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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Literary Window Lets in Fresh Look at F. Scott Fitzgerald : F. SCOTT FITZGERALD / A Life in Letters Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli , with the help of Judith S. Baughman : Scribner's $30, 515 pages

July 14, 1994|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The suitable collective noun--as in a pride of lions, a school of fish and, I suppose, a black hole of solipsists--would have to be a cloud of biographers. When enough of them drift around a large literary figure, the figure all but disappears.

It becomes hard to believe that there ever was a real person named Hemingway, so retailed and detailed has he been in the books about him. Faulkner by now is only visible in patches. As for our window on F. Scott Fitzgerald, so many scholarly and biographical noses have pressed against it that it has filmed over. To read his letters, by contrast, is like having the window thrown open. His words restore him to view.

Having published 22 books dealing with Fitzgerald's life and work, Matthew J. Bruccoli must hold a window-pressing record. But as editor of, among other things, the notebooks and a four-volume set of letters, he has done more than anyone to get the window open as well.

Four-volume letter collections are fine, but for what Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf called common readers--whose reading leaves them with a hunger for more and whose lives leave them with time for less--they are virtually a wall of silence. This one-volume selection, edited with the assistance of Judith S. Baughman, provides a way in.

What we find is only in a general sense what we expect: the relatively brief exhilarations and the long troubles of a man who put his faith in literary fortune, found it just long enough to hook it, and watched it tear away in slow motion for the rest of a short life that comes to seem interminable.

Yet under the accepted image of a Fitzgerald brilliant but fatally weak, the letters continually show the man's strength. It was not in managing his affairs, undone partly by alcoholism and his inability to cope with Zelda's madness, and much more gravely by a compulsive extravagance that could only be supported by extravagantly rewarded short stories--the Saturday Evening Post paid him today's equivalent of $40,000 apiece--that he considered hack work.

The strength, oddly enough, shows in his sense of failure. He knew he had sabotaged his brilliance, and perhaps he had. But to know it meant he knew that he possessed brilliance. The exhilaration of such knowledge, along with the faith and discipline it enjoined, continually light up the words he wrote to his friends.

Among other things, the letters show what a superb critic he could be. When such formidable practitioners as Edmund Wilson and H.L. Mencken write of their admiration for "Gatsby" and try to pinpoint the source of a slight unease, he does it for them: It is the failure to spell out Gatsby's relationship to Daisy. (Time, of course, is an even better critic: It has decided that "Gatsby" shines by what it withholds.) His page-by-page suggestions for toning down excessive bombast in Hemingway's first two novels are those of an inspired teacher.

Many of the letters distill sheer humiliation in their continual pleas for advances and more time. With "Tender Is the Night" the stalling went on for six years. There is a deeper pain and a hard-won beauty in an extraordinary letter to Zelda, written early in her successive breakdowns. The pain is transfigured; the shaky man and the prophetic artist come together in a vision that is simultaneously harsh, perceptive and profoundly compassionate.

Other letters show his fear of her power to hurt him. Of a character in her novel, "Save Me the Waltz," that was based on himself, he wrote with a loftiness that barely masked panic: "Her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a nonentity."

His sensitivity about class and his own less-than-patrician Irish lineage leads to possibly the oddest comment about James Joyce's "Ulysses" ever made. He wishes it had been set in America. "There is something about middle-class Ireland that depresses me inordinately--I mean, gives me a sort of hollow, cheerless pain. Half of my ancestors came from such an Irish strata or perhaps a lower one. The book makes me feel appallingly naked."

The collection begins with instructions to his younger sister about social success. Instead of asking her dancing partners about their schools or plans, she must remark on their long eyelashes.

Toward the end he, bombards his daughter, Scottie, with advice that only seems to be entirely different. She must take demanding courses and work hard. But she must also make sure to get along with the campus Left--and this was the late 1930s, when Left was fashionable.

Was it a matter of being as superficial as ever, with only the surfaces changed? Or was it, that if, for most artists, the genetic code to the world's tragedy is found in the heart, brain or medulla, Fitzgerald found it imprinted in the skin?

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