June 3, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 27: May Day


may dayTitle: May Day

Author: F Scott Fitzgerald

First published: 1920

Page count: 94

First line: There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red, and rose.

There’s a line somewhere in my tattered, coverless copy of Fitzgerald’s Letters where he discriminates between his stories (generally bright and breezy) and his novels (more complex and “depressive” – and depressive is the only word I’m quoting here with any degree of accuracy). The more I read of him, the more I agree. As a youngster it was his novels I read – in fact it was novels I read, tout court: short stories were a taste acquired in adulthood – and so I was surprised by the lightness of his shorter stuff, when I came to it.

Not that there’s not darkness there – and this book is a case in point – but when what you’re writing about, your whole career, is essentially the dirt under the gilt, and how the gilt chips but the dirt accrues, then it makes sense to push everything through to the bitter end. In Fitzgerald, the bitter end is always coming, sooner or later; everyone is ground down, in the end – but get there too soon and it might seem forced, the grinding perfunctory rather than inevitable.

There’s bitterness, or cynicism, at leas, in the very first words of May Day. The brushed-away pain of that “There had been a war fought and won” sets the tone. The short scene-setting prologue that it begins doggedly hollows out the language of victory and celebration till you hear its echo when you knock, nor will the flowers last long under the feet of those soldiers.

May Day is a state-of-the-nation piece in miniature, a slide under the microscope, or perhaps a spin of a kaleidoscope. It does that thing of throwing a small number of characters into a box barely bigger than them (here, New York) and watching them circle and bounce off each other. You know, and the author knows, that all important combinations are going to occur, at some point.

The main characters break down into two pairs and two singletons. Firstly, Philip Dean and Gordon Sterrett, a pair of Yale graduates now divided by money – desperate, destitute  Sterrett is asking Dean for a loan; secondly, demobbed soldiers Carrol Key and Gus Rose –

…ugly, ill-nourished, devoid of all except the very lowest form of intelligence, and without even that animal exuberance that in itself brings color into life; they were lately vermin-ridden, old, and hungry in a dirty town of a strange land…

– okay, Scott, we get the point – and, thirdly, two women, Edith Bradin, a society gal for whom Sterrett still holds a torch, and Jewel Hudson, from a distinctly lower class (“Lived here in New York – poor family,” says Sterrett, which it seems is quite enough), with whom he has fallen in, and who is now badgering him for money.

“She wants some money; claims she make trouble for me if she doesn’t get it”

“Can she?”

“I’m afraid she can.”

This trouble is never quite spelled out, and at this distance, and not quite being able to read the mores and evasions of the time, I’m not sure if this means Hudson is, or was, pregnant, or if she’s just blackmailing a young well-educated illustrator. Sterrett is hardly high enough up the social register to be proper blackmail material.

No matter – the point of the set-up is that Gordon is desperate, and rich, profligate Dean is unable or unwilling to help him, yet still happy enough to drag him along, frayed cuffs and all, to the fraternity ball that night, where Edith Bradin will certainly be in attendance. The story starts prompt at nine o’clock on the first of May 1919, and ends twenty four hours later, but it’s the Gamma Psi party at Delmonico’s that night that is the heart of the novella’s storm. It is there that Gordon and Edith meet, and it is that meeting that is the crux of the book, they are the two pieces of glass the twists of the kaleidoscope tube are destined to bring together – they hold fond memories of each other, and are looking forward to reconnecting, but will that shared hope survive the changed relation in their circumstances? In essence, Gordon needs saving. Dean won’t do it, with money, but will Edith, with love?

It seems certain (I don’t know; I wasn’t there) that Fitzgerald has the right specimens on his microscope slide. The book shows up the Jazz Age as not so much the party that followed the First World War, as the hangover that kicked in from the party before – a party that no one, really, can remember. And this at a time when the Jazz Age itself is only just gearing up to get going and roaring. It’s sociologically astute, then, but that astuteness takes a little away from its success as literature. The plot is little more than a series of concatenations engineered to set up the various pay-offs across gender and class lines.

Not that this programmatic aspects kills the novella, not at all. The prose sparkles at moments – though, it must be said, mostly the moments involving the young and rich, rather than the young and poor. And Fitzgerald is very good at writing about alcohol:

At the second highball, boredom, disgust, the monotony of time, the turbidity of events, sank into a vague background before which glittering cobwebs formed. Things became reconciled to themselves, things lay quietly on their shelves; the troubles of the day arranged themselves in trim formation and at his curt wish of dismissal, marched off and disappeared. And with the departure of worry came brilliant, permeating symbolism. Edith became a flirty, negligible girl, not to be worried over; rather to be laughed at. She fitted like a figure of his own dream into the surface world forming about him. He himself became in a measure symbolic, a type of the continent bacchanal, the brilliant dreamer at play.

“Things became reconciled to themselves… brilliant permeating symbolism… the surface world forming about him… he became in a measure symbolic…”  all of this, lucidly, cogently, soberly, tells us how our thought processes function when we sacrifice our cogency to a spurious, spirited lucidity. For what is drunkenness but lucidity without cogency? The state of seeing things clearly… but wrongly. For what we are seeing is a world of surfaces that forms around us…

There is a funny dance scene in which men cut in to dance with Edith at a rate of about one a minute, and a slow, staggering pre-coda coda set in an all-night café that is dully eloquent in the nonsense that people do to entertain themselves and keep themselves awake after a solid twelve hours on the booze.

There is also – and this is something I shall store in my back pocket for creative writing classes – an utterly beautiful and exemplary use of the semi-colon. Here it is, with its build-up, for full effect:

Edith, less fatuously, would have been content to cure Gordon Sterrett. There was a quality of weakness in Gordon that she wanted to take care of; there was a helplessness in him that she wanted to protect. And she wanted someone she had known a long while, someone who had loved her a long while. She was a little tired; she wanted to get married.

Of course, we’re talking about the second semi-colon here. The first one is perfectly accurate, perfectly good – look, you might say to a room of students (because they want to use semi-colons, creative writing students, they want to use them so badly, unless they’re hitched to the comma splice), here’s a semi-colon used correctly: it is elegant, and efficient; it jogs the sense of the sentence along nicely.

But that second one – look at the work it’s doing. “She was a little tired; she wanted to get married.” The way it balances the two clauses, as if in a set of scales, and shows that, in Edith’s tired, loveless, drunken and rather shallow mind, the two thoughts weigh about the same. What confusion of connectives would be needed to show the thought process that leads her from one to the other? The two thoughts shunt into one another like coaches (or cars) on a train;  they overlap. Neither presupposes the other, though each validates the other. They are, in a way, both the same thought. All that, in a semi-colon.

But, as I’ve suggested, it’s notable that this kind of delicacy of attention to the human mind is reserved for the posh or ex-posh characters in May Day. Nothing like it is gifted Key or Rose. That’s a failing, and though Fitzgerald would – and did – deny it, he was more concerned or obsessed with the rich – not their outer worlds, but their inner worlds. It was in that gap that he found his riches, in the gap between having and having not. He found his subject – and that’s no crime, really, for a writer. Look at Jane Austen. Unlike, Austen, however, he wanted to look further. He felt it was a failing, and tried to rectify it. And, sad to say, either it was a failing, or the attempt to fix it was.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.