August 2011

Kevin Frazier


William Faulkner & F. Scott Fitzgerald

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work. 

September Birthdays: 

F. Scott Fitzgerald -- born September 24, 1896, St. Paul, Minnesota
William Faulkner -- born September 25, 1897, New Albany, Mississippi 

1 -- Fitzgerald: Killer Kitsch

I have friends who still half-believe they're living out the more sparkling and youthful side of the legend of F. Scott Fitzgerald. One even married a woman who joined him in a classic Fitzgerald stunt: they turned round and round through the revolving door of a Manhattan hotel until the security guards pulled them away.

The Scott and Zelda Show, after all these years, remains in worldwide distribution, along with those lovely old Rogers and Astaire musicals that take so much of their tenor from Fitzgerald's Jazz Age writing. A dance scene like the "Pick Yourself Up" number in Swing Time comes closer to the lively grace of Fitzgerald's prose than most of his literary imitators have come. Fitzgerald's gifts were always showbiz gifts. He had an eye for beautiful young people dancing the latest songs in the latest clothes at the latest spots. Even the older Fitzgerald, the Fitzgerald of tragic myth, is a figure from a gaudy Hollywood melodrama, his love for the goddess who goes gradually and spectacularly insane dooming him to alcoholic desolation.    

In a less surprising world, we might spare a glance for his absurd self-absorption and move on. But the author of The Great Gatsby can't be dismissed. His novels change the kitsch of his life story into killer art -- or killing art, if we accept, as he would want us to, that Zelda and he sacrificed their well-being to give him what he called "my material."

2 -- Faulkner: Concomitant with His Typewriter     

I've never known anyone who tried to copy the public image of William Faulkner. Faulkner simply doesn't have much of a public image, certainly not in the bold, easy-to-caricature form that Fitzgerald and Hemingway do. 

Faulkner resembles Fitzgerald in some ways: the drinking, the self-doubts, the stints in Hollywood. But Faulkner finally didn't make his biography an inescapable part of the way we see his work. 

It's impossible to imagine him publishing anything like the confessional essays Fitzgerald delivers in The Crack-Up, or the self-portraits Hemingway provides in The Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast. When Malcolm Cowley tried to include some biographical context for the introduction to The Portable Faulkner, the 1946 volume that reignited interest in Faulkner's novels, the author protested. Cowley would be better off, Faulkner said, leaving out all personal information altogether, "as though Faulkner and Typewriter were concomitant, coadjutant and without past on the moment they first faced each other at the suitable (nameless) table."   

Faulkner had more than just artistic reasons for deflecting attention from his biography. We can be grateful for those reasons, I think, because they're essential to his writing. 

Throughout much of his adult life, Faulkner was a compulsive liar. His most extreme lies were his falsifications of his activities in World War I. The situation is calmly recounted in the brisk Stephen B. Oates biography, William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist.  In June 1918, the twenty-year-old Faulkner enlisted in the Canadian Royal Air Force. "For nearly five months," Oates writes, "he attended RAF training classes in or near Toronto." The classes formed the full extent of his firsthand military knowledge. In November, the war ended and he was discharged without having seen any combat.

Yet when Faulkner returned to Mississippi, he began to exaggerate his nearly nonexistent experiences as a pilot. The lies grew over the years. By the time Cowley started to draft his introduction to the planned Faulkner volume, the war stories had become grotesque in their braggadocio. Drawing on Faulkner's own statements and interviews, Cowley originally wrote that Faulkner had "served at the front in the Royal Air Force, and, after his plane was damaged in combat, had crashed behind the British lines."

Faulkner panicked on reading this. Without admitting the full extent of his dishonesty, he protested that Cowley should cut the biographical part of the introduction because "it makes me out to be more of a hero than I was." Later he insisted the introduction should limit the discussion of his military service to the assertion that he'd been in the Royal Air Force. Cowley reluctantly complied with this request, and Faulkner was smart enough to keep his mouth shut about his war record from that point on, at least when he was speaking for publication.   

Nothing about this does Faulkner much credit as a person, but I find it fascinating how little damage it's done to his literary reputation. I think the reason we don't really care much about Faulkner's tall tales is because his war record has never played a strong role in how we read his work. For that matter, the discovery that he lied constantly about nearly everything has had almost no effect on our view of his achievement. Is there another major American novelist who has been hurt less by the disclosures of his personal shortcomings? The first thing I remember thinking when I read about Faulkner's war fabrications was: Yes, of course. It made sense to me, and filled out rather than contradicted my impression of his writing.

