August 17, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald: May Day

Posted in Fitzgerald F. Scott, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

Melville House’s Art of the Novella series just gets handsomer and handsomer. Of the five titles recently added, I decided to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s May Day. My previous experiences of him were limited to a couple of reads, in my younger and more vulnerable years, of The Great Gatsby, and abortive attempts to get through the many-feted Tender is the Night. (There was also the Pat Hobby stories, but what remains in my mind is not the stories but the introduction, detailing Fitzgerald’s relentless pleas for more money for their publication in Esquire. “I wish you’d wire the money if you like this story. … I’d like to do some more of these if your price made it possible.”)

May Day (described by the author as a ‘novelette’) first appeared in 1920 and was collected in Fitzgerald’s 1922 volume ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’, but this Melville House edition is the first time it has been published alone. There is to me something inherently satisfying about reading a story published alone – the sense of completeness and even occasion which it carries with it is something like the difference between seeing a film in the cinema rather than on TV.

We are introduced to a wide range of characters, though really there are only two types: the fortunate and the unlucky, the haves and have-nots. Fitzgerald could hardly make the distinction clearer than in the substantive opening chapter, which reacquaints old Yale graduates Gordon Sterrett (“his eyes … framed below with the blue semicircle of ill health, heightened by an unnatural glow which coloured his face like a low, incessant fever”) and Philip Dean (“blond, ruddy and rugged … Everything about him radiated fitness and bodily comfort”). Sterrett is down on his luck, and Dean finds that “there was something in his present misery that repelled him and hardened him, even though it excited his curiosity.” By the end of the chapter, when Dean has loaned Sterrett five dollars, “they quite suddenly and definitely hated each other.”

The setting is New York City at the end of the First World War (“There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red and rose”). The conflict is not only between rich and poor but also between soldiers returning from war and left-wing journalists. In the offices of the New York Trumpet, one of the journalists, Henry, explains to his girl Edith why the crowd of soldiers are shouting and yelling in a demonstration outside.

“All crowds have to howl. They didn’t have anybody with much initiative in the lead, or they’d probably have forced their way in here and smashed things up. … The human race has come a long way, but most of us are throwbacks; the soldiers don’t know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like. They’re used to acting in large bodies, and they seem to have to make demonstrations. So it happens to be against us. There’ve been riots all over the city tonight. It’s May Day, you see.”

Edith is one of those characters Fitzgerald does so well, probably because his satire of them only thinly masks a real fascination and affection. She is a sort of prototype Daisy Buchanan, her language “made up of the current expressions, bits of journalese and college slang strung together into an intrinsic whole, careless, faintly provocative, delicately sentimental.” Edith, who knew Gordon too, is in love with the memory of him, which doesn’t match the reality when they meet again:

“I was always queer – a little bit different from other boys. All right in college, but now all wrong. Things have been snapping inside me for four months like little hooks on a dress, and it’s about to come off when a few more hooks go. I’m very gradually going loony.”

Fitzgerald would soon know about what he wrote. His own distanced privilege is given a nod in one of the soldiers who appears in the story “named Carrol Key, a name hinting that in his veins, however thinly diluted by generations of degeneration, ran blood of some potentiality.” (Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.) In the introduction to May Day for Tales of the Jazz Age, he described it as a “somewhat unpleasant tale”, and was not satisfied that he had woven the elements of the story into a satisfying “pattern”. I can see what he means, as there is a messiness to the story (which nonetheless may diminish on rereading), but much of this is forgotten in light of the dramatic ending, which unfortunately is famous enough that I knew it before I got there. It may have inspired another American short story with a similar, and similarly famous, ending, though to say more than that would risk ruining both.

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20 Comments »

  1. Very interesting, I’m not aware of the ending so thanks for the care there.

    I may track down this 1922 collection, the title alone intrigues…

  2. Biblibio said,

    May Day – a novelette. Hmm, yes, quite intriguing with the title alone… I recently happened to find one of the novella series’ books in the bookstore and it was quite lovely, if overpriced. I typically have an issue with novellas sold as complete volumes but that might just be my own little thing… As for “May Day” itself, my Gatsby experience was enough to keep me away from F. Scott Fitzgerald for a few more years…

  3. Nick said,

    I love this collection. It certainly feels a little pricey, but it is so neat and proper and beatuiful that it is always more than worth it.

    Will read May Day now.
    The night is not only tender but also good. Though disappointing.

  4. John Self said,

    The priciness, as raised by Nick and Biblibio, I must admit has never occurred to me. I think in the UK they retail at £6.99 or £7.99, which is average (or even a little on the cheap side) for an average paperback. Yes, they’re shorter than most paperbacks, but so what? I’d rather have a short brilliant book (would pay more for it, in fact) than a long inessential one.

    Anyway, Melville House’s publisher Dennis Johnson had a little to say about the price of these and other classic reissues in the Melville House blog, here.

