Skip to content
F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which forms the basis for the new David Fincher movie starring Brad Pitt, originally appeared in Collier's on May 27, 1922 (earlier the story had been rejected by Metropolitan), and was then featured in Fitzgerald's second story collection, "Tales of the Jazz Age."
Fitzgerald was, at the time, the most famous young writer in America, thanks to the smash success of his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," published in 1920. He'd become the voice of the youthful and disillusioned post- World War I generation, of the exuberant and half-decadent Jazz Age. He wrote with his finger on the pulse of popular culture and with an eye to the nation's swiftly changing mores.
A typical Fitzgerald story of this period would be "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," combining bored youth, quick repartee and rivalry among girls thinking of sex with the kind of effortless grace and eloquence that were already his trademarks. "People over forty can seldom be permanently convinced of anything," Fitzgerald remarks at one point in the story. "At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide."
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (collected now in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories," Penguin Classics, $13) comes, therefore, as a surprise. It's a piece that's been little-known until now and probably little-read. The plot, concerning a man who is born old and grows into infancy, is fantasy (a genre into which Fitzgerald ventured rarely, most notably with "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," another story from 1922.)
Yet, in other ways, "Benjamin Button" sits squarely in the Fitzgerald canon. Episodes in Benjamin's backward-running life unfold with finely drawn realism, while gaiety and melancholy mingle in the tone. "No-one disliked the little boy whose fresh, cheerful face was crossed with just a hint of sadness," Fitzgerald writes of his hero. "His destiny seemed to him awful, incredible."
Fitzgerald said he got the idea for this story from Mark Twain, but, as Benjamin becomes alienated from his family, and from his own son in particular, the effect comes increasingly to resemble Kafka, or one of the sad, self-enclosed labyrinths created by Jorge Luis Borges.
During Fitzgerald's short career -- he would die in Los Angeles, a broken man, aged only 44, in 1940 -- he published more than 160 short stories, an astonishing number, four times as many as that of his friend and rival Ernest Hemingway. A handful of them -- "May Day," "Winter Dreams," "The Rich Boy" -- are the equal of anything in the form. Many others are forgotten. It was into "The Great Gatsby" and "Tender Is the Night," into his longer fiction, that Fitzgerald poured the heart of his thought and craft. These are among the most scrupulously observed and carefully wrought (in the case of "Tender Is the Night," perhaps too carefully wrought) of American novels. Over them Fitzgerald labored obsessively, and in them he performed authorial magic, making clear his identification with both the dreamers (Gatsby, Dick Diver) who will be destroyed, and those who participate in and observe that destruction.
The short stories tend to lack this ironic effect. They sing of hope and despair in less inflected ways and thus offer, perhaps, a more naked view of Fitzgerald's subconscious. In them the course of Fitzgerald's personal journey -- from youthful insecurity and arrogance to chastened maturity -- is laid bare. For years, when he was publishing in the lucrative pages of the Saturday Evening Post, short-story writing was Fitzgerald's prime source of income, the motor for the fast life he and his wife, Zelda, were leading. Later, when he was in Hollywood and on the skids, and a series of lean, acerbic tales about a sad-sack screenwriter named Pat Hobby was pretty much all he could get published (in Esquire, whose editor Arnold Gingrich championed him to the end), short-story writing became the raft to which he clung while swimming against time's tide and working on "The Last Tycoon," his last, unfinished masterpiece.
"The words fell wild and unreal on Pat's burdened soul," Fitzgerald writes at the end of one of Hobby's misadventures, and the reader can't help but wonder, as the passage goes on, if he was really referring to his own soul. "But even though he now knew at first hand what came next, he did not think he could go on from there."
Fitzgerald went on working until his heart gave out. He is the doomed prince of American letters. John Cheever said he could not read about Fitzgerald's life without weeping, and the tragic irony of this career is that the better Fitzgerald became as a writer, the less success he achieved. Worse yet, his sensitivities never left him, so he saw the comedy of this reversal while feeling the intimacy of its humiliation. "I am a good writer, you know," he was once forced to say to some now-forgotten producer. We can only hope that Fitzgerald's soul is hanging around somewhere, making whoopee with Zelda and enjoying a highball at history's expense.
Fitzgerald wrote his short stories at speed, often in a single night, cranking them out for the marketplace. Yet not one of them is without yearning tenderness in the face of the world, the magic dust that this most naturally talented of writers couldn't avoid sprinkling whenever he put pen to paper. In the course of my life, I've read "The Great Gatsby" five or six times, the same with "Tender Is the Night." Some of the stories I go back to again and again. Fitzgerald haunts me, as he does many readers. Yet, until this week, I'd never encountered "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." It, too, concludes with prose alchemy, with the aging Benjamin, now a baby, and facing death:
"Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.
"Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind."Rayner's Paperback Writers column runs monthly at latimes.com/books