By Matthew Shaer
July 26, 2009
As Scott Donaldson reports in "Fitzgerald & Hemingway: Work and Days," the reaction to Fitzgerald's confession was largely dismay. The New Yorker dismissed his "picturesque despondency"; Fitzgerald's first girlfriend urged the novelist to get a grip. "When you're dead, you're dead, my pet, so why not enjoy it while you're here," she wrote.
Others were not so politic. "I always knew he couldn't think -- he never could -- but he had a marvelous talent and the thing is to use it -- not whine in public," Ernest Hemingway wrote to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner. Years earlier, Fitzgerald had urged Perkins to publish "The Sun Also Rises," a favor Hemingway never forgot.
But as Hemingway's reputation grew -- and Fitzgerald became enmeshed in personal tragedy -- the men drifted apart. Such was their relationship that Hemingway saw nothing wrong with excoriating his former friend in the story "Snows of Kilimanjaro," published later in 1936. Fitzgerald, Hemingway's narrator laments, thought the rich "were a glamorous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that had wrecked him."
Fitzgerald objected to the portrayal, but Hemingway scoffed. He had long figured Fitzgerald as fatally soft. Fitzgerald died a few years later at 44 -- a victim, appropriately enough, of a weak heart. His last royalty check, for $13.33, represented sales of 40 books, Donaldson notes, many of which had been purchased by Fitzgerald himself.
A former English professor, Donaldson has devoted much of his career to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In the introduction to "Work and Days," he recalls coming to academia determined to explicate his favorite authors for a wider audience. He has succeeded, with a few missteps: A 1999 book, "Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship," was described by the New York Times as a "cheesy chronicle of calamity and waste."
The splendid, erudite "Work and Days" is intended as a retrospective. Structured chronologically, it is split between Hemingway and Fitzgerald: The former is the subject of 13 essays, and the latter, 11. Unlike in "The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship," Donaldson does not bring his subjects together. The result, paradoxically, is to cast more light on their bond, not less.
Donaldson shows, for instance, how deeply both men believed in the lost cause. In an essay on "For Whom the Bell Tolls," he compares Hemingway's experience in the Spanish Civil War to that of his doomed protagonist, Robert Jordan. For Jordan, war "gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely." He is not naive: He believes in the Republic while also believing it is doomed. And he knows that innocents have been slaughtered -- at one point, he wonders how many of the men he's killed were "real fascists."
But in the end, it is the fight that matters. "Belief was very much at issue, for the Republicans needed a secular faith to replace the religion they [had] left behind," Donaldson writes of Jordan. So too of Hemingway, who cherished the spark of the fight, especially when the odds were long. In contrast, the accepted view of Fitzgerald is that he was too beautiful and self-concerned to be interested in any cause save his own. Yet Donaldson argues that Fitzgerald, too, was enamored by the poetry of defeat. As a young man, he wrote on the Old South and the Confederacy, and his masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby," was an elegy for the American Dream, the greatest lost cause of them all.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald, in fact, had much in common: Both were Midwesterners; both believed their fathers were failed men and sought to compensate for the slight; both were uncomfortable with celebrity; both adopted poses -- the warrior and the bon vivant -- that were shattered on the public stage.
And both were relentless revisers. That flies in the face of another truism about Fitzgerald: that he was a genius who played more than he worked. Donaldson shows that he threw himself into his books. In the case of "Tender Is the Night," it took a "long, tortured accumulation of history and ideas and personal experience" before the novel was complete.
Fitzgerald also appears in another "tortured accumulation of history and ideas and personal experience": Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," newly reissued in a "restored" edition introduced and edited by his grandson Seán. The original -- left unfinished when Hemingway killed himself in 1961 -- was prepared by the author's fourth wife, Mary.
This new version is meant as a corrective, drawn from Hemingway's typed manuscript and featuring several previously unpublished vignettes. Pauline Pfieffer, Hemingway's second wife -- and Seán Hemingway's grandmother -- is cast in a more favorable light, and the chapters have been returned to what Seán claims is the proper order. "This is a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish," he writes.
Not everyone agrees. According to A.E. Hotchner, a friend of Hemingway's, the author had all but finished "A Moveable Feast" at his death. Furthermore, Hotchner argues, Mary "had very little involvement with the book." A new edition is, therefore, not only unnecessary but also dangerous; from now on, the logic goes, relatives of famous authors will have license to muck about with the canonical texts.
Yet Hotchner's argument is somewhat specious: Hemingway left a contradictory record when it came to this book, and he may not have wanted it published at all. "A Moveable Feast" was certainly not finished in the way that "The Old Man and the Sea" was finished, and scholars such as Jacqueline Tournier-Courbin have shown that the original manuscript was significantly refigured before it was released in 1964. If traditionalists prefer that edition, it remains in print. Meanwhile, students of Hemingway have "The Restored Edition," which casts fresh light on the novelist's Paris days.
The book Seán Hemingway has worked up is clunky in spots -- the ending becomes overly abrupt -- but it is also more nuanced when it comes to Hemingway's relationships, including his friendship with Fitzgerald. The big moments remain: Hemingway still evaluates Fitzgerald's manhood ("You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened," he explains, helpfully) and the pair get their grand adventure in Lyon, where Fitzgerald has a fit of hypochondria. (Hemingway, presenting his charge with a bath thermometer: "You're lucky it's not a rectal thermometer.")
But there are two new glimpses of Fitzgerald in this edition, one in Paris and one back in the States, where Hemingway is forced to take care of his drunken friend. After Hemingway and his son encounter an agitated Fitzgerald at a café, the boy asks whether "Poor Monsieur Fitzgerald" will be OK. "I hope so," Hemingway replies. "But he has very grave problems."
Fitzgerald did have very grave problems, but so did Hemingway, and despite his bluster, he saw something of himself in his friend. A few years Fitzgerald's junior, Hemingway nonetheless acts in "A Moveable Feast" as his guardian, and his crutch -- when Zelda torments Scott, Ernest is there to hold him up. Among the most telling changes here concerns Hemingway's famous comparison of Fitzgerald to a wounded butterfly. In the first version of the book, Hemingway writes that Fitzgerald "could not fly anymore because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."
In "The Restored Edition," though, Hemingway does not see Fitzgerald as permanently grounded. "He was flying again," he writes, "and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life."
Shaer last wrote for The Times on the German writer Hans Fallada.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times