On Booze

On Booze
F Scott Fitzgerald
New Directions, 86pp, £7.99

There have been many drunk writers - Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever and Hart Crane, to offer a selection of just the Cs - but none seems to have encapsulated the glamour of alcohol like Francis Scott Fitzgerald, the slight, pretty boy from the Midwest who tore into New York and gave the Jazz Age both its figurehead and its name.

It is hard to think of an author whose personal affairs possessed such similar contours to those of his times, let alone one who mapped his twinned topography so acutely in his own work. In his twenties, he lived the reckless, gaudy life of the socialite. In his thirties, he struggled with alcoholism and the schizophrenia of his wife. By the time of his death in Hollywood in 1940, his reputation could scarcely have been less secure. Tender Is the Night (1934) had failed to impress the critics and he was remembered primarily as a writer of short stories for the slicks. Rehabilitation began with the posthumous publication of his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, and these days he commands such profound popular as well as critical appeal that Kate Moss's engagement ring was modelled on the one he gave Zelda.

On Booze declares itself to be "a collection of F Scott Fitzgerald's best drinking stories", part of a set of prettily packaged back catalogues from New Directions. The description is not quite accurate. Very little here is fictional, and the collection doesn't include the feverish, troubled stories of alcohol and its aftermath that one might have expected - "May Day", "Crazy Sunday" and "Babylon Revisited" are all absent. Instead, the focus is on essays, topped and tailed with story ideas related to drinking and a couple of letters written while "stinking". ("Excuse Christ-like tone of letter," one postscript reads. "Began tippling at page 2 and am now positively holy.")

The essays date from the 1930s, when Fitz­gerald was already in deep trouble, and include "The Crack-Up" (1936), a three-part account of his breakdown which manages the neat trick of appearing searingly honest while denying his alcoholism. It is remarkable for its meticulous logging of an unquiet mind. "All in the same month," he writes, "I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in the magazines, the screech of the tracks, the dead silence of the country." Such confessionals are commonplace now, but rarely manage the melancholy originality of Fitzgerald at his best.

More beguiling are "Show Mr and Mrs F to Number -- "(1934), a memoir by way of 13 years of hotel rooms, and "My Lost City" (written in 1932), a wistful account of the author's shifting relationship with Manhattan. Like much of his work, this is filled with regret for a time that has passed without being replaced by anything better, a time that retains its lock on the imagination despite failing to come good on what it promised to deliver. This note of perverse elegy - for something once perceived as beautiful and now realised as empty - is Fitzgerald's dominant mode. It might be termed nostalgia, were it not that what is looked back on is seen to be devoid of the qualities with which it once seemed blessed.

“Whole sections of the city had grown rather poisonous," he writes, "but invariably I found a moment of utter peace in riding south through Central Park at dark towards where the façade of 59th Street thrust its light through the trees . . . But that detachment never lasted long - as the toiler must live in the city's belly, so I was compelled to live in its disordered mind."

The opening section is given over to a selection culled from Fitzgerald's notebooks: ideas, eavesdropped conversation, discar­ded scenes from novels. Some are beautifully self-parodic ("Sending orchestras second-rate champagne - never, never do it again"); others seem to capture, in a single enigmatic sentence, the essence of the Fitzgeraldian aesthetic: "The blurred world seen from a merry-go-round settled into place; the merry-go-round suddenly stopped." Even the list of titles is intriguing; who wouldn't want to read "Gwen Barclay in the 20th Century", or at least to ponder what this finest of all 20th-century stylists might have done with it if he hadn't spent himself so thoroughly on bathtub gin and the nauseating pleasures of a lush and liquid life?

Olivia Laing's "To the River" is published by Canongate (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?