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The curious case of Benjamin Button, and six…

The curious case of Benjamin Button, and six other stories (Penguin Modern…

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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This selection of seven short stories, which includes pieces published in 1920 and 1922, plus one from 1932, was issued to coincide with the title story's appearance as an Oscar-nominated film. Written in the interwar period often termed the Jazz Age, their abiding scent is bittersweet, an adjective frequently applied to Fitzgerald's work (though I have to confess this is my first ever taste of it). Despite in most cases their being almost a hundred years old the whiff of nostalgia is often overwhelmed by the smells of busy streets, the tang of disappointed relationships and the stench of hypocrisy (which is an everlasting odour).

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922), despite being the item designed to hook the modern reader, is to me the weakest of the stories. It is a one-trick show, an extended tale on how it would be if an individual could live their life backwards. Fitzgerald obviously had fun not only planning out the timeline for this regressive existence but also playing up the reactions of others -- appalled reactions, petty resentments, stubborn prejudices and insistence on rejecting the evidence of their senses. At a superficial level it is a comedy of manners (ultimately tinged with the inevitable melancholy) as Benjamin intermittently becomes a nine day's wonder until the public's interest wanes or memories fade. As a fantasy though, let alone a wouldbe philosophical statement, it is a metaphor shot with plot holes and extended beyond its proper elasticity.

Head and Shoulders (1920) is another tale where the structure largely determines the narrative instead of the narrative growing organically. Horace Tarbox and Marcia Meadow are two proverbial opposites who attract each other, he a scholarly nerd and she an actress in musicals. As time goes on, however, they somehow reverse roles, with him becoming an entertainer and her a celebrated writer. I wish however we could have seen it as much from her point of view as his -- the story ends with him wishing the two had never met. However, the tale is amusing enough, if unlikely, and despite its direction becoming as obvious as the nose on your face I found myself intrigued by how Fitzgerald would carry it off.

The next story from 1920, The Cut-Glass Bowl, is altogether different, a tragedy seemingly brought about by a self-fulfilling prophecy when actually it is human weakness that is to blame. The object in question was a gift accompanied by this portentous speech: "Evylyn, I'm going to give a present that's as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through." This cursed holy grail of a piece signals a trajectory that leads through betrayal, misjudgement, injury and bereavement all the way to death. A powerful tale, then, spiralling towards its shocking conclusion. Another of the 1920 offerings, The Four Fists, is its fairer twin, in which four punches to Samuel Meredith's face provide the precise stimuli to give him in his otherwise privileged existence valuable life lessons which no money could buy.

May Day takes us back to 1922, and is the longest item in this collection. At first sight a series of vignettes set against the 1919 May riots in Cleveland, Ohio, we soon discover that the lives of individuals from these vignettes intersect. They are bound together by the enigmatic character of Gordon Sterrett, a veteran of the First World War down on his luck and looking to former Yale associates to help him out. In the canyons of the city mobs roam, looking for socialist and Jewish scapegoats to assuage their discontent, alternating with New Haven graduates celebrating the first of May with a Yale Gamma Psi dance. Fitzgerald explores the interactions of young men and women from different backgrounds, with different passions and different agendas, and his scrutiny is penetrating and, at the end, a pessimistic one.

Kilmarnok [sic] bookstore in St Paul, Minnesota was apparently the model for the Moonlight Quill Bookshop in Fitzgerald's 'O Russet Witch'. Although a St Paul's native he chose to relocate it to New York, and describes it as “a very romantic little place, considered radical and admitted dark ... truly a mellow bookshop.” In this rather Gothick sanctum we are introduced to Merlin Grainger, whose hopeful but ultimately pathetic story is paraded before our eyes. Entranced by Alicia Dare, the exotic russet witch of the title (whom he thinks of as Caroline) he instead settles for the more mundane Olive Masters. Over the decades brief encounters with 'Caroline' make him wonder what kind of life he could have led. Do we feel sorry for him? Do we wonder what we would have done instead? If we too had resisted temptation would we be happier now or more embittered?

Crazy Sunday (1932) is the last and latest of the short stories in this collection. It is a world-weary reflection on the madness of Hollywood, realistic in many ways, and yet has a similar morality-tale feel to it that many of the other tales in this selection exhibit. Joe Coles is a screenwriter whose career we follow in a series of vignettes all taking place on a Sunday. Miles Calman is the great movie director -- gifted, successful, idiosyncratic, unpredictable -- whom Coles has much to do with professionally. Last in the triangle is Stella, Miles' wife, with whom Coles is much drawn to. But, as the title suggests, things don't proceed normally.

