"Nothing could survive our life"; these words Zelda Fitzgerald wrote to her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald, a year before his death. It was an early elegy to their life together; the copious drinking and partying for the 15 or so years they lived together drove them to a sad, sad end. How much of Scott's talent was dissipated due to their life style, both in America and in France? Could they have been saved from ruin if they had been able to control their drinking? I suppose we'll never know if Scott would have produced even more great novels and if Zelda would have produced her own work, past the autobiographical novel she did write.
Sarah Churchwell has written an excellent, though somewhat confusing, book about the Fitzgeralds, "The Great Gatsby", the "Roaring 20's" and the Jazz Age. Oh, and also about the notorious (for the time) "Hall-Mills" murder case of 1922. What did the murder of a married New Jersey minister and his married girlfriend have to do with the Fitzgeralds and the writing of "The Great Gatsby"? Not much that I can see, although Churchwell tries to make the case that the murders somehow influenced Fitzgerald's viewing of the rich world of Long Island high society. And this is where Sarah Churchwell goes wrong. Her story of the Fitzgeralds and their milieu - both real and fictional - does not need the Hall and Mills murders to be told.
I can't imagine the conversation between Sarah Churchwell and her editor and publisher when she approached them with the story she was writing about the Fitzgeralds and their age...and the Hall and Mills murder case. Surely someone involved in the project tried to tell Churchwell that the theory about the murders influencing Fitzgerald's writing was just not important - or provable - enough to be explored as part of the book. On the other hand, Sarah Churchwell did write the book she wanted to write, so there's that satisfaction.
Anyway, most of Sarah Churchwell's book about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby", and their times is well worth reading. But just consult Wiki about the Hall-Mills murders and skip that part of the book.
This is an interesting read but it's perhaps trying to do too many things at once which serve to detract from, rather than strengthen, its import and impact. Churchwell is writing a biography of the Fitzgeralds, especially during the year of 1922 when the Great Gatsby was set, even though it wasn't written and completed until a few years later. She is also offering interpretations and readings of the novel itself, alongside contextual information on e.g. prohibition, the gangster-crooks who built America etc. And, as a third and major strand, she excavates an unsolved murder that took place in 1922 and which she rather forces into what remains a tenuous relationship with Fitzgerald's novel.
The narrative itself is fragmented with short sections mimicking the scrapbooks which the Fitzgeralds themselves kept, and the constant switching between the various stories does give this a slightly bitty feel, as if it's written for a presumed hyperactive audience with a short attention span.
That said, this is a lively read which captures the frenetic atmosphere of the 1920s, and the way Fitzgerald himself lived, encapsulated and helped to construct the idea of the Jazz Age. I especially liked the way Churchwell makes extensive use of Fitzgerald's own words from letters, essays and other writings - though her refusal to use footnotes means that it's a little fiddly to trace the sources as we need to go though separate notes sections and then a bibliography.
Churchwell's articulation of the relationship between art and life is nuanced rather than simplistic: this would be a good read for anyone wanting to know more about the fascinating Fitzgeralds, the evolution of The Great Gatsby, and the world which it depicts.
"The Great Gatsby" was first published in 1925, but Fitzgerald set the novel in 1922, when he and Zelda returned to New York. Fitzgerald was planning his new novel and he wanted to do something different - it would take him two years to finish Gatsby and, in a way, this is a biography of a novel. For, in this book, the author cleverly takes us through the time that Scott and Zelda spent in New York - the events that influenced him and the eighteen months he spent in Great Neck, just outside the city.
1922 was a remarkable year, which began with the publication of "Ulysses" and ended with "The Waste Land". This book seeks the origins of Gatsby, reconstructs the Jazz Age, and shows how Fitzgerald reflected the stories around him. The major news story at that time was that of the murder of Eleanor Mills, a married woman, and her lover Edward Hall; who were shot through the head near an abandoned farmhouse, their love letters scattered around the corpses. The murder of the adulterous couple held America spellbound and was in the newspapers for virtually the entire time that Fitzgerald was in New York.
When Scott and Zelda decided to look for a house in Great Neck, it was a former fishing village that was becoming popular with the rich and famous - "the Hollywood of the East" and which he re-named 'West Egg' in his novel. His time there is exhausting to even read about, with a backdrop of financial swindles, scandals and fads, car accidents, bootleggers, speakeasies, endless parties, bad behaviour and epic drinking binges. Throughout "Careless People", Sarah Churchwell ties everything together into how it relates to The Great Gatsby, with the chapters of her book corresponding to the chapters of the novel. As the murder trial which fascinated the country descended into debacle, the parties blended into one another - of one party, Zelda wrote, "nobody knew whose party it was. It had been going on for weeks..."
