It’s hard enough convincing people to read finished novels much less unfinished ones — though perhaps our cultural obsession with The Great Gatsby is reason enough to republish F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon. The partial manuscript now appears alongside his personal essay The Crack Up in one slim volume. Read the former but discard the latter.
I loved Tycoon the first time I read it, though I’m a Fitzgerald addict and was once mistaken for his grandson one summer while drinking champagne at the Trois Couronnes in Vevey. I claim no relation and attribute the mistake to my Puritanical upbringing: that is, my being overdressed and having combed my hair. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy in The Last Tycoon, indeed the same elements that characterize all of Fitzgerald’s work.
The novel is narrated by Cecilia Brady, university student and daughter of an executive of an influential Hollywood studio. She is inexhaustibly in love with Monroe Stahr, a kind of Agamemnon of Golden Age Hollywood. Stahr is the last tycoon, a demi-god, a film producer. Obsessed with churning out moneymaking pictures week on week, Stahr is also haunted by his wife’s death. Will Cecilia win Stahr’s affection? If you read this reprint, you might think she does.
But this contravenes the first of Fitzgerald’s hallmark themes, epic characters attempting to achieve the impossible. Stahr never forgets his first wife. We never do recover from the death of those we love. Just like Cecilia never manages to possess Stahr, despite the trappings of a marriage. This is all evident in the original publication of Tycoon, edited by Edmund Wilson and released in 1941. It included a chart Fitzgerald drew to outline the plot as well as character sketches of Stahr, Cecilia, and others.
Despite assured failure, Stahr isn’t a cynic. One of his pick-up lines: “I knew the first time I saw you that you were the kind that likes me…It’s just the whole way you’re made.” He manages to talk like this because he really means it. Cecilia is equally earnest. She dresses in riding clothes in an attempt to win Stahr’s attention, confiding that, “My heart was fire, and smoke was in my eyes and everything, but I figured my chance at about fifty-fifty.” Self-confidence prevents these two from quitting.
It also makes their failure that much more painful. But we aren’t afforded the chance to see the consequences of their actions. The novel ends barely halfway through (27,000 of a projected 51,000 words). Can you imagine appreciating Gatsby without finding his body in the swimming pool? What is accomplished, then, by removing the notes and sketches, is far more than a pruning but a sterilization of a work in progress. And to make matters worse, on comes The Crack Up.
The Crack Up is a personal appeal, an undressing. Fitzgerald uses vague terms to describe his life at forty years of age and confesses an inability to “see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” It is a plaintive nihilism coming from the man who would begin Tycoon in two years time. And his conclusion is to adopt the motto “Cave Canem” and retreat into a forced unsentimentality in what is perhaps the most sentimental personal essay written by a literary figure. Hemingway and Dos Passos considered it whining. I agree.
There is no difference between the world of The Crack Up and The Last Tycoon. What changes is the response. Stahr wants the impossible, just like we do. This is why at the end of stories like Gatsby and Winter Dreams and The Rich Boy we feel empathy, true loss, depredation. The definitive edition of Tycoon (Matthew Bruccoli, Cambridge University Press, 1993) includes a letter from Fitzgerald to his wife, dated two months before his death. It reads, “I am deep in the novel, living in it, and it makes me happy…two thousand words today and all good.” He obviously had not given up either.
The Love of the Last Tycoon, The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald is published by Capuchin Classics (£9.99)