Tag Archives: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reading ‘Gatsby’ as memoir

The power of the reflective narrator in novels & memoirs

The iconic first cover

The Great Gatsby is a touchstone book for me, as it is for many writers, so as I tried to rework my memoir’s prologue recently it was my instinct to reread the novel. I saw why—Gatsby is set up as a memoir, with narrator Nick Carraway’s musings in the first two pages functioning as a prologue. Fitzgerald’s famous opening lines set the novel’s elegiac tone in Nick’s voice:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

The advice is to withhold criticism, of course, which Nick says he does—thus explaining how he got the story he’s telling—and then he blithely proceeds to judge everyone throughout the novel. But this clubby voice admits its own snobbery, and draws us in. Moreover, we soon learn that Nick is removed in time and space from the events he’s going to relate. He’s somewhere to the west of the East where the action took place, and he’s speaking as much as a year later. Thus he’s not exactly the character Nick of the story who’s in the midst of the drama and doesn’t yet understand it.

Here is the older, wiser Nick of the novel’s fourth paragraph, the narrator who frames the action:

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.

On the third page we’re informed exactly where Nick is—back in his own “Middle Western city,” and thus in that that safe and distanced place said to be desirable if not necessary for memoir. Obviously it can figure in novels as well (see the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for another great example). The point here is that the writer possesses no mere story, unfolding with plot’s primitive “and then,” but instead offers a tale from someone who has meaning if not wisdom to impart along with exciting events. This is why “persona” is a more precise and useful term than “voice,” I think; the point is whose voice we hear, not what kind might be ginned up.

Perspective is Nick’s promise in Gatsby’s first pages. And we know that the man who tells us that he withholds judgments isn’t in fact the same man in the action who levies judgments. That is, the narrator knows something now that he didn’t then. He knows how Jay Gatsby’s misplaced love ruined him, and knows which supporting players properly to condemn.

Unlike civilians who are just living their lives, narrators have stories to tell—and they have the distance to weigh significance. It is strange how this literary technique of the reflective or distanced narrator does not kill unfolding plots but adds a layer of narrative depth that readers enjoy. I wonder if, like stories themselves, this facet of narrative is in our DNA? Around campfires and hearth fires, the survivor of the hunt or the battle told the tale. So we trust and we crave the authentic witness.

Nick addresses us directly throughout Gatsby, and hammers closed the novel with its famous last page and a half, in which, his trunk packed and his car sold to the grocer, he muses on Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” and the evil East itself, which has milked dry Long Island’s promise, flattened that “fresh, green breast of the new world.”

Googling “Gatsby as memoir” turned up this SparkNotes analysis:

If Gatsby represents one part of Fitzgerald’s personality, the flashy celebrity who pursued and glorified wealth in order to impress the woman he loved, then Nick represents another part: the quiet, reflective Midwesterner adrift in the lurid East. . . . Nick is also Daisy’s cousin, which enables him to observe and assist the resurgent love affair between Daisy and Gatsby. As a result of his relationship to these two characters, Nick is the perfect choice to narrate the novel, which functions as a personal memoir of his experiences with Gatsby in the summer of 1922.

Alas, like this post or any exposition about Gatsby, SparkNotes’ summaries, chapter by chapter, are dead beside this slender, lambent novel. And Gatsby is still great qua story, intricately crafted and with powerful sustained scenes, its prose piercingly lovely. Fitzgerald knew how to deploy an adjective, and no one places a semicolon—or a dash—better than he. Gatsby’s very paragraphing feels perfect.

There’s yet another movie of Gatsby in the works, with Toby McGuire as Nick; the gifted Leonardo DiCaprio will attempt a believable Gatsby. The problem with the book as a movie seems to reside in Gatsby’s “old sport” line, his awkward attempt to fit into the upper class: it feels too unreal, all the same, even in the novel. That phrase, which epitomizes Gatsby’s pose and his opaqueness as a character, in both the novel’s world and in my reading experience, is the proximate reason movie adaptations have been turkeys.

Fitzgerald died at only forty-four, in Hollywood. He was working on a new novel but considered himself washed up. When he’d published The Great Gatsby, in 1925, he was about the age of Nick Carraway, twenty-nine turning thirty. Sometime afterward he lost his way, and his middle-aged three-part essay “The Crack-Up,” which Esquire used to reprint periodically and still offers on line, is breathtaking in its despair and its sustained cynical rage.

But Gatsby survived Fitzgerald and will again survive Hollywood. It’s a book about the death of youth, but it’s such a young book, surging with feelings. Its sadder-but-wiser narrator, who’s still only thirty, is just mature enough to be a credible commentator on youth’s follies. Fitzgerald was inspired with Gatsby, was in full command of narrative craft, and slaved over its revision.