Faulkner's novels take none of their power from any notion we might have of him as a hero or a role model or even a decent human being. He doesn't pretend to be the voice of his generation, and doesn't try to convince us he personifies some enduring ideal of manhood. He isn't, for the most part, selling himself to us as a likable commodity. The writing always overpowers the writer. We don't read As I Lay Dying to get a new angle on Faulkner's personal history; we read Faulkner's personal history to get a new angle on As I Lay Dying. Nobody goes to Faulkner for lifestyle tips, or to fantasize about entering a vanished world of privilege and sophistication. He's not that kind of artist.   

3 -- Faulkner: The Force of Shame         

Part of what we do go to Faulkner for, however, is the quality of his insight into people. This insight must owe something to his awareness that, on its own, his life was inadequate, even a bit seedy and false, a self-imposed prison that he needed to escape. Right from the start, in Soldiers' Pay, his strained first novel, he splinters his vision. He finds his art not in a single voice but in the play of the different outlooks among his characters. I suspect that, along with other pressures, shame drives Faulkner's compulsion to break loose from that stable core viewpoint which many novelists put intense effort into developing and defending. 

Shame shouldn't be underestimated as a sometimes positive force in divorcing writers from their narcissism. Shame, after all, can make us so dissatisfied with our lives that we might take extra pleasure in creating fictional characters, and in paying greater attention to the problems of the people around us. It's too much to say that shame is automatically good for a novelist, but in Faulkner's case I think an element of inner shame at his own shortcomings must have something to do with the range and diversity of his effects. He's not interested in justifying a single perspective but in showing a variety of people looking at each other from a variety of angles. He doesn't condescend to his characters, judging them from above. He immerses himself in their clashes, the endless surges of their tensions and misunderstandings. If we've given Faulkner a get-out-of-jail-free card for his lies, it might be because he seldom stands apart from the frauds and cheats of his fiction. He's right there living with them, and refuses to keep his distance. He reminds us that we're in no better position to reject their turbulent vitality than he is, reminds us that our common bond with them will always be stronger than any moralistic attitude we might try to strike toward them.       

4 -- Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby 

Fitzgerald was constantly trying to reconcile his love for the Romantic poets with his taste for more recent writers like Conrad, James, Eliot, and Joyce. The Great Gatsby makes room for both the older lyricism of Keats and the Modernist severity of The Waste Land. The writing in Gatsby pleases almost everyone because it's traditional and fresh, emotional and restrained.

Fitzgerald accomplishes this partly through the balance he keeps between the contrasts in Nick Carraway's voice. The first tone, the one we hear in the beginning, is understated and matter-of-fact:  "When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart." 

But at critical points in the story, Nick surrenders to a much less reserved version of his voice. He allows Gatsby's "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" to course freely through the writing. At the end of Chapter VI, Gatsby kisses Daisy, and the experience is rapturous: Gatsby "waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star." This is a bit too ravishing for most of us, but Fitzgerald immediately anticipates our rejection by shifting back to Nick's more muted and questioning tone:

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something -- an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

The same shift occurs in the novel's last two paragraphs, when Nick's momentary flight into ecstasy is cut short by his final observation, quiet and elegiac:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning --

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

These overt switches in Nick's voice are rare. It's more usual for Fitzgerald to mingle the different registers subtly and almost indistinguishably, with nearly perfect poise. Here's the impressionistic glimpse of Gatsby's death in the pool of his estate:

There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water.

The language is precise yet suggestive, controlled yet mournful. In this passage and many others, Fitzgerald captures the "elusive rhythm," the "fragment of lost words" that Nick has sought in Gatsby's presence. The writing is also evocative enough to carry all kinds of social and political cargo. In our current state of national economic wreckage, with the rich unloading the insanely high costs of their recklessness onto the rest of us, we have little trouble noticing how the "accidental burden" in Gatsby's pool anticipates Nick's conclusion that Tom and Daisy are "careless people," who "smashed things up and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together." We live, you might say, in the carelessness that Tom and Daisy have bequeathed to our country. Yet Fitzgerald isn't a polemicist, and his characters contain these emblems but can't be reduced to them. In the end, Gatsby is a poetic book, even a mysterious one. Detail after detail compels, in Nick's terms, our capacity for wonder, from the early spasms of dust in the valley of ashes to that late, summer-ending touch of the cluster of leaves in the swimming pool.      

