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Tales From the Jazz Age by Francis Scott Fitzgerald

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tales From the Jazz Age by Francis Scott Fitzgerald 1922.

When I got The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for September’s book club meeting, it was included in a collection of short stories entitled Tales from the Jazz Age. I decided to read the other ones too. I always find it difficult to review short stories; I never know if I’d better concentrate on the ones I liked or give the general tone of the book. In this case, as the writer himself gathered these stories, I think it’s relevant to evoke the atmosphere and themes rather than focus on the stories.

I wasn’t blown away by The Great Gatsby and I rediscovered here how gifted a writer Fitzgerald was. The stories take place in the South or in New York. Several of them are about a golden youth who has fun but under the golden layer of entertainment, Fitzgerald manages to pick serious topics: aging, social justice, relationships, marriage, dreams, lost opportunities. He captures very well the fleetingness of life. Sure these stories cover the same range of feelings than jazz, from the merriest tune to the most melancholic one.

Fitzgerald is excellent at describing shortly a situation, a person or a place in a vivid manner:

The hall had an ancient smell—of the vegetables of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when “Adam-and Eve” Bryan ran against William McKinley, of portieres an ounce heavier with dust, from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into patch-work quilts. This smell would pursue him up the stairs, revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.

I’m walking down the hall with him, climbing the stairs, almost smelling the vaguely nauseating smell of cabbage soup and accumulated dust on creaking wooden stairs.

The Jelly Bean and The Camel’s Back are cruel Southern tales. The Jelly Bean is a young man who lacks willpower. He’s lazy, content with his idle life until a girl gets in the way. He wants her bad enough to shake his torpor and wake up his ambition. What will come out of this regained energy? By the way, I didn’t know what Jelly Beans were and someone helped me. I ended up hunting down Harry Potter Jelly Beans for my daughter’s birthday. Really, literature can lead to unexpected paths. The Camel’s Back is a funny one about marriage and love. It’s full of the fun of the 1920s and hides a smart exploration of tainted relationships between men and woman. Under the casualness, a sharp vision of humanity.

In May Day and O Russet Witch, we are in New York. In May Day I discovered the riots against socialist groups at the time. It shows the contrast between a rich youth who parties and a poor one who works. I wasn’t aware of that urban violence. O Russet Witch is a more private tale. It relates the expectations of a man named Merlin. Clearly he’s no magician and his life lacks glamour. He’s fascinated by a woman he named Caroline and who represents his wildest dreams. One passage struck me in this short story, it’s about aging and it shows how our vision of it has changed in these last 50 years:

The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. For most men and women these thirty years are taken up with a gradual withdrawal from life, a retreat first from a front with many shelters, those myriad amusements and curiosities of youth, to a line with less, when we peel down our ambitions to one ambition, our recreations to one recreation, our friends to a few to whom we are anaesthetic; ending up at last in a solitary, desolate strong point that is not strong, where the shells now whistle abominably, now are but half-heard as, by turns frightened and tired, we sit waiting for death.

Who think they’re old after 35 nowadays? Not me. We forget that medicine, better food, improved working conditions and domestic comfort brought us many additional years in good shape and our idea of old age is now at least beyond 70.

I thought that The Lees of Happiness was a bittersweet tale, I was sorry for the lost happiness of the characters. I noticed an interesting quote about pink, when a protagonist, Roxanne, visits an acquaintance who loves pink:

almost instantly she remembered a round-the-corner bakery of her childhood, a bakery full of rows and rows of pink frosted cakes—a stuffy pink, pink as a food, pink triumphant, vulgar, and odious.   And this apartment was like that. It was pink. It smelled pink!

I wonder how Fitzgerald would describe the alleys dedicated to girl clothes and girl toys in our contemporary stores. Ialso want to wink at the Booker Prize jury with this last quote by the author himself, introducing Uncclassified Masterpieces:

This don’t pretend to be “Literature.” This is just a tale for red-blooded folks who want a story and not just a lot of “psychological” stuff or “analysis.” Boy, you’ll love it!

These short stories are highly readable because they tell good stories in a great style. Classy tales, my dear Francis. Real Literature.