    In fact, publishers do indeed pay distribution costs on books sold via e-retailers, and what’s more, even Amazon returns books. And, as a publishing house struggling to keep its classics line priced at $10, I should also note that Amazon doesn’t usually discount our classics. Indeed, those distribution costs — which are fairly stable — are one reason we make less mark-up on our lower priced books (such as our inexpensive classics series) than we do on higher priced books … and one reason there aren’t a lot of publishers doing new low-priced classics lines (especially in luxe editions).

  5. Dennis Johnson makes an excellent point and I am glad you found it and quoted it. By way of example, when I went searching for Henry James The Lesson of the Master recently, I came down to three final choices: The Melville House edition for $13 (all prices Canadian), Hesperus for $16 and the hardback Everyman’s Library Collected Stories, which contained this and at least two other novellas and lord knows how many short stories — 1,280 pages in all — for $29.50. In terms of price, EL was the obvious choice but as much as I like the imprint (and I do) those 1,300 page doorstoppers of stories just aren’t to my taste. The sheer weight and number of stories seems just too much. Since I’m not price sensitive, it came down to MH or Hesperus — and with no slight to MH, the cover and design of the Hesperus were worth the extra $3 to me (I did forego some even more expensive hardcover versions — a $90 hardcover in leather was attractive but it was Vol. 15 in a series. Even I have price limits.) I do salute houses like Melville and Hesperus for making these works available and always feel guilty when I make a choice. (And I probably will eventually buy the EL edition because it will end up having stuff I just can’t find anywhere else — sigh.)

    And for those who find the $13 or $16 pricey for a novella, I will return to my previously stated (and highly self-serving) rationale. All of these classics want to be read at least three times so even if the volume only is 110 pages, you are buying a 330-page book — now the price is highly competitive. As I said, that is pretty self-serving but has always worked for me.

  6. nicknick said,

    I have the Kertész Melville volume, unread, but darn if it ain’t just the prettiest little book I own. I’ll have to start collecting the series. Thanks for the review.

    • John Self said,

      Yes nicknick, the Contemporary Art of the Novella series, with their glossy covers, are if anything even more handsome than the matt-covered ones in the series pictured above.

  7. Elizabeth said,

    Hello! I’m writing to let you know that you have been nominated for a Book Blogger Appreciation Week Award for Best Literary Fiction Blog. Please email me ASAP at elischulenburg@gmail.com for more information on your nomination. (FYI – the deadline is Friday, August 21.) Congratulations!

  8. Tony S. said,

    My favorite Fitzgerald novel is “This Side of Paradise”, also published in 1920. This novel, written when F. Scott Fitzgerald was 24 years old, has a youthful enthusiasm and love for life missing from his later work.

  9. John Self said,

    I must admit, Tony, that This Side of Paradise is not one I’ve ever considered reading, mainly because I presumed that his first novel would be an apprentice work. I tend to assume that a lot, probably without justification. Indeed, as detailed at the start of the post above, my reading of Fitzgerald is pretty patchy overall. I think I might give up on Tender is the Night for good and follow your recommendation: sometimes flawed enthusiasm can be more appealing than polished professionalism.

  10. May said,

    I agree with Tony: the best Fitzgerald can be found in his early works, especially in his short stories. Most of his last works suffer from lack of inspiration.

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks May. Perhaps the inspiration behind his later works was where his next drink was coming from – or the money with which to pay for it.

  12. How wrong those fans of Fitzgerald’s early fiction are – his later work lacking in inspiration? They struggle with more difficult subjects, perhaps, but the writing is stunning. “Tender is the Night” is the masterpiece, though it has structural flaws (as shown by their being two versions of it, one chronological, the other – preferable version – not). “This side of Paradise” has its moments but does read now as naive, an apprentice work. I’m a great fan of his second novel, the autobiographical “Beautiful and the Damned”, but in truth, all 5 novels (inc. the unfinished “The Last Tycoon”) are a joy; he started good, and got better. The stories are full of joys, but the novels are where his genius lies.

  13. May said,

    All right, I should have stated that mine was a personal preference. In any case, the argument that you bring forward suffers from the same problem as mine: it lacks logical reasoning.

  14. John Self said,

    Ah, nothing like a bit of disagreement to stir up my interest! I did look at The Beautiful and Damned in the bookshop today after reading Adrian’s comment, but I think I need to get through Tender is the Night first. And they didn’t have This Side of Paradise or I probably would have bought it instead.

  15. May said,

    A civil disagreement, though.

    I have read everything by F.S.F.

  16. […] unaware that I already had them all (I wrote about one of the new titles, Fitzgerald’s May Day, just last week.) So I thought I would distribute them to willing readers of this blog. I’ll […]

  17. […] than it is to give a sense of her densely packed but effortless-seeming work.”) . . . John Self reviews F. Scott Fitzgerald’s May Day, a novella recently reissued by Melville House. . . . In November, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx […]

  18. Christopher said,

    Perfect Day for Bananafish!

  19. Gordon Sterret said,

    Hemingway couldn’t draw!


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