5 -- Faulkner: The Arsonist in Action

Fitzgerald never really settled down anywhere. He moved constantly, with New York, Paris, and Los Angeles as the most prominent stops along his endless track of long-distance travels and temporary lodgings.

Faulkner, of course, stayed mostly in one place. Starting with Sartoris in 1929 -- the heavily cut version of the manuscript that was posthumously published as Flags in the Dust -- he used his intimate knowledge of Mississippi to create his Yoknapatawpha County cycle. Still, he sidesteps the complacency that can sometimes disfigure self-consciously regional writing. He's committed to the South, he loves it, but his commitment and love are tangled up with the outrage that whips him forward, lashing him from book to book. He's like a horse racing through a burning forest. In his case, though, the fire is one he has set himself: Faulkner has the imagination of an arsonist. His 1938 story "Barn Burning" takes arson as its subject, and the obsession of the arsonist as its theme. We see the barn burner, Ab Snopes, through the tormented and loving eyes of his son. Ab has a reputation for setting fires and causing trouble, and the reputation persecutes him and drives him to commit more burnings everywhere he goes. His son disapproves yet understands. He knows how self-destructive the father is, but also recognizes the gossip and narrow-mindedness that others constantly jab at him, like sticks poking a hive, keeping the swarm of his emotions in a constant state of rage. 

It's a state that Faulkner knew all too well. His brother John once said Faulkner was "the most even-tempered man who ever lived, mad as a hornet all the time." He's maybe our first Punk novelist, nearly wild with anger. His prose is an inferno: it burns up everything in its path and flames on, ravenous for more. From the breakthrough of The Sound and the Fury in 1929 up to The Wild Palms in 1939, Faulkner raged through a decade of often brilliant works, a firestorm of masterpieces. None of them attempts to be polished: with Faulkner the roughness and rawness are as important to the texture of his sentences as the abrasions of Patti Smith's singing are to the sound of "Ask the Angels." As I Lay Dying, a feverish and astonishing novel, takes the changing-viewpoint method of Henry James and whirls it to a violent blur, voice after voice churning us through our ride with the coffin of a family's dead mother. The seven connected Civil War stories in The Unvanquished are dynamic, unruly historical fictions, and the book includes an especially good tale about a woman who disguises herself as a soldier. Absalom, Absalom! is so ambitious that it becomes thrillingly obscured by the smoke of its conflagration, the tumult of all its accounts of the nineteenth-century planter Thomas Sutpen. Trying to make sense of Sutpen's past, the young Harvard student Quentin Compson ends up defeated, dismayed by his efforts to put together a bearable interpretation of his Southern heritage of racism and violence. The novel closes with Quentin's near-hysterical protests that he doesn't hate the South. We know from The Sound and the Fury, though, that his suicide is coming: he walks through "the cold air, the iron New England dark" with the blaze of his anguish already consuming him, as it consumes so many of Faulkner's characters. 

6 -- Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

After The Great Gatsby appeared in 1925, Fitzgerald didn't publish another major work until Tender Is the Night in 1934. During this same nine year span, Faulkner wrote seven full-length novels.  The sustained concentration that Fitzgerald lavished on Tender Is the Night -- the antithesis of Faulkner's headlong rush through book after book -- makes it one of the most consciously crafted American novels of its era.

Disillusionment is central to Tender, and Fitzgerald builds the process of disillusionment into our reading. The contrast between the glamorous warmth of the opening section and the increasingly bitter chill of the rest of the book displeased most of its early critics, and continues to displease nearly everyone on a first encounter. Yet a longer acquaintance with Tender brings out the story's full heft: slowly, its compressed emotional and psychological weight begins to bear down on us.

Fitzgerald tried to put his whole life into the novel, everything he knew about people and the world, and he crammed it all into a pretty short book, only about three hundred pages long. The best reason to reread Tender might be to enjoy its sheer density of material. It's the opposite of one of those novels where you feel the writer is stretching things a bit thin to keep the plot going. In Tender, the story is often weirdly compacted under the pressure of Fitzgerald's effort to make sure each chapter contains as much substance as possible, substance that other writers might have assembled more loosely and gradually.

