Entries from June 2010

Man Out of Time: “The Disenchanted” by Budd Schulberg

F. Scott Fitzgerald is easy to iconize. His story so neatly tracks his times: in the Twenties, he had a Jazz Age party; when America crashed, he cracked up; in the Depression, he was down and out. In The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s novelization of the Scott-Zelda tale, an older, lightly fictionalized Fitzgerald is painfully aware of the symmetry:

It seemed almost too damned easy to think of himself and the Twenties as going smash together, as if he were unconsciously acting out the Twenties in some ghastly charade, and yet here he was in the first year of the Depression with his money gone, his wife nearly gone, his reputation going. What had Hank said? He didn’t know how to keep his distance.

The Disenchanted is partly a response to all the images and associations that built up around Fitzgerald. It strips away the dreamy illusions and portrays instead an older Fitzgerald who is all too human. Not the glamorous idol of the twenties, but the broke-down, post-crackup Fitzgerald of 1939 — ravaged by alcoholism, forgotten by the reading public, near dead at 43 years old. Schulberg’s depiction is so unforgiving that Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s partner at the end of his life, never forgave him.

But the novel is not just about Fitzgerald’s decline. It is also about young Budd Schulberg’s own disillusionment when he discovered the Fitzgerald myth was just that, a romantic fantasy. It turned out, Fitzgerald’s story ended the same way everyone else’s does. No Daisy or Zelda, no green light, no “riotous” parties. Just the inevitable grinding-down of time. Even Scott Fitzgerald grew up then grew old. To a 25-year-old Fitzgerald fan, there is no drearier news.

Continue reading →

West End Memories (continued)

Reader “Leonard in Florida” writes with another memory triggered by reading The Strangler:

My father played the numbers with a guy by the name of Brownie in the West End for years. He naturally had a formula for figuring the number. One night he came home with a paper bag with $4,000. He had hit a four-number hit, which I believe paid about $30 to the penny, whereas a three-number hit paid $30 to a nickel.

$4,000 in 1950 would be about $36,000 today, according to the inflation calculator. Not bad. (Leonard’s first contribution is here.)

Categories: Boston    Tags: ·

A Face Behind the Page

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page.”

— George Orwell, “Charles Dickens”

Categories: Books    Tags: · ·

West End Memories

A reader, Leonard in Florida, emails a memory of Boston’s old West End, which figures so prominently in The Strangler.

When I was a kid in the 1940’s, my grandfather and father had an egg store at 203 Chambers Street in the West End. It was a landing spot for refugees. There were all types of people, and religions. I remember a Syrian-owned store where the owner spoke in Yiddish to my dad as they didn’t want the customers to know what they were saying. I also remember when my father used to deliver eggs to Charlie S___’s family store in the South End and they were booking numbers and cashing checks as a business in their store.

More West End memories here.

Categories: Boston    Tags: ·

The MFA Generation

It is hard to imagine a living American novelist writing a passage like the last four paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, summoning up the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” American novelists by and large do not identify with ordinary Americans any longer, nor with the American dream (“the last and greatest of all human dreams”), but with their intellectual class — the people with whom they went to school, whose minds are furnished with the same authorities and assumptions, who share a similar understanding of the world.… And thus the American novel, once a lively voice in the national debate to specify the American idea, has devolved into the voice of a homogeneous intellectual class.

D. G. Myers on what he has elsewhere called “the emergence of a literary generation whose experience is limited to creative writing.”

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

Browning: “a few I value more”

“I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole I get my deserts, and something over — not a crowd, but a few I value more.”

— Robert Browning, letter, 1868

Categories: Poetry · Writing    Tags: ·

You never completely relax again

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

“[Being a writer is] an awful curse to wish on anybody — from the day you begin you never completely relax again.… Even those years I threw away, when the book reviewers were giving me up, I was always worrying about writing, wishing I could find the way to get started again and wanting to push on beyond where I had been.”

— Budd Schulberg, The Disenchanted (1950). The speaker is Manley Halliday, a character based on F. Scott Fitzgerald in his cracked-up, broke-down Hollywood years.

Image: Detail, F. Scott Fitzgerald, June 4, 1937 (photo by Carl van Vechten). Fitzgerald is 40 years old in this photo. He died December 21, 1940, at age 44.

