intended to stop there until she finished a three-volume history of the Borgias. The sheets were damp and the nights were perforated by the snores of the people next door, but we didn’t mind because we could always come home down the stairs to the Via Sistina, and there were jonquils and beggars along that way. We were too superior at that time to use the guide books and wanted to discover the ruins for ourselves, which we did when we had exhausted the night-life and the market places and the campagna. We liked the Castello Sant’Angelo because of its round mysterious unity and the river and the debris about its base. It was exciting being lost between centuries in the Roman dusk and taking your sense of direction from the Colosseum.
We went up to Princeton. There was a new colonial inn, but the campus offered the same worn grassy parade ground for the romantic spectres of Light-Horse Harry Lee and Aaron Burr. We loved the temperate shapes of Nassau Hall’s old brick, and the way it seems still a tribunal of early American ideals, the elm walks and meadows, the college windows open to the spring – open, open to everything in life – for a minute.
I mean, come ON.
At the Palace in La Baule we felt raucous amidst so much chic restraint. Children bronzed on the bare blue-white beach while the tide went out so far as to leave them crabs and starfish to dig for in the sands.
(Again, it goes on in this manner for 15 pages. Taken singularly, they may be beautiful or startling images – but all together, it packs an enormous punch.)
The night of the stock-market crash we stayed at the Beau Rivage 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.
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.
In Vienna, the Bristol was the best hotel and they were glad to have us because it, too, was empty. Our windows looked out on the mouldy baroque of the Opera over the tops of sorrowing elms. We dined at the widow Sacher’s – over the oak panelling hung a print of Franz Joseph going some happier place many years ago in a coach; one of the Rothschilds dined behind a leather screen. The city was poor already, or still, and the faces about us were harassed and defensive.
At the biggest hotel in Biloxi we read Genesis and watched the sea pave the deserted shore with a mosaic of black twigs.
We went to Florida. The bleak marshes were punctuated by biblical admonitions to a better life; abandoned fishing boats distintegrated in the sun. The Don Ce-sar Hotel in Pass-A-Grille stretched lazily over the stubbed wilderness, surrendering its shape to the blinding brightness of the gulf. Opalescent shells cupped the twilight on the beach and a stray dog’s footprints in the wet sand staked out his claim to a free path round the ocean. We walked at night and discussed the Pythagorean theory of numbers, and we fished by day. We were sorry for the deep-sea bass and the amber-jacks – they seemed such easy game and no sport at all. Reading the Seven Against Thebes, we browned on a lonely beach. The hotel was almost empty and there were so many waiters waiting to be off that we could hardly eat our meals.
He’s a genius. The essay blew me away. And those are just fragments.
The world. He has the world in him.
The second essay I read sitting on my bench was “Auction — Model 1934”. This one struck such a deep chord in me. It actually made me want to start writing again. I’ve been percolating. But my fear of this narrative I now find myself in … and NOT KNOWING THE END YET, DAMMIT – has stymied me. Or at least stymied the writing impulse. It’s such a strange strange time. The device of “Auction” is a married couple (again, the byline of this essay is “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald”) trying to figure out which stuff of theirs to keep, and which to put up on the auction block. It is very similar to the book my cousin Mike sent to me (my post about it here – you’ll see there what a potentially potent topic this is for me). As a matter of fact, it is idential, except with photos. The thing is broken down in “lots”, like an auction. Lot 1, Lot 2. You can feel the couple picking through their things, getting lost in memories, and then – with each object – weighing whether or not they still need the object. Is this something we can let go of? Or is it like Steve Martin in The Jerk again: “I need THIS … I definitely need THIS …”
It’s wrenching because we all have moments akin to these, it’s just that most of us don’t write them down so eloquently. Similar to the essay before this one, “Show Mr. and Mrs. F –“, “Auction — Model 34” attempts to describe a relationship, a life, a world, from the side, never going at it directly. Where in “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. –” the lists were of hotel rooms and weather and waiters, “Auction — Model 34” are tea cups and blankets and white linen suits (falling apart). Each with a memory attached to it. Some precious memories, some not. The tone of the essay is not maudlin, or sentimental. It’s actually rather jaunty and hilarious. The maid Essie stands by, waiting to dispatch the objects – and the narrator ends each “lot” description with a command to Essie – along the lines of, “To the attic, Essie!” The jaunty tone adds to the pathos. It’s far more moving to have that jauntiness as you look through your possessions that make up your marriage – rather than being misty-eyed and nostalgic. That would kill it. It would personally make me want to throw all the objects into a huge bonfire in the middle of the yard, just to get it over and done with. Again, the cumulative effect of all of these “lots” is devastating. Objects are just objects, right? You can’t take any of it with you. But we are here on this earth now, we are still alive, and so our objects – the things that surround us – that make up our lives – DO have tremendous meaning. Who cares if you can’t take it with you? There are objects in the boxes that Scott and Zelda just can’t bear to throw away … the memories are too dear. You really feel their marriage in this piece. It’s tragic. Because the longer you live, the more you realize that happiness never ever comes by itself. It is always accompanied by loss. Either the loss of the happiness itself, or the awareness that none of it will last. This seems to be the strict territory of older people, with their experience of deep compromise and grief – but Fitzgerald, as I mentioned, had that sensibility from the get-go. Perhaps that is why he drank so much, why he couldn’t get to sleep, why he burned his light so damn bright. The knowledge that even in his prime things were already breaking down, disintegrating, was almost too much to bear. Joy is never pure. It is tainted by what we all know will come after.