7 -- Fitzgerald: "Ode to a Nightingale"

As in Gatsby, but more daringly this time, Tender Is the Night combines the Romantic poetic tradition with a harsher Modernist strain. The title and the epigraph try to prepare us for this, and tell us much of what we need to know about the novel's deliberately alienating structure. Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" was one of Fitzgerald's favorite poems, and the four lines he takes from it are revealing:

Already with thee! tender is the night...
...But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

The entire movement of the book is disclosed here. Keats is, among other things, writing his version of Hamlet's soliloquies. Later in the novel, Fitzgerald will refer to Hamlet and the Ode at the same time, keeping one eye on Shakespeare much as Keats does. The Ode takes for its apparent occasion the moment when the poet listens to a nightingale as he walks through a starlit forest. He imagines the sensations of drinking wine or hemlock or "some dull opiate" -- the ambiguity is typical of the writing's luxuriant suggestiveness. He then pictures fading into the forest with the nightingale as the bird soars through the dark. 

The lines that Fitzgerald uses come from the fourth stanza. When the poet says he is "Already with thee," he means he has, in his thoughts, joined the nightingale in flying over the forest. The words "tender is the night" express the moment of the poet's escape into the sky, where the moon is surrounded by clusters of stars.

It's this moment of sublimity -- the imaginary transcendence of hanging aloft in the night -- that suffuses Part One of Fitzgerald's novel. Rosemary, a hardworking young actress, spends her holiday on the French Riviera and meets the psychiatrist Dick Diver and his rich wife Nicole. Rosemary falls in love with Dick, and sees him and his marriage through a trance of admiration. She becomes part of the Divers' personal expat circle, and adores Dick's kindness, intelligence, energy, and wit, whether he's having a small dinner party or bringing some of his friends to a World War I battlefield for a reflective visit. For the first third of the book, Fitzgerald immerses us in Rosemary's fantasy of Dick's desirability and worth. Even if we wonder about the hints of trouble that she largely ignores along the way, we never doubt that her time with Dick will become her lifelong definition of paradise.

8 -- Fitzgerald: "Here There Is No Light"

Part Two brings us sharply down from these romanticized heights, just as Keats brings us down from the moon and the cluster of stars. "But here there is no light," Keats tells us, and the Ode plunges into disenchantment. The flight into the sky has been an illusion. Beneath the trees, where the poet actually stands, the moonlight and the starlight only come through obscurely, when the wind moves the patterns of shadows over the "verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways." In the darkness, the poet is "half in love with easeful Death," and wishes he could die playing out another fantasy, where the nightingale sings, immortal, throughout human history. But the fantasy breaks off just as he starts to build it: "the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do." He has lost the ability to dream his way out of his despair, which no longer affords him even the comfort of a convincing illusion. 

In Tender, Fitzgerald matches the Ode's abrupt termination of the poet's idealized vision, and dives backward in time, in a jarring jump from 1925 to 1917. Rosemary vanishes from the novel, and doesn't return except for two brief later appearances, each bleaker than the one before. In place of her adoring viewpoint, Part Two introduces some of the stark facts behind Dick's marriage to Nicole: precisely the aspect of Dick's life that Rosemary has taken pains to diminish or ignore. As a promising young psychiatrist, Dick first encounters Nicole accidentally, during her professional treatment. Her rich father, who raped her and carried on an incestuous relationship with her, has placed her in a private mental health clinic. Nicole sees Dick at the clinic when he visits a colleague. Initially, he pretends to be interested merely in encouraging her recovery. Gradually he realizes he's in love with her, and marries her despite his knowledge that he's taking a great and highly unprofessional risk. 

When we return to 1925, we're at nearly the exact midpoint of the novel. From here on, Dick goes to pieces, and we never know quite why. We're given too many explanations, which all overlap in dense combinations. Here's a partial list: Dick drinks too much, feels emasculated by Nicole's wealth, can't separate his role as her doctor from his role as her husband, loses his belief in his personal honor and determination, can't decide how to finish the great psychiatric study he has spent most of his career researching and preparing, and thinks Nicole is gaining strength in direct proportion to his deterioration. No single item on the list can account for the speed and ugliness of Dick's collapse, and the motion of all these collective forces within him encloses a core of calm and frightening darkness.         

