Thursday, July 12, 2012

Adventures in Re-Reading: The Last Tycoon

Book Re-reviewed: The Love of the Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It's been at least five years since I've picked up Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, despite the fact that I consider it my second-favorite Fitzgerald work.  Considering that I've been having some kind of Fitzgerald love affair re-up this summer (how is it that I have let him lay fallow in my mind for so long), it seemed like as good a time as any to pick it up.  Also, I recently watched The Artist, and its depiction of Old Hollywood made me yearn to read The Last Tycoon again.

The Last Tycoon was never finished, although Fitzgerald made a surprising amount of headway on it in just the last few months before his death in 1940 at the age of 44.  I used to argue that, had it been finished, it would have rivaled The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald's best book.  It is very similar to Gatsby, of course, in its themes of the self-made man, tragic youthful death, and lost love.  But it also shows the stamp of Fitzgerald's extra 15 years of experience.  It's a mature book, less about the way youth become disillusioned and more about the way one can move past that disillusionment and still end up losing.  It's beautifully written, beautifully told.  And painful because of its lack of resolution.

It's not always easy to be a Fitzgerald fan.  In biographies and anecdotes, he comes off as needy and irresolute.  He drank too much; he wasn't a particularly good husband or father.  His writing can sometimes be overly flowery and heavy in abstraction.  His characters are often unlikeable.  But when he's on, he's on.  Fitzgerald's talent is in his re-writing, in the way he worked a sentence or a scene over and over again.  It's what makes his best work feel so effortless.  He writes some of the clearest, most poignant sentences in American literature, and those sentences are always designed to make you feel something.  And man, do they make you feel.  Books like The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon make me feel everything, deeply.  Not everyone has this reaction to Fitzgerald's work, but for some reason, he just manages to hit me right where it hurts.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's some kind of Midwestern kinmanship (only a transplanted Midwesterner is capable of writing books about homesickness that runs so deep that it just becomes a vague, amorphous sort of loneliness, unrecognizable as homesickness at all).  Maybe it's just that I like to be told sad stories with a minimal amount of narrative to-do, so that I may feel whatever emotions I want to feel, author intentioned be damned. 

I have a theory that Fitzgerald's best books are the ones in which he sees himself most clearly.  Fitzgerald had a lot of problems, and he never seemed quite able to figure out his own mind or heart.  But in his best work, there's an openness to the weaknesses of men that seems to come from someplace familiar.  In The Great Gatsby, you have the tragedy of the uprooted man, the man who doesn't want to go home again but probably should.  In Tender Is the Night, you've got a man with a ruined marriage leaving his career behind (writing purely for money was Fitzgerald's mainstay at this time, and the time stretch between his novels gets longer and longer).  And here, you have the saddest story of all, made tragic by the fact that Fitzgerald was about to die himself.  In The Last Tycoon, a 35-year-old Hollywood producer finds love for the first time since his wife died, rediscovers his interest in creating a great film, and then dies young (the death is part of every plot outline, but Fitzgerald himself died before he got to that part of the book).  It's a book about a somewhat emotionally-voided man coming close to catharsis, to a personal and professional revolution.  But he doesn't get it.  Fitzgerald came so close to writing a distorted mirror of his own life, and then he actually acted out the end his character could not. 

The Last Tycoon is not a perfect book.  There's the problem of its point-of-view, in which first-person narrator Cecelia Brady describes scenes she did not witness.  This doesn't particularly bother me, as it's easy to see the book as some kind of post-modernish look at who gets to tell the stories of our lives (with Cecelia and the omniscient narrator fighting for the power to tell the story of a man unallowed to tell his own tale).  The love interest, Kathleen Moore, is a bit underwritten.  But overall, it's a fantastic book.  The writing is sumptuous, capable of both humor and tragedy.  The setting feels vibrant and alive.  The book is surprisingly frank about sex and the sexual histories of its characters.  If you compare this to much of Fitzgerald's earlier work, it feels incredibly contemporary.  I love this book, although it's hard for me to separate Stahr from Fitzgerald when I read it.  It's a novel that makes me feel many things within a single paragraph, a feat few books - even the ones I love - can achieve. 

Note:  It's possible that there is an essay in here somewhere about the ways in which I am the Cecelia Brady to Fitzgerald's Stahr: the innocent sideliner forever doomed to look at a man she loves and admires through a haze of self-interest.  She's a girl stuck with the narrative she creates because that's really all she gets of Stahr in the end.  Is that not the only power a fangirl gets and abuses when she doesn't get the object of her affection?  Is that what I'm doing here in this review, in hoping to construct a kind of sad-sack narrative for Fitzgerald through which to view this novel?

Note 2:  There are multiple editions of this book, featuring different outlines and notes about the unfinished parts of the book.  This is the most well-regarded edition, with notes selected and edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, long considered the premiere Fitzgerald scholar.  Bruccoli also wrote the fine introduction at the beginning of this edition.  I envy the man his talent at framing Fitzgerald's work with such care and accessibility.

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