F. Scott Fitzgerald: Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 11)

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” Oh, my Lord!” cried Marjorie in desperation. “You little nut! Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he’s been building ideals round, and finds that she’s just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!”

It’s the Queen of Clubs for Week 11 of Deal Me In 2018, it’s St. Patrick’s Day and the Deal Me In fates deal me two coincidences with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: 1) one of the more famous American authors with Irish heritage and 2) the second story in a row from a favorite author. Last week, I read a story by Fitzgerald’s colleague and friend, Ernest Hemingway (I might be using the term “friend” rather loosely).

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In this story, Fitzgerald presents the social norms of the teenage scene during his day in great detail with characters who take them very seriously. Buried deep down in this story, though, the reader understands that these norms are charades with a more sinister affect on the characters and their society.

As sinister as they might be, Fitzgerald writes about them with a wit that makes the story a true gem. But the most enjoyable part is the plain old-fashioned plot. The trap is set, the dare is given, the dare is accepted, the dare is regretted – and then?  The glorious revenge!

This story is included in my copy of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

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Anniversary #6!

Today is the sixth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and to celebrate, here are my top ten favorite short stories of 2017!

10.)  Mary, The Cleaning Lady – Scott McClanahan

I enjoyed reading the anthology Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia but this story is the only one that made it into my top ten.

There were good things like ice cream cones, and trying to keep houses clean, and your mother bringing you to Mary’s house wrapped in a blanket, so you could watch cartoons and dream your cartoon dreams.

 

9.)  Snowing in Greenwich Village – John Updike

I’ve enjoyed several of John Updike’s stories over the years, but the subtlety and nuance in this one made it a favorite.

Richard’s suspicion on the street that he was trespassing beyond the public gardens of courtesy turned to certain guilt.

 

8.) The Snow Image – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’ve realized that I have never put a Hawthorne story in my top ten so I am including this story the same way some win awards for a body of work – of course, Hawthorne doesn’t really need my approval.

…for all through life she had kept her heart full of childlike simplicity and faith, which was as pure and clear as crystal, and, looking at all matters through this transparent medium, she sometimes saw truths so profound that other people laughed at them as nonsense and absurdity.

 

7.) Poor Visitor – Jamaica Kincaid

A little homesickness or maybe something else makes me want to read more stories by Kincaid.

In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul, for I would imagine myself entering and leaving them, and just that – entering and leaving over and over again – would see me through a bad feeling I did not have a name for.

 

6.) The Cafeteria – Isaac Bashevis Singer

Leisurely lunches by people who have experienced some of the worst evils of the 20th century make this a very satisfying story.

I decided not to rest until I knew for certain what had happened to Esther and also to that half writer, half politician I remembered from East Broadway. But I grew busier from day to day. The cafeteria closed. The neighborhood changed. Years have passed and I have never seen Esther again. Yes, corpses do walk on Broadway. But why did Esther choose that particular corpse? She could have got a better bargain even in this world.

 

5.) Rembrandt’s Hat – Bernard Malamud

Not your usual short story relationship makes this story intriguing and one that I continue to think about.

That evening, leaving the building, they tipped hats to each other over small smiles.

 

4.) Yours – Joe Ashby Porter

I loved the wacky bitterness of the jilted narrator in this story and it provided one of my favorite quotations.

I’m off newspapers for the moment and to fill the breakfast time this morning I plotted a graph of my life on a napkin.

 

3.)  Chemistry – Ron Rash

Ron Rash’s short story anthology Something Rich and Strange was one of my favorite reading experiences in 2017 and this was the favorite story. It’s also the only story on my top ten list that was not from my Deal Me In project.

“Your mother believes the holy rollers got me too young, that they raised me to see the world only the way they see it. But she’s wrong about that. There was a time I could understand everything from a single atom to the whole universe with a blackboard and piece of chalk, and it was as beautiful as any hymn the way it all came together.”

 

2.) Absolution – F. Scott Fitzgerald

A great story with a great first line.

There once was a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears.

 

1.)  The Balloon – Donald Barthelme

This is a departure in the type of story I usually choose as a favorite but it was just too unusual, but perfect, in structure, plot and style that I had to put it at the top.

…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there – muted grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with walnut and soft yellows.

 

 

 

 

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It took me longer than I anticipated to finish F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, but I finally did and maybe now I can get the Jackson Browne song of the same name out of my head.

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night is Fitzgerald’s fourth and final completed novel and according to Maureen Corrigan in her book So We Read On, it has a passionate but small following of fans that consider it to be his best even though it typically gets overshadowed by The Great Gatsby. 

The novel’s central couple consist of psychiatrist Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole, who suffers from mental illness. Knowing the types of couples Fitzgerald tends to include in his novels, in addition to the fact that Nicole had once been Dick’s patient, it’s not surprising that this relationship is troubled.

It’s been said that this novel is considered “feminist” so, while reading, I was looking out for what might make one think that. There is gut-wrenching abuse suffered by Nicole as a child and then, her husband, fully aware of this abuse, occasionally wanders off to follow much younger girls. Does this make the novel feminist? I don’t know but it makes it depressing – until the end. And while the end may not be happy in the traditional sense, it was a breath of fresh air for Nicole. Maybe this is the feminist aspect of the novel? In fact, here is what I would consider one of the more hopeful endings from one of these post-World War I, American authors that suffers from disillusionment. I found myself very happy for Nicole.