The closest Fitzgerald offers to a summation leads us back to the mysteries in the Ode. In one of the last chapters, after it's clear Nicole will leave him, Dick recalls his decision when he first confronted her case: "he had made his choice, chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it." The choice of the "sweet poison" goes directly to the Ode's dreamlike mingling of visionary intoxication and suicide, of wine and hemlock. Even more open-ended is the choice of Ophelia, who enters through the Ode's Hamlet connections. (I imagine that, for Fitzgerald, Hamlet was more an appendage to the Ode than the other way around.) Is Fitzgerald saying that Dick chose to follow the same path to self-destruction Ophelia followed? Or is he saying that Dick chose to marry Ophelia, the young woman driven insane by the irresponsibility of the people who loved her, and that in rescuing her from madness and despair Dick has taken on those qualities himself? We don't need to clarify this: the confusion about whether Dick identifies with Ophelia or with being Ophelia's savior carries on from his confusion about his entire relationship with Nicole. Fitzgerald understands both the beauty and the horror of how certain husbands and wives begin to bleed together, mentally and emotionally, until they can hardly separate themselves from each other. Dick's tragedy might be that he has seen his merger with Nicole as magical and permanent. He didn't realize that its loveliness was just a fantasy, like the tenderness of the night: a perishable vision that maroons him in bleakness once it loses its power to cheat him into belief.               

9 -- Faulkner: Light in August and The Wild Palms

In novels like Light in August and The Wild Palms, Faulkner makes his characters' unplanned pregnancies and small-town legal troubles as significant as the problems of the royal courts in Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. We're excited to be with the people Faulkner writes about: he turns each of them into a world, bountiful, fantastic, and wild.       

Light in August, from 1932, compares gossip and isolation, the rumors about Joe Christmas and the private nightmare of his experiences. As a drifter, Christmas has spent much of his life moving among fogs of public bias. He feels how scornfully he's reinvented in each place, during each encounter with people, and he rages against his inability to work out who he is, what he thinks and wants. He knows the way most strangers see him, the zombie figure he casts in the community's vision: "His face was gaunt, the flesh a level dead parchment color. Not the skin: the flesh itself, as though the skull had been molded in a still and deadly regularity and then baked in a fierce oven." 

For the first four chapters, we meet Christmas through hearsay, the prejudices of people who pass around tales about him. Then the novel takes us into the story Christmas carries inside him, the epic of his past. As a boy, he has a sick-joke experience with a toothpaste tube, an incident that steers him toward the anger and violence of his future. It's one of those small yet complicated events that matter immensely to us but can't, in ordinary conversation, be explained to anyone else. Christmas grows up collecting hatreds, all the misogyny and racism common to his time and place. He then nurtures those hatreds with a tenacity that's very much his own accomplishment, his particular form of vitality. His hatred eventually includes all of humanity: he hates everyone who rejects him but hates even more anybody who attempts, as the unfortunate Joanna Burden does, to draw him out of his rage. 

Light in August would be unbearable if it were limited to Christmas, and characters like Lena and Hightower open the book up. They're extraordinary in themselves, inhabited by Faulkner with remarkable passion: Lena's pregnancy could easily take over a novel of its own, and so could Hightower's obsession with his Confederate ancestors. In addition, though, the presence of Lena and Hightower fills Light in August with the necessary freshness of perspective to make Christmas and his bloody destruction tragic rather than simply suffocating. 

Faulkner's haste and impulsiveness, far from ruining his work, quicken his feel for the right amount of attention to give each character and the right time to move away to someone else. When he started writing The Wild Palms, he had only one storyline, the affair between a young man who worked as a hospital intern and a married woman with two children. Faulkner soon saw, however, that the story "needed something to lift it, like counterpoint in music." The counterpoint became the narrative of the old convict, part of a chain gang working on a levee during one of the Mississippi River's great, devastating floods. In alternating chapters, the young man and the wife run away together while the convict is sent off on the overflowing river to retrieve a pregnant woman who's in danger. 

The two storylines have no direct link with each other. Instead, Faulkner combines them through their similarities and contrasts. The wife becomes pregnant, mirroring the pregnancy of the woman the convict rescues. The wife then endures a lingering death after the young man attempts to perform an abortion on her -- a horror story that plays off against the convict taking the pregnant woman through the flood and assisting with the birth of her baby. Both stories build together until they swell with the force of the river, the power of the "welter of floating debris -- planks, small buildings, the bodies of drowned yet antic animals, entire trees leaping and diving like porpoises." The Wild Palms gathers to an exhilarating ferocity: the culmination of that burning fury Faulkner could never fully control, and which here he finally submerges in the violent floodwaters of the Mississippi.

