As a lifelong reader, I am long past the discovery that the simple act of reading can produce sustained pleasure of surprising power. Right now, I’m alternating some weekend business work with the final chapters in Stephen Kotkin’s terrific book, “Waiting For Hitler”, about the machinations and challenges surrounding Joseph Stalin in the years leading up to the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. The intervals of work – sandwiched with chunks of Kotkin’s book – keep me from getting bored or hasty on the business side while looking forward to each new installment of the Stalin story. By the end of today, the book will be almost finished (a sad thing, given the enjoyment it’s providing) and a lot of work will be done and each piece of it with focused attention. My mind will have had a field day.
But, of course, some books are more pleasurable than others.
Over the years, we all (those of us that are inveterate readers at least) collect our lists of favorite books and chunks of writing… at least, if we don’t have it written down somewhere, we can name those works and writers that have given us the most pleasure over decades of digestion of the written page.
Think of your own. Who’s on that list?
For now, let’s just stick with fiction. (We’ll save poetry for later.)
Here’s who’s on my short list: Hemingway, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald… all from the older generation that came of age around the beginning and first half of the 20th century. Current members of that club include: James Harrison, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and James Salter.
When I think about F. Scott Fitzgerald, I of course remember The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise. I’ve read Gatsby a number of times and listened to recordings of it. I’ve even memorized the closing lines of the novel, which I think are some of the most memorable in American literature:
“As I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s
wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed
so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already
behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where
the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the
green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but
that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…and
one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back
ceaselessly into the past.”
Here is Fitzgerald (from “Tender Is The Night”) talking – thrillingly – about what America seemed to be about:
“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still the
quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired,
drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the
Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a
willingness of the heart.”
But I think the man’s best comments come, not from the novels, but from his notebooks and his letters. Here are two of my favorites:
“Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the
test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the
mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
“ Once one is caught up in the material world, not one person in ten thousand
finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic
concepts for himself or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call
the wise and tragic sense of life.
By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s
to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read- the sense
that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that
the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper
satisfactions that come out of struggle. Having learned this theory from the
lives and conclusions of great men, you can get a hell of a lot more enjoyment
out of whatever bright things come your way.”
For reasons connected to both their shared era and the lives they led within it, I’ve always conflated Fitzgerald’s romantic attachments to New York City with those – largely imagined on my part – of my maternal grandfather, Charles Thavenot. They both enjoyed early success, made money in the biggest of cities, spent time in the speakeasies and night clubs of Manhattan and Harlem, sat ringside at the big prize fights. So, having heard some of these tales first-hand from my grandfather, I often find resonances within Fitzgerald’s writing that carry extra impact. I’ll end with one of them – from “Echoes of the Jazz Age”:
“Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror
as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble
among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back
into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way
we grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts,
and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know
said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before
the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things
as they were – and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then,
because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings anymore.”