And of course, we have Fitzgerald’s beautiful and ornate writing which doesn’t get much better than in this novel. I could choose from any number of paragraphs but here are two that give one a feel for the Divers:

She smiled at him, making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him. Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world.

Many times he had tried unsuccessfully to let go his hold on her. They had many fine times together, fine talks between the loves of the white nights, but always when he turned away from her into himself he left her holding Nothing in her hands and staring at it, calling it many names, but knowing it was only the hope that he would come back soon.

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Which is better? Tender is the Night or The Great Gatsby? From a literary perspective, I am sure that many could make a claim for either one. From my personal taste, I’ll go with Gatsby. While Tender may have the complex characters and an actual happy ending for one of them, I think the simplicity of Gatsby’s story makes it more universal.

 

 

 

 

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Absolution (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 27)

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There once was a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears.

The above quotation, one of the best first lines I’ve read in a while, begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Absolution”. Of the Fitzgerald short stories I’ve read, this one ranks as my favorite and I’m pretty sure it will make it into my Top 10 at the end of this year.

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The priest’s perspective frames the story at the beginning and the end. In between, we get the perspective of eleven year-old Rudolph Miller and his father. Rudolph’s father, a devout Catholic, often loses his temper much to the detriment of Rudolph’s physical safety and his fragile psyche.

Much of the story involves Rudolph’s guilt as he lies to his father and to the priest at confession and then takes communion without confessing his “sins”. Fitzgerald’s elegant narration brilliantly captures the snowball effect of Rudolph’s inability to cover up each misdeed with another one culminating in the fear of being poisoned as the priest places the bread on his tongue.

As Rudolph heads for what seems like a breakdown, he finally tells the priest everything – not necessarily in the traditional confessional situation but in simply a one-on-one meeting. While the reader gets a hint at what the priest might be thinking at the beginning of the story, it comes as a surprise, albeit a very legitimate one, that the priest now has a breakdown and instead of giving Rudolph penance or punishment, he tells him to go to an amusement park:

“Well, go to an amusement park.” The priest waved his hand vaguely. “It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place – under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts – and everything will twinkle. But it won’t remind you of anything, you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon – like a big, yellow lantern on a pole.”

According to Maureen Corrigan in her book So We Read On, this story has been considered a precursor to The Great Gatsby. Some minor details might point to this such as a brief mention that Rudolph is not from a wealthy family and Rudolph’s imagining himself as another person with another name – perhaps the way James Gatz became Jay Gatsby; however, if I had not been aware of this prior to reading the story, I don’t think I would have found much of a connection. The story stands on its own.

But then maybe the priest became the Gatsby character?

I read this story when I selected the Two of Spades (my second wild card in a row) for Week 27 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

Everybody Behaves Badly

…this new Pamplona story already contained something for everyone. Its terse, innovative prose would titillate the literary crowd, and the simplicity of the style would make it accessible to mainstream readers. And if that deceptive simplicity didn’t do the trick, the story promised to stand alone as a scandalous roman a clef featuring dissolute representatives from the worlds of wealth and ambition.

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Things I found interesting from reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

  1. Non-fiction about fiction is my favorite kind of non-fiction.
  2. Hemingway epitomizes the theory that great artists have a selfish streak.
  3. Hemingway wasn’t just selfish; he was mean.
  4. The Sun Also Rises launched Hemingway into the literary stratosphere.
  5. The majority of this book is set when Hemingway was a no-name and F. Scott Fitzgerald was a superstar.
  6. In spite of Hemingway’s mean streak, he had a lot of people supporting his art.
  7. Sherwood Anderson was instrumental in introducing Hemingway to the Paris literary world, even though his popularity faded as Hemingway’s soared.
  8. The characters in The Sun Also Rises were thinly veiled portraits of people Hemingway knew and hung out with in Paris.
  9. This didn’t go over so well with the real-life people.
  10. Fitzgerald predicted that Hemingway would have to have a different wife for each of his novels.
  11. While he was writing each of his four major novels, he did have a different wife.
  12. Blume refers to Hemingway’s style as sparse, terse, bare-bones as many would describe his style, but also refers to it as “high-low”, in the sense that it appealed to both literary types and mainstream readers (see quotation above).

A Classics Club Rewind

Back in March of 2014, The Classics Club used a question I submitted for their monthly meme and last month they used it again as a Classics Club Rewind:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

Here is my original post regarding this question but I thought I would try to add something to it. My favorite literary period is still early Twentieth Century. This year I read the book The Fellowship about The Inklings, a group of Oxford authors which included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing in the early Twentieth Century, they were confronted with the post-World War I disillusionment that much of the world was facing. The authors of The Fellowship come to the conclusion that Lewis and Tolkien and the others commited the “heresy of the happy ending”. So much of their fiction contains good ultimately triumphing over evil.

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On the other hand, the writers on the US side of the Atlantic like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were redefining style and providing social commentary that still stands up today. These authors were not quite as keen on the happy ending. I can’t say I have a preference over a happy ending or an unhappy ending. If the story works, it works. In early Twentieth Century novels, the unhappy endings are as cathartic as the happy endings are hopeful.

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While I’m on this topic, a new book about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises came out in 2016 called Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume. It’s on my list to read at the beginning of 2017, but I think I’ll reread The Sun Also Rises first.

Speaking of the early Twentieth Century, I’m currently reading Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz. Even thought it wasn’t written in the early Twentieth Century, it’s set during the Harlem Renessiance of the 1920’s. I’m about half way through and I highly recommend it.

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