February 23, 2018

Joyce, Fitzgerald, Jumping

On this day in 1928 Sylvia Beach hosted a dinner party in order that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who "worshipped James Joyce, but was afraid to approach him," might do so. In her Shakespeare and Company memoir Beach delicately avoids describing what happened, although she perhaps suggests an explanation: "Poor Scott was earning so much from his books that he and Zelda had to drink a great deal of champagne in Montmartre in an effort to get rid of it." According to Herbert Gorman, another guest and Joyce's first biographer, Fitzgerald sank down on one knee before Joyce, kissed his hand, and declared: "How does it feel to be a great genius, Sir? I am so excited at seeing you, Sir, that I could weep." As the evening progressed, Fitzgerald "enlarged upon Nora Joyce's beauty, and, finally, darted through an open window to the stone balcony outside, jumped on to the eighteen-inch-wide parapet and threatened to fling himself to the cobbled thoroughfare below unless Nora declared that she loved him."

Beach, and almost everyone, liked and lamented Fitzgerald in equal measure: "...With his blue eyes and good looks, his concern for others, that wild recklessness of his, and his fallen-angel fascination, he streaked across the rue de l'Odéon, dazzling us for a moment." Joyce was alarmed at the falling-angel side -- "That young man must be mad," he later told Beach. "I'm afraid he'll do himself an injury some day" -- but he handled the American exuberance with Old World charm. When Fitzgerald sent him a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a few days later, asking for a dedication, Joyce sent back this note: "Herewith is the book you gave me, signed, and I am adding a portrait of the artist as a once young man with the thought of your much obliged but most pusillanimous guest."

Several years earlier Fitzgerald had written his editor, Max Perkins, that he was pledged to writing "something really NEW in form, idea, structure -- the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for, that Conrad didn't find." This was after The Great Gatsby, when it was clear that neither the reviews nor the sales were going to be what he had hoped: "Some day they'll eat grass, by God!" Writing to Perkins about his dinner with Joyce, Fitzgerald said that he took heart from hearing Joyce say that his next book would take three or four more years to complete. Fitzgerald's next and last novel (but for the incomplete The Last Tycoon) was Tender is the Night -- not the "model for the age" that he had hoped. He would die of a heart attack at age forty-four, just three weeks before Joyce would die suddenly at age fifty-eight. In the Modern Library's Top 100 list for the century, the first three books are Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Zelda did not share her husband's enthusiasm for Joyce. When undergoing treatment for her first breakdown -- this was 1930, several years after the dinner -- she asked Scott to choose her some books, carefully: "I have been reading Joyce and find it a nightmare in my present condition. . . and not Lawrence and not Virginia Wolf [sic] or anybody who writes by dipping the broken threads of their heads into the ink of literary history, please." Several years later, Joyce's daughter, Lucia would have the same psychiatrist as Zelda, stay for a time in the same Lake Geneva clinic, and also be diagnosed as schizophrenic.

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