“. . . here is, if not a complete course in the construction of a novel, a revelation of an artist at work—examples and illustrations so much more relevant than any conventional ‘course on the novel’ that any conscientious writer will find them valuable and instructive.”—Poet Winfield Townley Scott in the Providence Sunday Journal, late 1941
The next time you are tempted to buy or borrow another how-to book on fiction writing, do yourself a favor. Go to the Library instead and check out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumously published unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon (right), edited by the late scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli. You will be treated to wonderful writing and interesting characters, and to the thinking and craft that stood behind them—as well as to historical insights about the business of making movies.
There are two versions: the venerable Scribner trade paperback and the Cambridge University Press critical edition. Both incorporate Bruccoli’s substantial reorganization of the author’s original narrative and notes, which first were assembled for the debut 1941 edition by Fitzgerald’s Princeton University friend, the eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson. In addition to the first 17 of a projected 30 episodes of the novel, including a complete draft of Chapter 1, both the Scribner and Cambridge volumes contain fascinating, if slightly different, explanatory essays by Bruccoli, plus pages of Fitzgerald’s notes and outlines, a synopsis Fitzgerald wrote for the editor of Collier’s magazine, and more. All of the quotations used here, in fact, come from the author’s notes or the Bruccoli pieces.
Fitzgerald died, at age 44, in December 1940. During the last 13 years of his life, he worked on and off as an unsuccessful screenwriter in Hollywood. He began writing his Hollywood novel in 1939. His portrait of “the last tycoon”—a studio executive he named Monroe Stahr—was drawn from the life of Irving G. Thalberg, the “boy wonder” chief of production at M-G-M in the 1920’s and early ’30’s who died in 1936 at age 37. Stahr’s love interest is a young woman named Kathleen Moore. The book’s periodic narrator, Cecelia Brady, is the college-age daughter of Stahr’s partner in the executive suite.
The Love of the Last Tycoon takes you into the heart of a great American writer’s composing process. Fitzgerald’s secretary, Frances Kroll, told Bruccoli: “Fitzgerald’s work patterns on TYCOON started with notes; then the sorting of notes into chapters; then brief biographies of the characters; then chapter outlines and finally roughly written chapters. . . .Work on the chapter notes and outlines was interrupted many times before they were completed and before the actual writing began.”
In one of his weekly letters to his wife Zelda—who was in a sanitarium in North Carolina—in the fall of 1940, Fitzgerald wrote: “My room is covered with charts like it used to be for Tender is the Night telling different movements of the characters and their histories.” No doubt he would have been addicted, had they been available in his day, to Post-It Notes, as this writer and so many others are.
Fitzgerald, Bruccoli writes, “was a painstaking reviser whose fiction went through layers of drafts.” A note the author scribbled on the first page of his last draft of Chapter 1 read, “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted from rewriting.” There was much important work yet to be done.
One of the perplexing issues apparent in the unfinished novel is point of view. It begins with Cecelia Brady narrating in the first person. Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s legendary editor at Scribner, wrote to Zelda, however, that “as the manuscript stands, a good deal of it seems to be told directly, and not as seen or heard by his ‘heroine’ Celia [sic]. Scott would have found some way to obviate this difficulty.”
Fitzgerald set the bar high for what he wanted to achieve. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from his notes about conveying that most difficult element of all in fiction, what a character feels, in this case regarding Cecelia for Stahr:
“I would like to do some very strong, quiet writing there to describe her feelings. . . . I want to find some new method [italics added] of describing this. Some method in which everything that surrounds him assumes a magical touch, a magical quality without resorting to any of the old dodges of her touching the objects that he touches. I want her feelings to soar to the highest pitch of which she is capable and I want her in this episode to, for the benefit of the reader, to [sic] set away everything tawdry or superficial in her nature. This should be one of the strongest episodes in the book.”
Despite all of his plotting, Fitzgerald was not totally tied to his outline. “I think I’ll do my own method of ending probably on a high note about Stahr but that will solve itself in the writing.” [Italics added.]
Bruccoli states that “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s incomplete work has come to be regarded as the most promising—and the most disappointing—fragment in American fiction.”
And Perkins, writing to Wilson, said, “[A]s to Scott’s novel, it would break your heart to read it and see what beautiful and illuminating things there are in it—Scott’s old magical sentences and scenes—and realize that it is unfinished. . . .”
Let some simple description from one of those scenes serve as an example. Stahr takes Kathleen to Malibu to show her an unfinished retreat he is building, or, in Fitzgerald’s words, “the fuselage of Stahr’s house.” There, “Beyond the strip of anticipatory lawn was the excavation for a swimming pool, patronized now by a crowd of seagulls who saw them and took flight.”
Perkins, writing to the executor of Fitzgerald’s estate about the novel, said, “It is a tragedy it is unfinished. . . .It has a kind of wisdom in it, and nobody ever penetrated beneath the surface of the movie world to any such degree. It was to have been a very remarkable book.”
Indeed, The Love of the Last Tycoon, with the supporting material, is a remarkable book—for both readers and writers.—Alex McNab