__________

Here is the list of the stories:

  1. The Jelly-bean
  2. The Camel’s Back
  3. May Day
  4. Porcelain and Pink
  5. Fantasies
  6. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  8. Tarquin of Cheapside
  9. “O Russet Witch”
  10. Unclassified Masterpieces
    1. The Lees of Happiness
    2. Mr. Icky
    3. Jemina
  1. December 14, 2011 at 8:00 am

    It’s difficult to review short stories, I agree. I never know whether to review them all, pick a few. To give the tone and the amopshere and a few examples, especially when it’s an orginal collection, compiled by the author, is an excellent approach, I think.
    Unlike you I was blown away by The Great Gatsby. It is one of those books I’m afraid to re-read. What I loved so much was the atmosphere and your first quote reminded me a lot of some of its elements.
    I have a few of his collections but I’m not sure I’ve got this one.
    I’m not as keen on him anymore since I found out how he exploited his wife’s diaries.
    On the other hand, I miss reading him…

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    • December 14, 2011 at 10:28 am

      You usually enjoy short stories, I think you’d like these ones.
      Maybe I was too young when I read The Great Gatsby. I wasn’t as aware of the futility and fleetingness of life at the time.

      If we stopped reading all the writers who have treated their women badly, I’m afraid the TBRs would go down quickly.
      Have you read Alabama Song by Gilles Leroy? It’s great.

      Like

  2. December 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I have read Alabama Song and did like it, yes.
    No more Hemingway on the pile and loads of others that is for sure.
    It does bother me occasionally to read someone like that. Like Céline. On the other hand he is such a fantastic writer.

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    • December 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      I agree about Céline. Controversial.

      Like

  3. TBM
    December 14, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I also loved The Great Gatsby. One of my favorite t shirts has the original cover of the Great Gatsby on it. I have read it many times and each time I fall in love with a different part. But I haven’t delved too much into his other works. For some reason I always forget to read short stories and I need to correct this problem. I’ll keep an eye out for this collection. Thanks!

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    • December 14, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      Maybe I should re-read The Great Gatsby
      I wasn’t a great readers of short-stories until recently. Now I really enjoy reading some, especially when the writer gathered them himself like The Trembling of a Leaf or Life’s Little Ironies. To me, it’s the same difference as listening to an album vs a compilation.

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      • TBM
        December 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

        That is a great point. I love the way you said that.

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        • December 14, 2011 at 2:51 pm

          Thanks.
          PS: I’ve been to your blog, I like your project.

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          • TBM
            December 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm

            Ah…thanks for saying that. I’m a new follower to your blog. I’m looking forward to getting to know you. I found you via Caroline. Thanks Caroline!

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            • December 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm

              Thanks for following me, and yes, thanks to Caroline for making the connection.

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  4. December 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    🙂

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  5. December 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I like to read an author’s collection but I have a few thematical collections that I like a lot as well. It’s interesting to see how different writers write about the same theme.

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  6. December 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Well I agree with you Emma: these stories didn’t floor me either. I once signed up for an F. Scott Fitgerald seminar, and thought I was being very clever by ordering and reading ALL his books before the semester began. I got some great reading in, but didn’t get into the class as it was full. I never regretted that summer’s reading.

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    • December 14, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      I wrote the review a long time after I read them and I remembered some very well and others a lot less. I didn’t like The Diamond as Big as the Ritz but others were really good. He has a wonderful style full of images and often funny.

      A whole semester on F. Scott Fitzgerald? I didn’t know that could exist.

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      • December 17, 2011 at 1:53 am

        Well I read all the F. Scott Fitzgerald books even though I couldn’t get the class. I was very disappointed at the time but now I’m just glad I did the reading.

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  7. December 15, 2011 at 9:09 am

    I’m with you Emma. I read ‘Gatsby’ and couldn’t really understand the fuss, but I read a short-story collection earlier this year (with about half-a-dozen of the stories listed above), and I loved virtually all of them. Some writers really are better suited to the shorter format…

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    • December 15, 2011 at 9:53 am

      You may be right, he may be better at short-stories. I’ll have a look at your review.

