Fitzgerald is one of my favourite authors, and it will come as no surprise to many, I’m sure, that I will happily seize upon any of his works. This one was purchased on Books Are My Bag day last year, when I found it in the wonderful Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, and had a wonderful excuse in which to buy it. ‘Babylon Revisited’, the title story in this collection, is ‘considered one of Fitzgerald’s finest and most poignant pieces of short fiction’. The beautiful Alma Classics edition which I read includes ‘a unique selection of other tales from the final period of the author’s career’, and is comprised of fifteen stories in all.
‘Babylon Revisited’ – first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931 – incorporates many echoes and elements of Fitzgerald’s own life, and is at once fascinating and sad to read. It is set in 1930, in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the midst of the Great Depression. ‘Reformed alcoholic’ Charlie Wells is the protagonist of the piece. The main thread of the story comes when he returns to Paris ‘to convince his in-laws to give him back the daughter he was forced to abandon’. His daughter, Honoria, has been living with his sister-in-law and her family in a ‘warm and comfortably American’ apartment for a considerable time, and his wife has ‘escaped to a grave in Vermont’. Charlie is, in all essence, a changed man; he astounds old friends whom he meets in the city with the very fact that he is sober: ‘They liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength’.
We as readers get the same sense of deja vu as Charlie does on revisiting the Parisian hotel in which he spent so much time; careful descriptions abound to create a vivid picture in the mind’s eye: ‘He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty. But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more – he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it… Passing through the corridor, he heard only a single, bored voice in the once clamorous women’s room. When he turned into the bar he travelled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit; and then, with his foot firmly on the rail, he turned and surveyed the room, encountering only a single pair of eyes that fluttered up from a newspaper in the corner’. Throughout, Fitzgerald’s descriptions are sumptuous, and I was struck by the way in which he uses colour: ‘Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain… The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty’.
As with Fitzgerald’s other work, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is filled to the brim with splendid characterisation, gorgeous scenes, well-built emotion, and an ultimate air of believability. Fitzgerald is so perceptive of his characters, whether young or old. Honoria in ‘Babylon Revisited’, for example, is captured perfectly with just a few deft turns of phrase: ‘He waited in the dark street until she appeared, all warm and glowing, in the window above and kissed her fingers out into the night’. Each and every one of the tales in this collection is perfectly plotted, and they are stunning in their own right.
A wealth of differing plots and settings have been used throughout; we have natural disasters, growing up, and poverty and its effects to name but three. Fitzgerald also demonstrates how heavily engrained into society racism was. Fitzgerald is a master of the short story form; one of his ultimate strengths lies in the way in which he succinctly weaves both a present and a past for each of his characters. In this manner, it feels more often than not as though we as readers have been the companion of his protagonists throughout an entire novel, and not just a few pages of a story.