Fitzgerald--Something Gorgeous

          They spoke of Fitzgerald's green eyes. They "glittered," Edmund Wilson said, and were "hard and emerald." Eyes that could spook the likes of Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. I see those eyes as dragonfly green, the kind of coloration that never quite stays put. Black-and-white photos register them sometimes as dark, or sometimes very light -- never distinctive on film. Now it is 100 years this September 24 since he was born, and we only know that no one who saw F. Scott Fitzgerald's eyes ever forgot them.

          The photographs don't convey Zelda either. Before her breakdown in 1930 everyone described her as one of the most beautiful women of her era, vividly present, graceful, with red-gold hair. But she stiffened in front of cameras. Even in the early photographs her features seem harsh, her expression austere. And her coloring is lost. As early as the spring of 1919, shortly before her 19th birthday and several years before their fame, she sensed that she would be inaccurately remembered. "In an hundred years," Zelda wrote to Scott, "I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes are brown or blue--of course, they are neither."

          To sense their reality, we can depend only on words.

          They would have liked that. Beyond everything else, they cherished words. They discovered early that the happiness they'd dreamed of was impossible, so what was left was to use words unflinchingly and beautifully.

          Scott, from The Great Gatsby, in what could be a kind of epitaph: "Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something--an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever."

          Zelda, from Save Me the Waltz: "Looking for love is like asking for a new point of departure." And: "Anything incomprehensible has a sexual significance to many people under thirty-five." And: "We are certainly accountable for all the things manifest in others that we secretly share."

          It's easy, when considering literary folk, for people who are not writers to make this mistake: to think, "They had their art and that gave them meaning, but I'm not an artist so that doesn't work for me." It's the other way around: they had their meaning and that gave them art.

          Not a meaning that could be summed up in pithy aphorisms. Nor a meaning to be analyzed in the multi-syllabic treatise of an academic (whose typical sentence, if diagrammed, would look like a train wreck as seen from the air). Scott and Zelda's meaning, like the meaning of any worthy artist, was a stance toward life, unspecific and fierce. It has to do with those words I used before: unflinching and beautiful. If happiness and philosophy were both, by turns, impossible and unreasonable, there was still the ability to look at any particular moment unflinchingly and search for its beauty.

          They believed that an unflinching eye and a search for beauty are things possible for anyone, and that art exists not so much to teach that stance as to share it.

          Scott wanted and tried to be a traditionalist, but it wasn't in him. In the great story Absolution, he wrote: "There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God." Two thousand years of Christianity burned alive in that sentence. He was uttering what amounted to the battle cry of the 20th century, but he hadn't especially wanted to utter it. It was just that, as he said in that story, "the honesty of his imagination had betrayed him"--it had left him beyond the pale with nothing but his unflinching hard green eyes and his passion for beauty.

          Most critics were dismissing Fitzgerald a decade before he died (at which time, none of his books would be in print). But when Tender Is the Night, my favorite of his works, was being condescended to in the press, Zelda wrote him from her mental hospital: "Don't worry about the critics--what sorrows have they to measure by or what lilting happiness with which to compare those ecstatic passages?"

          Scott defined love as "a wild submergence of soul." It is too exacting a definition for most people to live with, but that wasn't his problem, nor Zelda's, and they knew it. Were they excessive? Of course. Drunk on booze and fame and each other... in a haze of cigarette smoke and a rush of extravagant words... hungry for the impossible... full of rages and despairs whose sources they never discovered... they reeled from day to day and crack-up to crack-up without any skill at conserving their energies, unable to spare themselves or each other or anyone else. But they never pretended to be models of behavior. They took their risks and then their risks took them.

          "Don't look for comfort," Zelda wrote to Scott, "because there isn't any; and if there were, life would be a baby affair."

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