10 -- Hollywood: Faulkner and the Crisis Years

Faulkner and Fitzgerald had the usual Hollywood experience: complete subjugation of their ideas to the studio system, and rejection or rewriting of nearly every line they submitted. 

Faulkner first went to L.A. in 1932, after finishing Light in August. He hated turning out treatments and movie scripts, and quickly fled. He then did a second Hollywood stint in 1934 while trying to complete Absalom, Absalom! By the time the novel was published in 1936, he had started on a pattern of irregular journeys to Hollywood for various film assignments. He had a serious mistress in L.A., liked to work with the director Howard Hawks, and didn't seem to care very much that almost none of his scriptwriting ended up onscreen. 

This extended period of erratic studio work continued for the rest of the thirties and through the end of World War II. It also coincided with the longest literary crisis of Faulkner's career. When The Wild Palms came out in 1939, it was the last major book in the ten year sprint of great writing that had started with The Sound and the Fury. The Hamlet, from 1940, consisted largely of rewritten versions of old short stories. Go Down, Moses, a set of connected tales, came out in 1942, and six more years would pass before Faulkner published a new novel.

Already suffering from a lapse of confidence, he felt that his Hollywood hackwork further sapped his talent and resolve. He participated in at least two pictures now considered classics:  The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. Yet he didn't take any artistic satisfaction in them and doesn't seem to have contributed much that was used in the finished films. He was drinking more, and remained very aware that he had never made enough money as a novelist to support his family, and almost certainly never would. 

By 1945, his books were out of print, and he made up his mind to leave Hollywood for good. He wrote his literary agent, said he didn't "have enough sure judgment about trash to be able to write it with 50% success" and asked if he could instead "do some sort of editorial work, or some sort of hackwriting at home." He had little reason to believe his Yoknapatawpha County fiction would ever come back into circulation, and even less reason to believe his future novels would improve his financial situation or bring him any greater recognition.          

11 -- Hollywood: Scott without Zelda

Fitzgerald went to Hollywood at three different points in his life. The first time was in 1927, when the commercial success of This Side of Paradise and the critical success of Gatsby had raised his reputation to its highest pitch. He wrote a screenplay, a flapper comedy for Constance Talmadge, but the studio rejected the finished script.  

He didn't come back to Hollywood until 1931, while he was working on Tender Is the Night. Zelda had started going in and out of mental institutions by then, and she wrote him thirty letters during the two months he was away from her. By his own admission, he was drinking too much, and believed he let his cowriter to push him around, resulting in a weak, unproduced screenplay. He never accepted the lesson Faulkner absorbed immediately: in the studio system, the writing itself had almost nothing to do with whether a film got made.       

Soon after this, Zelda wrote her fascinating 1932 novel Save Me the Waltz. Fitzgerald was upset to find that the novel was an account of their marriage as seen from her side: he thought she was poaching on Tender, which she had followed through its many drafts over the years. He retaliated, I've always felt, by making the Nicole of the final chapters of Tender into a shallow, uncreative, non-intellectual adulteress. This bland and empty woman makes no sense, and seriously damages the novel's ending, since she has little in common with the intelligent, astute Nicole we find during the rest of the book. The Nicole who leaves Dick is no longer a human being but a masochistic fantasy, the specter of Fitzgerald's worst fears about Zelda rising as he fell. Faulkner had a misogynistic streak at least as big as Fitzgerald's. In his writing, though, Faulkner was usually able to see how crazy and destructive his male characters' attitudes toward women were. He never wrote a novel designed to prove some general thesis that women were vicious ball-cutters, even though he was more than capable of thinking it. The anger at women that, say, the convict expresses in The Wild Palms isn't presented as the crystallization of a valid philosophy. Instead, it's the ironic final sign of how the convict has cut himself off from the world and chosen his own imprisonment. Faulkner is always more critical of his private fixations than Fitzgerald is, and tougher in his willingness to expose the personal fears and irrationalities behind his furies.