This piece made me want to write something similar. I have this “thing with things” as I have written about before (that’s only one example).
There’s so much I want to write.
Next week LOOMS in my head. It’s this giant unknown. But lots of fun – a total adventure. Totally out of my comfort zone. No comfort whatsoever. Not one tiny bit. What the hell am I doing?
I need to get over the feeling that the ongoing narrative somehow needs to be settled before I start to write. I’ve been trying. Not easy. My mind gets distracted, everything up in the air, ghosts of past and future around me, hopes, dreams, not to mention the giant world-encompassing GAP that I now have to live with and survive … all of this seems to take up my creative space. That is not entirely true – there is a lot happening right now that I’m not talking about, but soon I will. Creative stuff. But reading all of those “lots” of Scott and Zelda made my fingers itch to take up a pen again. I have things to say.
The last piece I read was called “Sleeping and Waking” and it opens with this great sentence:
When some years ago I read a piece by Ernest Hemingway called Now I Lay Me, I thought there was nothing further to be said about insomnia. I see now that that was because I had never had much; it appears that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbor’s as are their daytime hopes and aspirations.
Well, this sent my brain spinning. How true!
It was also strange because two of my favorite bloggers had just written pieces about (sort of) their insomnia. Moira at TCMs Movie Blog and Kim Morgan in this piece on Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia. Both of those pieces had already got me thinking about my one really bad bout with insomnia – and the Fitzgerald essay clinched it. I have to write about it. But I want to write about it from the inside. As Fitzgerald did. Again, he’s so brilliant, that it’s hard to actually feel motivated to write when you read him (at least this is the case for me) – but these three pieces, for whatever reason, made me want to get back to work again. Fitzgerald describes how his insomnia began. A mosquito kept him up one terrible night, and he was never really the same again. He had become “sleep-conscious”, a deadly state. If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia then you will know that horror. At first the essay starts kind of hilariously, with Fitzgerald locked in mortal combat with this mosquito. But soon, as he gets down to describe, and really describe, what insomnia is like for him, there is nothing less funny.
In his later essay “The Crack-Up” about, well, his crack-up – there is what I consider to be one of the finest sentences Fitzgerald ever wrote:
But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work – and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”
There will be those who cannot understand that. There will be those who label it all as “whining”. (F. Scott Fitzgerald has some very choice words for THOSE types!) All I can say is, only if you have experienced it can you understand how true, how deeply deeply true that sentence is. And if you haven’t experienced it, then hopefully you can have a little compassion for those of us who have suffered in this way.
“Sleeping and Waking” was another essay that I had a hard time getting through. I read it two or three paragraphs at a time, putting down the book for breaks. It was too intense. I could feel where it was going, once the mosquito section ended, and I was frightened. He’s so good, I knew he would “name” my own experience. To be clear, I am not suffering from insomnia right now. I sleep great. But the memory of my one bout with it in 2002 is still so searing to me to this day that I shiver remembering it. I know people live this way. They struggle their whole lives with sleep. My heart goes out to them. I had it for two weeks, and my personality actually changed over the course of that time. I became psychotic. I hallucinated. I heard a cunning whispering little voice in my head from time to time, telling me to do things, or how to think about things. One afternoon, I looked up and saw a rip in the sky. This is not a metaphor. The sky had actually ripped open. All night I thrashed in my bed, tormented. That is the only word that can describe it. I was tormented. Psychic agony.
Fitzgerald writes in his essay:
Back again now to the rear porch, and conditioned by intense fatigue of mind and perverse alertness of the nervous system – like a broken-stringed bow upon a throbbing fiddle – I see the real horror develop over the roof-tops, and in the strident horns of night-owl taxis and the shrill monody of revelers’ arrival over the way. Horror and waste —
— Waste and horror – what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable. I could have acted thus, refrained from this, been bold where I was timid, cautious where I was rash.
I need not have hurt her like that.
Nor said this to him.
Nor broken myself trying to break what was unbreakable.
The horror has come now like a storm — what if this night prefigured the night after death — what if all thereafter was an eternal quivering on the edge of an abyss, with everything base and vicious in oneself urging one forward and the baseness and viciousness of the world just ahead. No choice, no road, no hope – only the endless repetition of the sordid and the semi-tragic. Or to stand forever, perhaps, on the threshold of life unable to pass it and return to it. I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.
It hurts me to read that. No. It’s not hurt. It’s fear. I don’t want to go back there.
But I do want to write about it.
I want to write about so much.
Nothing is wrong. Everything is going according to plan. I just can’t see the end. The conundrum of the writer. Neither could Fitzgerald. But he wrote it all down anyway.