Writers Unplugged

Myself, I’ve set up a second computer, devoid of internet, for my fiction-writing. That’s to say, I took an expensive Mac and turned it back into a typewriter. (You should imagine my computer set-up guy’s consternation when I insisted he drag the internet function out of the thing entirely. “I can just hide it from you,” he said. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to know it’s in there somewhere.”)

Jonathan Lethem (via)

And here I thought I was the only one going to such extremes.

Inventing Laurie Barber

Last Friday I turned in a second version of the manuscript of my novel-in-progress, and this week I got back notes from my editor and agent. The changes they suggest are mostly minor — an off-key note here and there, a few details to clarify. The book is in good shape, for the most part.

One not-so-minor problem continues to dog me: the novel still does not have a title. The latest suggestion, Cold Spring, was rejected (rightly) as “not big enough.” [sigh] It is hard to believe I have been puzzling over this title as long as I have, only to find on the eve of finishing the book that I have no idea what to call the damn thing.

The tallest task in this rewrite, though, is to breathe life into the female lead, Laurie Barber, a suburban mom whose 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, Laurie still feels a little flat to me. My editor and agent both are women (as are most editors and agents) and both expressed reservations about this character. I wonder if they are more alive to the gaps in her presentation — if they sense something missing that I had not, until now. They suggested only tweaks in Laurie’s character, “I wanted to hear more from her” or “I didn’t think she would really say this on page 22.” But to me the problem is bigger: Laurie does not come off the page and live the way the other characters do. She still feels faintly artificial, a creation of words. You don’t sense a real person with a beating heart behind all those words on the page.

Of course women are difficult for a male writer to create, as men must be for women writers — as any alien character, a Belgian or an extraterrestrial, would be for any writer. It is quite a leap to imagine the actual experience of being the opposite sex. Which is odd, since I have had no problem imagining the experience of being all sorts of homicidal or otherwise deviant characters. (Empathize with the Boston Strangler? Sure. But a suburban mom? Impossible.)

The task is made harder by the fact that I don’t like to base my characters on real people. I prefer to write them into existence from a blank canvas. That is obviously a more laborious, painterly process, sketching them in with ever more detail until somehow, mysteriously, the girl in the picture quickens into life.

I have two weeks to accomplish it. One last chance before I turn to the next project. Who are you, Laurie Barber?

Categories: My Books · Writing    Tags:

The Way We Virtually Live Now

According to recent media surveys, the average American spends some 8.5 hours a day peering at a screen — TV, computer, or cell phone — and that number continues to rise as smartphone use explodes. We’ve reached a point, in other words, where it’s more likely than not that we’re looking into a screen at any given moment when we’re awake.… What happens to the human self as it comes to experience more and more of the world, and of life, through the mediation of the screen?

— Nicholas Carr, “Not addiction; dependency”

Categories: Internet    Tags:

A Hangman’s Metaphysics

We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of “free will.” We know only too well what it is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind “accountable” in his sense of the word, that is to say for making mankind dependent on him…. I give here only the psychology of making men accountable. Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it. One has deprived becoming of its innocence if being in this or that state is traced back to will, to intentions, to accountable acts: the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty. The whole of the old-style psychology, the psychology of will, has as its precondition the desire of its authors — the priests at the head of the ancient communities — to create for themselves a right to ordain punishments, or their desire to create for God a right to do so…. Men were thought of as “free” so that they could become guilty; consequently, every action had to be thought of as willed, the origin of every action as lying in the consciousness (whereby the most fundamental falsification in psychologicis was made into the very principle of psychology)…. Today, when we have started to move in the reverse direction, when we immoralists especially are trying with all our might to remove the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment from the world and to purge psychology, history, nature, the social institutions, and sanctions of them, there is in our eyes no more radical opposition than that of the theologians, who continue to infect the innocence of becoming with “punishment” and “guilt” by means of the concept of the “moral world order.” Christianity is a hangman’s metaphysics.

— Frederick Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1889 (via)

Categories: Crime    Tags: · · ·

The Pleasures of Imagination

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination — to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.…

Why do we get pleasure from the imagination? Isn’t it odd that toddlers enjoy pretense, and that children and adults are moved by stories, that we have feelings about characters and events that we know do not exist? As the title of a classic philosophy article put it, how can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?

— Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination”

Categories: Art · Books    Tags: ·