Anyway, when Fitzgerald went to Hollywood for his third set of assignments, his marriage to Zelda was effectively over. Far from rising up and vengefully destroying him, she had slipped even further into mental illness and now spent most of her time hospitalized. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had followed up the high-profile failure of Tender Is the Night with years of serious alcoholism and despair. The despair is understandable: Tender deserved a much better reception than it got, and Fitzgerald genuinely loved Zelda and felt they were being brought down together, almost ritualistically. They were, he considered, icons of the defeats of the thirties just as they'd been icons of the aspirations of the twenties. 

Still, the extravagance of his self-pity is a bit much, and he becomes less exasperating to read about once he decides to take a serious run at a fresh start. In 1937, MGM hired him to work on the studio payroll. He thought he might be able to thrive not just as a screenwriter but as a powerful director or producer. It didn't pan out: Hollywood was fathoms deep with expert self-promoters, and Fitzgerald had no chance to rise above his place at the bottom of the sea, with all the other screenwriters. He worked briefly on Gone with the Wind, and was assigned to other big-budget films, but the only movie for which he ever received a screen credit was Three Comrades

Instead of falling apart, though, Fitzgerald stuck to his alternate plan. He started drafting a novel about legendary producer Irving Thalberg. This was the book Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing when he died of a heart attack in December 1940.

12 -- Faulkner: The Nobel Prize and the Later Works               

The publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946 brought the author's literary crisis to an end. Malcolm Cowley's deft stewardship of the book is probably more responsible than any other factor for the rapidly expanding interest in Faulkner's writing throughout the late forties and fifties. While Faulkner was already a favorite among French critics, Americans needed Cowley's push to start reading him. The ascent, when it came, was dramatic. In 1950, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize, and his transformation was complete.  

His writing changed after The Portable Faulkner, and I love the later novels and stories even if I agree with most readers that they're less brilliant than his earlier work. Intruder in the Dust, his 1948 comeback novel, is typical: a tale of a planned lynching, written with a preachy concern for social issues that would never have intruded so bluntly into Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury. The second two novels in the Snopes trilogy, The Town and The Mansion, sometimes come close to Peyton Place in their family-scandal theatrics, while Requiem for a Nun, the sequel to the Temple Drake story from the lurid Sanctuary, is one of Faulkner's few literary experiments to feel awkward rather than exciting. Only The Reivers, his funny and relaxed final novel from 1962, is a complete success.    

Yet when the later books are added to Faulkner's total achievement, they round out his writing with their impressive breadth. I think we're lucky he didn't keep repeating himself, trying to recapture the speed and wrath of his past work long after its momentum had been spent. Success distanced Faulkner from the bitter estrangement that animates a story like "Barn Burning," and he needed to discover new things to say. If The Town and The Mansion have less to tell us about the darkness we hoard inside us than Light in August does, they have more to tell us about some of the practical ways of the world: the running of banks, the maneuvers of lawyers, the mindset of people who "would never injure money, cause to totter for even one second the parity and immunity of money" because they "had too much veneration for it." Requiem for a Nun doesn't work overall, but it does make Temple Drake more nearly human than she was in Sanctuary, where Faulkner had engineered her as a garish femme fatale in his youthful desperation to produce a commercial success. (Note for cynics: Sanctuary was by far the most widely read of Faulkner's novels before he became famous.) And while Intruder in the Dust is merely a well-plotted, well-written drama, lumpy with good-citizenship lessons, the characters are always convincing, especially Lucas Beauchamp, whose refusal to do what others expect resembles several dimensions of Faulkner's stubborn and provoking personality.                                    

13 -- Fitzgerald: The Last Tycoon

After Fitzgerald's death, a heavily edited version of his Irving Thalberg novel was published in 1941 under the title The Last Tycoon, with an excellent introduction by Edmund Wilson. A more scholarly edition appeared in 1993, The Love of the Last Tycoon, but the Wilson edition is historically important because it became part of the steady Fitzgerald revival. 

Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner's redeemer, also did his bit for Fitzgerald's posthumous standing. Cowley brought out a version of Tender Is the Night that followed Fitzgerald's small revisions as well as Fitzgerald's plan to reorganize the narrative: the new version opens with the 1917 flashback from Part Two of the original novel. This is the kind of desperate move authors consider when they're trying to get a fair hearing for a book that's been infuriatingly misunderstood, and it's unclear if Fitzgerald would have actually gone through with publishing this reorganization in his lifetime. Yet Cowley's edition does all of us a favor by forcing us to think hard about the original book's structure, and by helping us to recognize how carefully Fitzgerald considered his artistic choices. You can't really appreciate the worth of the original edition until you read this reorganized version and see how much of the novel's magnetism has been lost in the shuffle.