In this fable from a man ruefully musing upon his last wild summer, somehow Fitzgerald caught forever the firefly glimmer of youth’s optimism and yearnings.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, film/photography, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV

Gail Caldwell 3: more to admire

I.

The way, as I said, that Gail Caldwell employs metaphor in Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship is remarkable. Almost every page includes one.

“No, you’re not,” said Caroline, her face as deadpan as a coach’s in a losing season. “No, you’re not. Keep your hands together. Stay still—don’t look at the water, look at your hands. Now look at me.” The voice consoled and instructed long enough for me to straighten into position, and I managed five or six strokes across flat water before I went flying out of the boat and into the lake.

II.

Here’s metaphor with another virtue, well depicted: female friendship, which as a man I can only envy, having found most of my friendships with men marred by competitiveness or seeming reluctance to be as vulnerable as Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were with each other.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation. . . .

All of this seems as though it were yesterday, or forever ago, in that crevasse between space and time that stays fixed in the imagination. I remember it all because I remember it all. In crisis with someone you love, the dialogue is as burnished as a scar on a tree.

III.

Caldwell’s frankly expository style—she relies on a strong, sure voice first, and blends into scenes—works with her flair for describing the world’s feel and its beauty. This opening echoes The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald’s effortless elegance, wistful tone, and intimate voice:

After I had lived in the East for a decade, long enough to winnow the realities from the dreams, I was driving down Brattle Street one winter night at the start of a storm, when the snow was surfing the currents of a soft wind, and I had the dissonant thought that I could grow old here—something I had never thought anywhere before, and certainly not during a New England winter.

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Filed under memoir, metaphor, NOTED, syntax

Q&A: Tom Grimes on ‘Mentor’ memoir, 3-act structure & language as bedrock

From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes’s brutally honest and wonderful “Mentor.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

I might say the same for memoirists in regard to Mentor: A Memoir. This celebrated new book is the story of Tom Grimes’s life and work as a novelist and his relationship with the legendary Frank Conroy (1936–2005), whose books include the classic memoir Stop-Time and the novel Body & Soul, about a young musician. Grimes was thirty two in 1989 and working as a waiter in Key West when Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, admitted him based on a promising except of a novel in progress.

Both men were on the upswing. Grimes had been writing seriously for a decade and finally had published a few stories; at Iowa, he’d take his prose and his storytelling to a new level. After Stop-Time, in 1967, Conroy had gone almost twenty years before publishing another book, his story collection Midair, but that September an excerpt of Body & Soul appeared in GQ and at the same time one of his essays was included in Best American Essays 1989.

As a teacher, Conroy focused on the “text” and with writing at the sentence level—his mantra was “meaning, sense, clarity,” Grimes writes—and he imparted this nugget: “The writer cocreates the text with the reader. If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. So, you want to meet the reader halfway.”

Conroy plucked Grimes from obscurity because he believed in Grimes’s fiction, and from the start befriended him. In Mentor Grimes shows his initial fear and uncertainty in receiving such a gift, as well as his need to make of the complex Conroy a surrogate father. Both men had experienced unhappy childhoods—Conroy’s was chaotic and nearly tragic—and they bonded. And Conroy wasn’t only a famous writer and teacher, he was the quintessence of cool, a blithe spirit who “lacked the gene for dejection”; a heavy smoker and drinker, a professional jazz pianist, he was a natural but reluctant writer, a man whose inner self felt at risk in writing and who suffered before the “sinister urgency” of the blank page. “In his eyes,” Grimes writes, “I didn’t feel like a flaw in the scheme of things.”

Now an established author himself—his publications include five novels—Grimes writes in Mentor, “But something all along was missing—me. And this book redresses that absence. For twenty years, I believed Frank filled that absence. But he didn’t; my idolization of him did; moreover, my fictionalizing of him did. Frank is the protagonist of my best novel, and my best novel is this memoir. In the end, my memoir about Frank is a memoir about me. By writing about Frank, I could no longer turn away from myself, which is what I’ve done all my life. Now, I’m gazing at myself.”

Grimes, director of the MFA program at Texas State University, answered some questions for NARRATIVE:

The first thing I noticed about your memoir is how smoothly the narrative flows between scenes and exposition. Is that something that you have a particular talent for, or is it a skill you’ve developed from writing many novels? Do you construct such movement in rewriting, or is it a matter of working it out as you go, by feel?

