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BOOK REVIEW

'Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Work and Days' and 'A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition'

July 26, 2009|Matthew Shaer | Shaer last wrote for The Times on the German writer Hans Fallada.

Fitzgerald

and Hemingway

Work and Days

Scott Donaldson

Columbia University Press: 496 pp; $32.50

A Moveable Feast

The Restored Edition

Ernest Hemingway

Edited with an

Introduction by

Sean Hemingway

Scribner: 240 pages; $25

--

In 1936, the year his wife, Zelda, was committed, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote "The Crack-Up," an account of his own unraveling, for Esquire. Life, he explained, is composed of events we can't control. But "there is another sort of blow that comes from within -- that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again."

As Scott Donaldson reports in "Fitzgerald & Hemingway: Work and Days," the reaction to Fitzgerald's confession was largely dismay. The New Yorker dismissed his "picturesque despondency"; Fitzgerald's first girlfriend urged the novelist to get a grip. "When you're dead, you're dead, my pet, so why not enjoy it while you're here," she wrote.

Others were not so politic. "I always knew he couldn't think -- he never could -- but he had a marvelous talent and the thing is to use it -- not whine in public," Ernest Hemingway wrote to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner. Years earlier, Fitzgerald had urged Perkins to publish "The Sun Also Rises," a favor Hemingway never forgot.

But as Hemingway's reputation grew -- and Fitzgerald became enmeshed in personal tragedy -- the men drifted apart. Such was their relationship that Hemingway saw nothing wrong with excoriating his former friend in the story "Snows of Kilimanjaro," published later in 1936. Fitzgerald, Hemingway's narrator laments, thought the rich "were a glamorous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that had wrecked him."

Fitzgerald objected to the portrayal, but Hemingway scoffed. He had long figured Fitzgerald as fatally soft. Fitzgerald died a few years later at 44 -- a victim, appropriately enough, of a weak heart. His last royalty check, for $13.33, represented sales of 40 books, Donaldson notes, many of which had been purchased by Fitzgerald himself.

A former English professor, Donaldson has devoted much of his career to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In the introduction to "Work and Days," he recalls coming to academia determined to explicate his favorite authors for a wider audience. He has succeeded, with a few missteps: A 1999 book, "Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship," was described by the New York Times as a "cheesy chronicle of calamity and waste."

The splendid, erudite "Work and Days" is intended as a retrospective. Structured chronologically, it is split between Hemingway and Fitzgerald: The former is the subject of 13 essays, and the latter, 11. Unlike in "The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship," Donaldson does not bring his subjects together. The result, paradoxically, is to cast more light on their bond, not less.

Donaldson shows, for instance, how deeply both men believed in the lost cause. In an essay on "For Whom the Bell Tolls," he compares Hemingway's experience in the Spanish Civil War to that of his doomed protagonist, Robert Jordan. For Jordan, war "gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely." He is not naive: He believes in the Republic while also believing it is doomed. And he knows that innocents have been slaughtered -- at one point, he wonders how many of the men he's killed were "real fascists."

But in the end, it is the fight that matters. "Belief was very much at issue, for the Republicans needed a secular faith to replace the religion they [had] left behind," Donaldson writes of Jordan. So too of Hemingway, who cherished the spark of the fight, especially when the odds were long. In contrast, the accepted view of Fitzgerald is that he was too beautiful and self-concerned to be interested in any cause save his own. Yet Donaldson argues that Fitzgerald, too, was enamored by the poetry of defeat. As a young man, he wrote on the Old South and the Confederacy, and his masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby," was an elegy for the American Dream, the greatest lost cause of them all.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald, in fact, had much in common: Both were Midwesterners; both believed their fathers were failed men and sought to compensate for the slight; both were uncomfortable with celebrity; both adopted poses -- the warrior and the bon vivant -- that were shattered on the public stage.

And both were relentless revisers. That flies in the face of another truism about Fitzgerald: that he was a genius who played more than he worked. Donaldson shows that he threw himself into his books. In the case of "Tender Is the Night," it took a "long, tortured accumulation of history and ideas and personal experience" before the novel was complete.

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