Though the widespread reassessment of Tender was the most unexpected boon to Fitzgerald's reputation, The Last Tycoon has further enhanced his literary afterlife. It hints at a renewal of his gifts, a second chance cut unfairly short. 

Would it have been a great book?  Maybe, though more likely it would have been merely solid and intriguing, on a par with short stories like "Financing Finnegan" or "Crazy Sunday." The hundred or so pages that Fitzgerald drafted are promising. They're often well written even in their unpolished state, and Fitzgerald is the right author to make something more than cheap satire out of his Hollywood disappointments. "Under the moon," he writes of a studio, "the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland -- not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French chateaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway by night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood." 

More interestingly, The Last Tycoon is the first time Fitzgerald advances so far outside of his personal life for material. The draft features long dramatizations of Stahr, the Thalberg character, supervising the studio's productions and executing the many responsibilities of his position. The episodes are credible factually and fluent artistically, without the strain that research can sometimes bring to fiction. The Last Tycoon shows that Fitzgerald might have had an entirely different career ahead of him. Autobiography might have receded, and new characters might have come to the fore. We'll never know about that, of course, but even in its incomplete form The Last Tycoon is fascinating. It's a durable and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the old Hollywood assembly-line system, from the time when, as Fitzgerald says, the movies made by executives like Stahr shaped the dreams of the entire world.                     

14 -- Faulkner: Pylon and A Fable

Pylon and A Fable are two of the Faulkner novels that don't fit into the Yoknapatawpha series. Both are strange even by Faulkner standards, where strangeness is the rule.

Pylon is about barnstorming, the flying-circus craze of stunt pilots performing show tricks in biplanes. It came out in 1935, between Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, and it feels like a streak of white-hot tracer bullets that somehow strayed from the main line of fire those other two novels pursue. The plot, about a reporter and a three-way relationship among a female parachutist and a couple of the show's men, struggles to emerge from the preternatural vibrancy of the New Orleans setting. Pylon is less a coherent novel than an extraordinary set of observations, like this image of Mardi Gras: "the overcast sky reflected that interdict and lightglared canyon now adrift with serpentine and confetti, through which the floats, bearing grimacing and antic mimes dwarfed chalkwhite and forlorn and contemplated by static curbmass of amazed confettifaces, passed as though through steady rain." 

During the nine years it took to compose A Fable -- the same amount of time Fitzgerald put into Tender Is the Night -- Faulkner correctly predicted that the finished book would be "too long, too deliberate" for most critics. He also said it might be "50 years before the world can stop to read it." The fifty-year mark for A Fable passed in 2004, so now might be a good moment to give it some of the attention Faulkner felt it deserved.    

Faulkner retells the story of Christ through a French corporal who inspires a brief suspension of fighting in World War I and is then executed for holding up the carnage. At first the novel comes at the story sideways, via people who don't participate directly in the battle and who don't know much about the corporal. Only at the climax does Faulkner really show us his Christ figure, in a long and supremely odd conversation between the corporal and his father, the French marshal who heads the Allied armies. The marshal might, in the book's scheme of things, double for God, though one of the book's many interesting ambiguities is that, as marshal, he directly supports the forces of destruction and violence. 

Faulkner thought A Fable was his finest novel. That's an eccentric judgment, but not an impossible one. A Fable isn't a conventional war story. It's a perplexing parable in the key of The Marble Faun, the final Hawthorne novel, which also provided the title for Faulkner's first book of verse. Like The Marble Faun, A Fable is set in a well-observed but deliberately phantasmagoric Europe: the proliferation of detail about the military takes us less toward realism than toward dreamlike paradoxes of thought and feeling.

A Fable is different from the Yoknapatawpha novels, but it stands in echoing and enriching relation to them. "Between grief and nothing," Faulkner famously writes in The Wild Palms, "I will take grief." A Fable recalls this line, as the survivors of the corporal consider his death: "it was not for an outrage that they grieved, but for simple grief: the only alternative to which was nothing, and between grief and nothing only the coward takes nothing."