This is my review of Tales of the Jazz Age (Alma Classics) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This is a collection of short stories produced by a still youthful Scott Fitzgerald before he fell prey to the alcoholism which befuddled so many of his characters. The list of contents is accompanied by the author’s own explanatory comments, written at the point when they were assembled in 1922 from different magazines where they had been originally published. He was clearly a natural story teller, capable of producing a piece at great speed, such as “The Camel’s Back” which he wrote in a day.
His style can be quite pedantically C19: “So gaily and noisily were the peace and prosperity hymned by the scribes and poets of the conquering people that more and more spenders had gathered from the provinces to drink the wine of excitement, and faster and faster did the the merchants dispose of their trinkets and slippers until they sent up a mighty cry for more trinkets and more slippers in order that they might give in barter what was demanded of them”. At times, Scott Fitzgerald reminds me of PG Wodehouse or Jerome K Jerome, but without the humour, in fact, with a darker thread beneath the flippancy. I found the stories, set mainly in the well-heeled middle class world of 1920s urban America, quite dated, and grew rapidly tired of the boozy – if skilfully lampooned – US version of Hooray Henries, and the shallow, over-protected young daughters of Aluminium Men, Iron Men or Brass Men, etcetera, destined only for the marriage market.
Although I appreciate the author’s fluency and wit, I could only take so much of these stories, choosing to focus on those with more original and creative plots, such as “The diamond as big as the Ritz” which imagines the consequences of discovering a diamond so huge that to advertise one’s find would immediately destroy the scarcity value and therefore monetary benefit of the stone. This is also a reflection on the corrupting effect of power in a secret, self-contained world financed by judicial exploitation of the diamond.
“The Curious case of Benjamin Button”, recently made into a film, is also an interesting story, inspired by Mark Twain’s remark that “it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and worst part at the end”, although I’m not sure everyone would agree that babyhood is the best part. Benjamin Button duly starts off as an old man, who find most companionship with his grandfather, ending up as a small boy who enjoys going to kindergarten and playing with his grandson. The best part of his life is the brief period in which his capacity and appearance match his actual age, so that he can be a successful soldier, a useful means of avoiding the wife who has become too old for his taste. Apart from the snobbery, there are frequent little flashes of racism which, although an aspect of the times, are a bit disconcerting now, as when Benjamin Button’s father, traumatised by the birth of a son who looks like an old man, passed “the bustling stores, the slave market (it’s the 1860s) and “for a dark instant wished passionately that his son was black”.
Despite its rather chauvinist ending, I liked the farcical ” The Camel’s Back”, about a young man who goes partying in a camel suit, with his taxi driver serving as the back legs, after a row with his fiancee who is reluctant to commit to marriage – this sounds very Bertie Woosterish. I was most impressed by “May Day” which in portraying the frenetic life in the New York of 1920, “in the general hysteria of that spring which inaugurated the Age of Jazz” also manages to convey grim undercurrents beneath the hectic partying, with soldiers trying to adjust to life as peacetime nonetities and the hounding of socially conscious “communists” foreshadowing the McCarthyism to come.