“It’s a matter of working with what, after writing for twenty years, now comes to me by feel, rather than by

Tom Grimes

thinking. I wanted to compress the book to keep the reader curious about what comes next. Events don’t always appear in chronological order and I worked hard to make every transition smooth and crystal clear. I didn’t want to break a reader’s concentration. I moved sections around while editing so that the story’s sixteen years seem to pass quickly. After countless revisions, I believe I accomplished that.”

The protagonist, the character “you,” emerges right away as a testy, anxious guy; later, he suffers from depression and severe paranoia. Yet I found his brutal honesty about himself winning, and admired his courage in revealing his innermost doubts. Some memoir writers can’t—or won’t—show themselves in an unflattering light; and readers crave honesty but also seemingly want to identify with the protagonist in a memoir. Do you have any advice about achieving this balance?

“At first, I reacted angrily after meeting Frank Conroy. My anxiety and depression were always there; I simply drank to mask their effects. My paranoia came out of nowhere.  For nine months, my delusions terrified me. But I was able to describe myself in an unflattering light because I became a stranger to myself. And I stumbled upon something universal. A lot of people consider themselves failures but are afraid to admit it. Also, a relationship with a mentor seems to be a somewhat universal experience, too. So my advice to other writers is to write because you’re discovering things, not simply recalling the past.”

In Mentor you say you wrote twenty hours a week for ten years as an apprentice learning your craft. That’s over 10,000 hours—before the Iowa Writers Workshop. Do you remember your breakthroughs, or does the skill-acquisition ladder blur after so many years? As a teacher yourself, what are the first, fundamental skills you try to teach creative writing students?

“At twenty-four, I began to write every day. I found my ‘voice’ by accident one night when I was twenty-six and on my 29th birthday I completed my first novel, A Stone of the Heart. Its three hundred pages needed a lot of editing. Over time, I cut the novel to one hundred-fifty-pages, then was shocked when a publisher bought it. At Iowa I learned that language is the bedrock of every story. Now, I line edit my MFA students’ work. I’ll copy a passage, edit it, and hand out the revision. They’re always stunned by how much better a piece is once all the unnecessary language is stripped away. Also, students begin a story long before the first dramatic action occurs. Generally, the first three to five pages of a student’s story can be jettisoned. The other flaw is that they don’t follow it through to the ‘third act.’ No matter how short, every story has three acts. I make them list what happens in a story without judging it editorially. They find that they’ve spent a great deal of time on superfluous events. I make them read the first paragraph of published stories to see how quickly the action begins and I make them read every paragraph’s first line to see if they can follow the story simply from that. Usually, they can.  Clarity and revision. That’s where I tell them to start.”

It seems from reading Mentor that you learned about yourself in writing it. You indicated that, after all your fiction, you finally put yourself in your work. Was this as therapeutic as it sounds? Did you learn anything new about writing in creating Mentor?

“I never considered writing the memoir therapeutic; it was about my friendship with Frank Conroy. But when the first draft was finished I read twenty pages and thought, ‘Where’s Frank?’  That’s when my friend Charles D’Ambrosio read it and said, ‘Okay, the story is your story.  Frank is a large part of it, but he’s not the only part.’ As for writing, I learned how tightly I could depict events and describe backstory. I learned how to get into a scene as close to its end as possible, which gives the book a feeling of quickness. Emotions resonate because of this. But learning this took thirty years.”

Frank Conroy

You write of your sense of failure, yet you have published a lot, including books with big New York trade houses. Although you aren’t as famous as the scant handful of writers in a generation so blessed, you became a writer, an artist. Do you think your friendship with Frank Conroy, had he lived longer, would have ameliorated this feeling? Or is this sense intrinsic to being an artist, a practitioner in a field full of geniuses? Or is it just personal, in your case perhaps stemming from your difficult upbringing revealed in Mentor?

“It was strictly personal and my sense of failure stemmed from two things: being manic-depressive led me to think the worst of myself, and it enlarged my ambition. I wanted to be a ‘great’ writer, like Dostoevsky, Hemingway, or Pynchon. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelf their books occupy. So it’s ironic that a book about my sense of failure may be my most successful book, and after abysmal publishing experiences with large houses, publishing with Tin House has been the best experience of my life. Writing Mentor put a lot of demons to rest. I no longer feel like a failure. What can writers take away from this? If you doubt yourself, you’re not alone; and never, ever quit.”

There’s a great interview between Tom Grimes and J.C. Hallman at Bookslut, and another, with Louis Mayeaux, at Southern Bookman. The Washington Post Book World ran a rave review of Mentor by Michael Dirda. There’s a wonderful 2002 interview with Frank Conroy at Identity Theory in which he discusses his approach to writing as a career (not for him) and his admiration of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In a previous post, “Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir,” I excerpted his interview with Narrative Magazine.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, memoir, structure