I found these stories captivating for their onward narratives, their strong distinctive characters and their evocation of a period now long gone but with aspects many of which still remain with us -- films, bookshops, teeming cities, provincial life -- the sweet shock of recognition. But how soon things can turn sour, or else putrefy slowly as lives turn to regret, confusion and bitterness.

https://wp.me/s2oNj1-button ( )
1 vote ed.pendragon | Dec 13, 2017 |
'A master of the American short story'
By sally tarbox on 19 Aug. 2012
Format: Paperback
Absolutely brilliant writing: Fitzgerald seizes your total interest from the first sentence of each story.
For me, the most insightful parts were the author's observations on growing old and how we fool ourselves in 'The Russet Witch'. When Merlin sticks with a tedious job in a bookshop all his life, and follows the expected path of marriage and family, ending up as manager on $50 a week:
'Looking back, he saw his own progress toward this hill of elation no longer as a sometimes sordid and always gray decade of worry and failing enthusiasm and failing dreams, years when the moonlight had grown duller in the areaway and the youth had faded out of Olive's face, but as a glorious and triumphant climb over obstacles which he had determinedly surmounted by unconquerable willpower...Half a dozen times he had taken steps to leave...and soar upward, but through sheer faint-heartedness he had stayed on. Strangely enough he now thought that those were times when he had exerted tremendous persistence and had 'determined' to fight it out where he was.' ( )
  starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
The Penguin Modern Classics edition of The curious case of Benjamin Button, and six other stories is a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Head and Shoulders", "The Cut-Glass Bowl" and "The Four Fists" are taken from Flappers and Philosophers (1920), while "The curious case of Benjamin Button", "May Day" and "O Russet Witch" are taken from Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). To these is added the uncollected short story "Crazy Sunday", which was first published in 1932.

This was a partial reread, as I had already read "The curious case of Benjamin Button" and Flappers and Philosophers. I was merely interested in "O Russet Witch" and "Crazy Sunday".

"O Russet Witch" is a short story, but tries to tell a life-time history, so it is a bit peculiar that the frivolous young man and woman at the beginning of the story meet again at the end with wrinkled faces, forty years on in their lives. The story reads more like a synopsis for a novel, but even then would probably not be substantial enough. However, the message of "O Russet Witch" seems a bit top-heavy and with its moral lesson it stands out as a rather odd tale among the other more frivolous short stories. Then, since the setting of "O Russet Witch" is a book shop, quaintly appropriate as most of F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories seem to be set in places where the jet-set whiles away its time, some book lovers might find this story interesting.

Said to be characteristic of the Roaring Twenties, the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald are very well-written, but rather lacking in substance. ( )
  edwinbcn | Jan 8, 2014 |
I originally bought this book because I recalled that there had been a movie made of the title story and I was interested to see how a short story could be made into an entire film. I’m still not really sure on that account, because I haven’t seen the movie of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button! (Although I would like to see Brad Pitt getting younger). The title story is probably the best in this collection of short stories, as it takes an unusual event (a baby being born old and getting younger as he ages) and explores the various problems (social murmurs, sons being embarrassed of their fathers etc.).

The other stories in this book I didn’t find quite as memorable, although they all have the common Fitzgerald element of sadness running through them. Fitzgerald is still as sharp as ever, cutting to the quick the problems of society, such as appearance (much is made of what people will think about Benjamin Button and indeed, he is hidden or explained as another relative to many people). Benjamin’s son is horrified that his father wants to go to college (being rejected as an old man when he is the ‘correct’ age) and the baby Benjamin is often hidden out of sight.

There has been suggestion that the story looks at the before and after effects of returned servicemen from World War I – looking young, but being internally old due to what they went through. I’m not really into analysis, but it’s an interesting idea.

The other short stories…well, it was interesting to read them but they didn’t have the original idea of Benjamin Button. There are callous relationships, partying and deep sadness, much like The Beautiful and Damned. Good to read if you like Fitzgerald and want to read everything he ever wrote, but not a necessity. It was a good way to pass time on public transport though!

  birdsam0610 | Jun 19, 2012 |
I’ve seen the film of this story twice, and never really felt much affinity with it, and now I’ve read the book I realise that this is simply down to the fact that the original story doesn’t particularly lend itself to being made into a film. Fitzgerald has a certain flair that needs to be read, or at least not mangled slightly, projected onto the silver screen, and dressed up with bells, whistles and Brad Pitt. It worked much better in my own imagination. The other stories were equally well-written, happily, and overall it was a great little read. ( )
  pokarekareana | Dec 26, 2010 |
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Revealing the breadth of F. Scott Fitzgerald's gift for the short story form, this Penguin Classics edition of The Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories spans multiple genres and styles to dazzling effect. Full grown with a long, smoke-coloured beard, requiring the services of a cane and fonder of cigars than warm milk, Benjamin Button is a very curious baby indeed. And, as Benjamin becomes increasingly youthful with the passing years, his family wonders why he persists in the embarrassing folly of living in reverse. In this imaginative fable of ageing and the other stories collected here - including 'The Cut-Glass Bowl' in which an ill-meant gift haunts a family's misfortunes, 'The Four Fists' where a man's life shaped by a series of punches to his face, and the revelry, mobs and anguish of 'May Day' - F. Scott Fitzgerald displays his unmatched gift as a writer of short stories. 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button', originally published in 1922, was made into a major motion picture directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) has acquired a mythical status in American literary history, and his masterwork The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be the 'great American novel'. In 1920 he married Zelda Sayre, dubbed 'the first American Flapper', and their traumatic marriage and Zelda's gradual descent into insanity became the leading influence on his writing. As well as many short stories, Fitzgerald wrote five novels This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and the Damned, Tender is the Night and, incomplete at the time of his death, The Last Tycoon. After his death The New York Times said of him that 'in fact and in the literary sense he created a "generation" '. If you enjoyed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you might like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, also available in Penguin Classics. 'A master of the American short story' The Philadelphia Enquirer 'His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings' Ernest Hemingway… (more)

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