HIS IS THE FOURTH full-scale biography of F.
Scott Fitzgerald, in some ways it is the best, and with every ounce of strength in my body I pray that it is the last. Enough is enough. There is nothing left to say. The bones of poor Fitzgerald have been sifted, raked, weighed and measured long past the point of general usefulness. It is time to let him rest in peace, to still the engines of the academic and publishing industries that feed on his life and legend.
The previous biographies are those by Arthur Mizener, Andrew Turnbull and Matthew J. Bruccoli--this last published barely a year and a half ago. Each has its strengths: Mizener's as the pioneering work, Turnbull's as a portrait painted with exceptional empathy and elegance, Bruccoli's as a piece of respectful but meticulous demythologizing. Andr,e Le Vot's is a synthesis of his predecessors' and of the entire body of Fitzgerald scholarship, and as such makes a reasonable if not incontrovertible claim to being the definitive life. It also has its own intrinsic merits, most notable of which are the careful, revealing connections Le Vot draws between Fitzgerald's life and work, the thoughtful manner in which he depicts Fitzgerald as an emblematic figure of his time, and the distinctive point of view he brings to his study.
Le Vot is a Frenchman, a professor of American literature at the Sorbonne, who sees his subject in an agreeably Gallic way; his prose has a romantic resonance that suits a Fitzgerald biography nicely. He treats the years in Paris and the Riviera with particular sensitivity, and he is at a helpful remove from the pedantic competitiveness of much American Fitzgerald scholarship. He's also at a remove from American culture, to be sure, and from time to time it shows; he simply does not understand, for example, the almost holy place in American mythology occupied by the World Series, and thus he gives an unsatisfactorily offhand treatment to Fitzgerald's haunting portrayal in The Great Gatsby of the gambler who, in the Black Sox Scandal, "could start to play with the faith of fifty million people with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe."
But such lapses are surprisingly rare. Indeed, Le Vot's description of football and its central place in Fitzgerald's imagination is the most knowing and sensitive I have read: "He lost himself fervently in this ceremony, which, in a wholly satisfying way, dramatized the ideas dearest to his heart: winning personal glory in a team fight, fast and spectacular action supported by popular enthusiasm; spontaneous, coordinated use in moments of crisis of his finest qualities--intelligence, courage, decisiveness and a spirit of self-abnegation. As long as the game lasted, Fitzgerald was the man he wanted to be." He is similarly perceptive in his descriptions of Princeton (both the university as an institution and its allure for Fitzgerald), of The Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s (". . . light, witty, modish enough to please teenagers, but moral enough to appease parents"), of the Middle West (perhaps, Edmund Wilson wrote, "the only milieu" that Fitzgerald "thoroughly understands"). On the whole, Le Vot knows his America very well.
He also knows Scott Fitzgerald very well. His examination of the family's background in a "region more cultural than geographic, more mythical than historical: the South" is brilliant and telling: "Not Faulkner's violent and bloody Deep South, but the more cultivated and cosmopolitan, more delicate and romantic land of Poe, the moderate South of Maryland, in its origins a royal land, a Catholic land." The same is true of his characterization of the "latent religiosity" that so shaped Fitzgerald's writing: "His wa would be a sort of confused Neoplatonism; behind the century's chaotic semblance he would try to find not so much a moral as a luminous oneness, the glittering, lost paradise that haunts the fabric of his great works like a memory." And it is true as well of his analysis of Fitzgerald as spokesman for "a generation . . . that was impatient for change and that had rejected its predecessors' ways of feeling and living":
"Fitzgerald identified himself with this rejection of tradition, gave it a voice, a style. He became his generation's spokesman, he raced passionately toward the mirage of festival lights; at the same time he felt remorse at having transgressed his limits, having violated quasi- divine laws--an orphan awaiting his punishment and accepting it."
It was this ambivalence, Le Vot most persuasively contends, that animated The Great Gatsby, in which Fitzgerald attempted to reach "a profound explanation of why, for Gatsby, for himself, for all America, sudden accession to a way of living that was free of the old material and moral constraints had degenerated into license, disorder and corruption." Otherwise, Le Vot's analysis of that novel is intelligent but not unduly interesting, and it really does go on far too long; given the voluminous critical literature on Gatsby that already exists, is further exegesis necessary in a biography? Probably not; certainly the two chapters Le Vot devotes to this critique slow his narrative down, and readers doubtless can skip over them to no great loss--except that they do contain a provocative discussion of Fitzgerald's use of popular music and its "incomparable power to fix special moments in our memories, to revive in us feelings we thought were dead but that flood back into our minds in all their poignant nostalgia when we happen to hear an old melody again."
Le Vot is also good on the sad decade and a half from Gatsby to Fitzgerald's death: the terrible strains in his marriage to Zelda (". . . a love that was forever threatened, forever reborn"), the affair with Sheilah Graham that brightened his last years, the "capacity to suffer and survive like an exhausted long-distance runner" that made it possible for him to relight the flame of his talent just as it seemed to have been extinguished. He quotes James Thurber: "He thought of his talent as something that could be lost, like his watch, or misland like his hat, or slowly depleted, like his bank account, but in his last years there it still was, perhaps surer and more mature than it had been before."
Other things Le Vot does less well. Maxwell Perkins, one of the most important people in Fitzgerald's life, is a phantom here; not merely is no portrait of him provided, not even a thumbnail, but there is absolutely no discussion of the fight Perkins had to wage inside Scribner's in order to publish This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's first novel. Le Vot's prose style is attractive, but it is at once incongruous and outrageous to find in a biography of so skilled and sensitive a writer as Fitzgerald the repeated use of that execrable coinage, "life- style"; whether this is the fault of Le Vot or his translator, I do not know.
Perhaps the biography's most serious flaw is its lack of documentation. Though Le Vot is to be commended for keeping footnotes and other scholarly apparatus to a minimum, his failure to provide anything even approximating a complete bibliography of secondary sources is thoroughly irresponsible. Not all of his insights and interpretations are original--not by a long shot--but in many instances he declines either in the text or the notes to identify the original source. Because all the evidence indicates that he is a meticulous and honest scholar, this is out of character and unnecessarily detracts from what is otherwise the most complete one- volume account of Fitzgerald's endlessly evocative life.