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      • December 15, 2011 at 2:05 pm

        Sadly, this was from my non/little posting period (I have periodic issues with RSI)…

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        • December 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

          What’s RSI? In my world it means Régime Social des Indépendants.

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          • December 15, 2011 at 2:21 pm

            Repetitive Strain Injury – i.e. wrist/hand/joint pain from typing 😦

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            • December 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm

              Oh! La crampe de l’écrivain!

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  8. leroyhunter
    December 15, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I re-read May Day on its own earlier in the year and enjoyed it. Gatsby I think is a book that does deserve all the praise it attracts. But my favourite Fitzgerald works are his Pat Hobby stories, about a hack writer trying to cling onto the edges of the studio system while indulging his chronic laziness, gambling addiction and poor judgement of women.

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    • December 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

      I’ll have a look at the Pat Hobby stories as I really enjoyed his prose. I’m all for serious matters disguised in light stories.
      Maybe I should re-read Gatsby in English.

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  9. December 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Oh I loved these when I read them last year. Scott Fitzgerald is such a beautiful writer. He was such a damaged and even unpleasant person it sometimes amazes me that he could produce such moving and gorgeous tales. But it doesn’t affect my reading of him, I find.

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    • December 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm

      Sometimes it’s better not to know too much about a writer’s biography. I’m more interested in discovering a writer through his work than through his bio although biographical elements are often useful. I’d rather know them after I’ve read the book, when I think about the review.

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  10. December 17, 2011 at 10:03 am

    The Penguin edition of THe Curious Tale of Benjamin Button come with a few other short stories and I enjoyed reading them – they reminded me of what a short story should be and how much skill is required to write a good one. I found them to be an engrossing read. I don’t think there is any ovelap with the stories in the volume you have just reviewed above but they seem to be similar in style of content. In the days of Fitzgerald, a short story was supposed to tell a story, whereas today they seem to be little vignettes with neither beginning or end.

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    • December 17, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      I agree with your comparison with modern short stories. I’ve read Maugham and Fitzgerald this year and also The Best British Short Stories and it’s exactly that.

      Like

  11. December 22, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    I suspect Raymond Carver is the reason for short stories as little vignettes, though I could well be wrong on that.

    I’ve read some Fitzgerald short stories (well, at least one), but none of these. As I recall I liked what I read but wasn’t blown away. Gatsby I enjoyed, but I was perhaps too young and too conscious of its status to really relax into it (or step up to it, or both).

    Bizarre factoid, there’s a Great Gatsby computer game. It’s playable online and appears to be a conversion of some Japanese platform shooter from 1990. One of the stranger things I’ve seen online. http://greatgatsbygame.com/

    Anyway, I may check these out. I do have a fondness for the 1920s as a period, and short stories in this older style can be very satisfying (if sometimes a little pat).

    Like

    • December 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm

      I’ve never read Raymond Carver, so I can’t tell. However, the contemporary short-story I read earlier this year are indeed vignettes more than stories with an introduction, a development and an ending.

      I think you’d enjoy Tales From the Jazz Age. It’s an excellent mix of light and deep. It’s champagne made into literature: the joy of bubbles and great taste but it doesn’t mean you won’t get drunk and have a hangover of melancholy afterwards.

      I’ll have a look at the computer game although I know nothing about that sort of things. It’s hard for me to imagine that The Great Gatsby can be made into a computer game.

      Like

  12. December 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    The computer game is notable mostly for the sheer bizarreness of its existence. It’s deeply odd anyone ever thought that a good idea.

    Champagne made into literature. Nice image.

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    • December 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      It is a strange idea. I wonder what is the aim of the game. (is that correct in English?)

      Like

  13. December 22, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Follow the link Emma…

    The aim appears to be shooting flappers and butlers with your hat before they kill you. I’m sure you’ll agree that reflects well the central themes of Gatsby as a novel.

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    • December 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm

      I can’t follow the link right now but I will later.

      Like

    • December 23, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      Hi Max,
      I followed the link, it is weird. The reference is blatant, there’s a reproduction of the original English cover of the book!!
      What a strange idea.

      Like

  1. December 23, 2011 at 1:52 am
  2. July 6, 2014 at 10:35 pm

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