Diet Coke. Check.
A copy of "F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Short Autobiography" (Scribner), edited by James L. West III. Check.
If you're on your way to see — or see again — "Midnight in Paris," the latest film written and directed by Woody Allen, the foregoing list of items may be just the ticket.
The charms of popcorn, pop and candy are obvious — but what about the book? How might a new paperback collection of Fitzgerald's personal essays — some familiar, but others appearing for the first time in book form — enhance your pleasure in watching the gentle fable that stars Owen Wilson as an aspiring novelist whose trip to modern-day Paris is interrupted by a time warp, precipitating brushes with famous American expatriates from the 1920s such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Fitzgerald?
Tom Hiddleston, the British actor who plays Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris," does a nice job, from the way he wears elegant clothes to the way he vibrates with nervous energy. Along with his wife Zelda (Alison Pill, who unfortunately seems far too young and vacuous to portray a woman who was actually smart, talented and just as determined as her husband to be a great writer), the Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris" is the life of the party.
But what was the man really like? How did the author of classic American novels such as "The Great Gatsby" (1925) and "Tender Is the Night" (1933) get so much work done, even though he died of a heart attack in 1940 at 44 and wasted many years in an alcoholic fugue?
If "Midnight in Paris" leaves you curious about the revelers who really did change 20th century culture, then you'll be eager to dig up more information about Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. There are multiple, very fine biographies of all three (as well as a superb 1970 biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, "Zelda," by Nancy Milford), and now there is "A Short Autobiography."
Fitzgerald never wrote an autobiography, but this is the next best thing: A collection of 19 personal essays written over the course of his career. They include lighthearted, amusing pieces clearly designed to appeal to magazine editors and casual readers, as well as grimmer fare carved from the center of a broken heart.
The second kind of essay reveals a vastly talented, deeply tormented man who — no matter how fun the party or how fizzy the champagne — knew he ought to be home writing, knew he was frittering away his gifts.
He had a knack for aphorism. "The wise writer," Fitzgerald states in an essay published in 1920, just as his first novel, "The Side of Paradise" (1920), was making him famous, "writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next and the schoolmasters of ever afterward." In the same piece, he opines, "There's no great literary tradition. … There's only the tradition of the eventual death of every literary tradition. The wise literary son kills his own father."
The essays rock back and forth between sparkling cleverness and annoying coyness, between genuine insights and would-be epiphanies that can sound painfully contrived. In his nonfiction, Fitzgerald was always hyper-aware of himself, always sneaking a peek in the mirror to see how he was coming across. Born in St. Paul, Minn., he was perennially afraid of being branded a Midwestern hayseed, a rube.
Yet in his novels, he was able to let go, to forget himself and let his keen ear for dialogue and his ability to distill complex feelings into pithy sentences — a "shorthand of the heart," Andrew Turnbull once described his style — carry the day.
A brief, beautiful essay about Fitzgerald by West, editor of "A Short Autobiography," is, all by itself, worth the price of the book. "His romantic readiness for life and his gift for hope have come to embody important aspects of the American identity," West writes. "He was among the first to recognize his country's dreams of infinite possibility."
While "Midnight in Paris" offers a snapshot of the fictional Fitzgerald at the height of his fame and glory, "A Short Autobiography" tells the rest of the story. It's not always pretty, but it's real.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun