Ignore all The Great Gatsby hype, and read Fitzgerald’s wonderful essays instead
The prose shines more brightly than any party on Long Island.
The only time I got really close to Gatsby territory, I was hauled in by the police. I was 22 and writing a book comparing cricket and baseball. A friend had set up a meeting with Nelson Doubleday, then owner of the New York Mets, at his house in Oyster Bay, the next headland along from Jay Gatsby’s “West Egg” and “East Egg” on the North Shore of Long Island.
Being young and English, I didn’t realise that in this kind of lush American suburb, where the lawns have the manicured perfection of fairways at the Augusta National golf course, no one ever walks – not anywhere. “Pedestrians” are more likely to travel by electric golf buggy. Uninitiated, I arrived at Glen Cove station (where Audrey Hepburn returns in Sabrina after her secondment in Paris) and decided to enjoy the cloudless November morning and walk to Doubleday’s house.
Searching for the right property, trying to follow the numbers on the mailboxes, I was stopped by a police car on the presumption that I was an inept daytime burglar casually looking for an opportunity. When I explained myself, the policeman looked baffled. “Why didn’t you just get a taxi?” he snapped.
It turns out that I am in good company. There is a great literary tradition of running into difficulties with the authorities on those particular lawns in Oyster Bay. When Joseph Conrad made his only visit to America in May 1923, he didn’t venture beyond the Doubleday estate. F Scott Fitzgerald and his friend Ring Lardner were determined to pay tribute to Conrad. After quite a few drinks, they arrived at the idea that they would perform a dance for Conrad on the Doubleday lawn. Sadly, Fitzgerald and Lardner were thrown off the property without meeting Conrad or even, we assume, his getting to see the dance.
All of which reminds me that there is much more to Fitzgerald than The Great Gatsby. And that’s why, regardless of whether it distorts the novel, or misses the point, the very fact of another Gatsby film will do a disservice to its author. It will reinforce the disproportionate influence that one novel exerts on Fitzgerald’s reputation. This column will have succeeded if it diverts a tiny fraction of the present Fitzgerald fever away from Gatsby and towards two of his essays – “The Crack-Up”, much the more famous, and “Ring”, a tribute to his friend and dancing partner that day in Oyster Bay.
Ring Lardner was a humorist and sportswriter, who wrote one novel, You Know Me, Al, about a baseball player. Very famous in his day, his reputation has waned. Fitzgerald’s essay achieves a rare double. It is a generous tribute to his friend. But beneath the glow of friendship, Fitzgerald argues that Lardner wasted much of his talent. More than that, he explicitly offers an explanation.
The problem was not drink (perhaps Fitzgerald was reluctant to focus on that). Nor was it Lardner’s kindness as a man. No, it was his subject matter – its lack of range and breadth, its intrinsic unsophistication and sentimentality. The subject was sport. That’s why, when I first stumbled on “Ring” earlier this year, I read it with a kind of urgent anxiety, emboldened and nervous in equal measure. How much sport, exactly, is too much?
I’m not sure Fitzgerald is right that sport is so narrow. It is as big as any other sphere that reveals human nature. The playwright Simon Gray once wrote me a letter that ended with a gentle rebuke about the title of my book What Sport Tells Us About Life: “One thing about the title: sport is life, if you follow.”
But Fitzgerald’s deeper point holds. Sport absorbed too much of Lardner’s life at the peak of his receptivity, when his experience was most formative. “A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which those adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.”
I’m sure many writers ask themselves if they have become imprisoned by one sphere of experience. Conversely, in seeking to avoid narrowness, do they take opposite risks?
Looking back, a lot of my own decisions seem very odd from a narrowly rational point of view. Dropped by England after three Test matches in 2003, I didn’t go to the national academy to practise harder and impress the right people, but disappeared to an unfurnished room in Harvard – just a bed, a desk and a chair – to write in solitude. When I wrote about cricket, I was more honest than I would ever dare to be if I lived my cricketing career over again.
Yet I do not quite have the excuse of dilettantism. I desperately wanted to succeed at cricket. Or I thought I did. But according to the evidence of my decisions I didn’t want to succeed so much that I was prepared to make sensible career moves at the expense of living a more interesting life. I thought I believed that cricket mattered more than anything. I can now see something always pulled me away, making me live outside the sporting bubble whenever I could.
Perhaps I subconsciously understood that I couldn’t spend my entire twenties, when experience is so luminous, inside such a small box. After all, if a police car stopped me tomorrow as I was looking for someone’s house, I would probably forget about it by next week.
But I still recall everything about that incident in Glen Cove. Just as I remember an afternoon in New York’s Washington Square Park later that month. I was reading “The Crack-Up”, incredulous at the author’s condensed intelligence and a prose that shone more brightly than any party on Long Island.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)