LONDON, ONTARIO – In 2007 Ralph McInerny, the late novelist (most popularly known for his Father Dowling mysteries), and also a translator, biographer and distinguished professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, squeaked out one of the last and apparently one of the slightest of the more than 100 books he penned in his lifetime; a breezy 154-page literary survey almost offhandedly entitled Some Catholic Writers. Yet as the old saw says, “You cannot judge a book by its cover” (this one sports a reproduction of Sir Herbert Gunn’s famous group portrait of G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring and Hilaire Belloc), nor by its title or its lack of heft. Much meatier than it looks, this slim little volume contains short but profoundly well-informed and tantalizing essays on 35 very disparate writers, mostly of fiction, and is the book of its kind I return to most often when I’m casting about for new writers to check out.
Some Catholic Writers is no bland roundup of the usual suspects though some of these (like the worthy trio depicted on the cover) naturally turn up and McInerny’s take on them is unfailingly original and rewarding. He also gloms onto contemporary authors whose Catholicity had not hitherto been widely recognized (Piers Paul Read), some who faded from popular memory and deserve another look (Georges Bernanos), some who belonged to other denominations but wrote on Catholic themes with real insight (Willa Cather) and some (such as Brian Moore) who were raised Catholic and may have intellectually rejected the faith as adults but nonetheless wrote all of their days with an irrevocably baptised imagination.
In this last category would also fall F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) whom McInerny characterizes as “Catholic to the soles of his feet.” One shining emblem of this unshakeable Catholicity that McInerny cites is Fitzgerald’s “ability to gain imaginative distance from the forces that drove his own life. He had a mad American appetite for money and fun and social ascendancy, and all of these were coldly analyzed and condemned in his work. ‘The victor belongs to the spoils,’ is the mordant motto of The Beautiful and the Damned. His very style exhibits this duality, combining often in the same sentence lyricism and matter-of-factness. Pervading it all was the continuing hunger for that which the singular objects of appetite cannot give.”
Nowhere is this cruel standoff between consumerism and consummation more brilliantly elucidated than in the one universally regarded masterpiece among Fitzgerald’s five novels, The Great Gatsby which tells of a driven and shady businessman’s obsession with a previously unattainable woman whose beloved status starts to wither the moment he finally does attain her. A staple of high school and college reading lists, the book was recently and successfully filmed by Baz Luhrman of Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge fame. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, my expectations for this latest version were not high. This was the third run Hollywood had taken at Gatsby and the earlier two had badly missed the boat.
I’ve been similarly unimpressed with every film or TV adaptation so far made of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and it’s interesting to consider that both of those novels are narrated by secondary characters who describe a destructive love affair that unfolds in their circle of acquaintance; thereby providing some distance and perspective on the page that tend to evaporate when the stories are adapted for the screen. I think Luhrman attained that necessary distance by employing his customary over-the-top gifts to push this tale into the realm of the mythological and archetypal. And on that level it worked surprisingly well.
Once McInerny alerted me to Fitzgerald’s Catholic roots, remnants of his impossible-to-discard faith started turning up everywhere in his books. His very first novel from 1920, This Side of Paradise, is dedicated to Monsignor Sigourney Fay who he first met at his Catholic preparatory school and who did much to encourage the then-16 year-old Fitzgerald to see himself as a writer. The very first line of his second novel from 1922, The Beautiful and the Damned, charts the distance Fitzgerald is starting to mark from the Church but also its continuing influence: “In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at least, descended upon him.”
At McInerny’s urging – and on the very last day of my most recent visit to England when my suitcase was already dangerously crammed with literary matter - I bought a second-hand copy of Matthew J. Bruccoli’s superb and disconcertingly heavy biography of Fitzgerald from 1981, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. On the flight home I felt a little frisson of geographic proximity to a legend to read that in 1903 when Fitzgerald’s father found work in Buffalo, the then-seven year-old boy was enrolled at Holy Angels Convent and there he “fell under the spell” of Father Michael Fallon, who became Bishop of the London Diocese six years later and left his most permanent imprint on our landscape by opening up St. Peter’s Seminary in the spring of 1912.
Fitzgerald’s religious progress (or regress) can be so readily charted because the experiences and preoccupations of his lifetime unfailingly turned up in his writing – both fiction and nonfiction. This is so to an extent with virtually any writer but that tendency was taken much further with Fitzgerald, starting with This Side of Paradise, his first and rapturously received novel about flappers and the Jazz Age, published when he was just 24 years old. That same year Fitzgerald was able to finally marry the southern debutante Zelda Sayre (one of her engagement-extending conditions was that she wouldn`t marry him until he seemed capable of keeping her in high style) and the handsome young couple almost instantly became media mascots of their era.
The aura of glamour, the easy money and the fawning coverage of the press seemed great for a while but – as is the way with such things – it eventually turned on the young couple and started to exact a horrible price. They had made such a big splash that they were irrevocably fixed in the public spotlight as wild and reckless hedonists; a station in life (see Madonna) that can’t be credibly maintained for very long until your once-dazzling antics start to seem tiresome and passé and exude an unmistakable aroma of desperation. Worst of all for their long-term prospects, several seasons of effortless buzz didn’t do a thing to encourage the development of more sober qualities that would help to sustain either their marriage or Fitzgerald`s career as a writer.
When book sales fell off precipitously, Fitzgerald was condemned to churning out short stories for the slick magazines, and then started taking on thankless script-writing work in Hollywood to meet the bills for parties and booze. Aware of the violence he was doing to his literary gift by exploiting it in this way, Fitzgerald felt like a sellout and drank even more to muffle his shame, soon developing full blown alcoholism which started to mess with his ability to meet deadlines. Feeling ignored, the equally hard-drinking Zelda undertook a number of extramarital flirtations of varying intensity and then eventually cracked up and spent major portions of her remaining life in expensive psychiatric clinics.
The competition is pretty fierce but I think perhaps the saddest line Fitzgerald ever penned hailed from one of his notebooks: “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.” While it became impossible for them to live together for any length of time, the perpetually cash-strapped Fitzgerald always saw to it that Zelda was provided for and was haunted to the end of his days by the knowledge that the two of them had squandered the great love of their lives. They failed each other, they betrayed each other, they wounded each other repeatedly but in the end – and despite whatever supplementary dalliances they took part in - neither of them ever seriously considered anyone else.
Late in his life Fitzgerald wrote to their only child, Scottie, “I wouldn’t mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some graveyard. That is a really happy thought, and not melancholy at all.”
And that indeed was what eventually happened, first in unconsecrated ground, and then in 1975 at Scottie’s behest and with the authorization of Cardinal Baum of Baltimore, Fitzgerald and Zelda were reinterred in the Fitzgerald family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.
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