Charming and obnoxious, success and failure, genius and hack, F. Scott Fitzgerald had one of the most compelling lives of all American writers. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but her husband also had a dual nature as man and artist. He could be both a generous, compassionate friend and a self-destructive show-off, both a major talent who created two of the greatest American novels, The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934), and a writer who turned out dozens of trite stories for slick magazines.
Thus, a problem facing any biographer is to strike the proper balance between Scott the drunk and Fitzgerald the artist, and André Le Vot does that well. Another problem is that this life has been frequently chronicled; Le Vot’s is one of five major biographies of Fitzgerald, the others being Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise (1951), Andrew Turnbull’s Scott Fitzgerald (1962), Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur (1981), and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love (1983). There have also been Nancy Milford’s highly regarded Zelda (1970) and three memoirs by Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s mistress during his last years. Le Vot, director of the Center for Research on Contemporary American Literature at the Sorbonne, is the leading Fitzgerald authority in Europe and worked on this biography for twenty years before its publication in France in 1979. Le Vot says that he is correcting “certain errors and gaps” in the accounts by Mizener and Turnbull, but Bruccoli’s has become the most extensively researched, most complete Fitzgerald biography. While Le Vot’s book, as translated by William Byron, is generally well written, none of the biographies are as stimulating as that by Turnbull, who presents Fitzgerald as a sort of Fitzgeraldian hero.
The virtues of Le Vot’s study derive less from his presentation of the facts of Fitzgerald’s life than from his interpretation of them. Le Vot provides extensive background concerning Fitzgerald’s ancestors, the aristocratic Southern Keys and the mercantile Midwestern McQuillans, to help explain one of the splits in his subject: “These patrician forebears’ moral heritage, reviewed and revised by a romantic imagination, can be summed up as an idealistic attitude contrasting with America’s postwar materialism—the Southern aristocracy’s traditional panache, inherited from the English Cavaliers and sharply different from the down-to-earth mercantilism of the Puritans’ descendants.” Fitzgerald is both “the thrifty Puritan who stores his harvest and thinks to prove his membership in the Elect with the marks of his success” and “the libertine cavalier who squanders his heritage and, knowing he is damned, perseveres in his folly.”
Fitzgerald’s role model in failure was his father, an unsuccessful traveling salesman who “saw himself as representing a higher order, raising his good manners and slightly restrained elegance to the status of rules of living.” Fitzgerald initially sympathized with his father’s view of himself but eventually turned against the man’s weak ineffectuality. His dislike of his father may help explain why he devoted much of his adult life to breaking those “rules of living.”
Edward Fitzgerald also caused his son to be “drawn toward men with more assertive personalities. ... He assessed the personal weaknesses revealed in this search for strong men, this nostalgia for a missing paternal image, and remodeled himself accordingly.” The first of these strong men was Father Sigourney Fay at the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey. Fay was both Fitzgerald’s spiritual and intellectual adviser, making him aware of the cultural traditions of Catholicism: “The priest brought him comfort and hope, restored his confidence in his...
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