Eventually, the Fitzgerald's decided to leave for Europe, so Scott could work in peace. That, anyway, was the plan. "I've been unhappy but my work hasn't suffered from it," he wrote to his publisher when the novel was finished. Indeed, it hadn't suffered, far from it. Obviously, this book has been released now to tie in with the new film version. Whether you are coming to Gatsby through watching the film or have long been a lover of the novel, you will find this book about how and when Gatsby was written fascinating. Equally interesting, is the story of the murder investigation and trial, which the author follows throughout. Overall, this is a fascinating account of a bygone era and the story behind a great work of literature.
on 31 July 2013
A fascinating book underpinned by thorough research. Ultimately one marvels how such an alcohol befuddled F Scott Fitzgerald could, nevertheless, produce such a well crafted novel.
on 27 February 2014
I found CARELESS PEOPLE in the New Fiction section of my local Barnes and Noble. Interested by all things dealing with THE GREAT GATSBY, I was surprised to discover, whilst thumbing through the book, that it was actually a work of non-fiction! Why then was it so prominently displayed in the store's fiction section? Could it be the cover, which has a definite fictive noirish look to it - like the cover of something by a Raymond Chandler aspirant? Yes, perhaps the cover threw the shelf-stocker that day? Or perhaps the shelf-stocker had read an advance copy of the book and felt that its main conceit - that a sensational, sleazy, true-life double murder in 1922 got into F. Scott Fitzgerald's blood as effortlessly as the oceans of booze he drank and swam in throughout his short life and came out bullet-hole bleeding ink when he came to write his masterpiece - yes, perhaps the store employee had knowledge of the book and judged it to smack more of fiction than of fact, and therefore put it in its proper place. Or maybe someone working in the store was just...careless!
CARELESS PEOPLE's subtitle is: MURDER, MAYHEM, AND THE INVENTION OF THE GREAT GATSBY. So the book's hook of the Hall-Mills murder case is a huge cornerstone in Sarah Churchwell's construct. Ms. Churchwell makes clear in her Preface that only a "handful of scholars" have considered the connection between the actual murders and those in Fitzgerald's novel in "brief articles, and in few footnotes." Perhaps out of genuine sincerity or the revelation of a way to boost sales or even a bit of both, Ms. Churchwell runs with the notion and weaves the murder case throughout her book which is centrally about the writing of THE GREAT GATSBY and the myriad influences that aided and abetted in its "invention." Also in the Preface, Ms. Churchwell admits that never "did Fitzgerald ever suggest, in any documentary source, that the murders of Hall and Mills had anything to do with THE GREAT GATSBY, and in the MAN'S HOPE outline he might even seem to deny it." The MAN'S HOPE reference is about an outline of GATSBY that Fitzgerald scribbled in the back of the Malraux book in 1938. The outline offers insight into the sources for each of the nine chapters in GATSBY. VIII's entry reads: "The Murder (inv.)" This would seem to indicate that Fitzgerald is telling us that the murders in his novel were invented by him. However, this "outline" was written in a 1938 edition of Malraux's book - and given that GATSBY was published in 1925, perhaps the inspirational source for the triple death in the end of GATSBY was by then forgotten by Fitzgerald? Perhaps the source - especially if subliminal - may have been victim of his many boozy blackouts? Or did Fitzgerald parenthesize the abbreviated word "invention" to help hide the actual inspiration, so as to seem all the more a writer capable of active imagination without constant recourse to the actual?
Although Ms. Churchwell makes a fair case for the connection, it is - in truth - too tenuous to warrant its way into the subtitle and subtext of her larger work. Then again, in a world over-flowing with books about Fitzgerald and his greatest creation, Ms. Churchwell may have felt her book would have a longer shelf life if it had something to set it apart from all those others. It's like books about Jack the Ripper: to generate and guarantee sales an author needs a new suspect to finger. There is even a book in-all-seriousness saying that Lewis Carrol was Jack the Ripper! Anyway, by the end of the book now under discussion it seems that Ms. Churchwell only half-believes the importance of the Hall-Mills murder case and its relevance to the writing of GATSBY. I say this because there is no determined summing up, no closing statement with regards to the suspected synergy between the fact and fiction that is heralded in the book's subtitle and in its dust-jacket synopsis. Her thesis simply runs out of steam - and, somewhat out-of-sorts stylistically with the rest of the book, the closing chapters read like the traditional biography of Scott and Zelda. The colorful, intriguing and interesting "scrapbook" style of the entire rest of the book is dropped, making things in the closing portions seem somewhat off kilter.
But despite the often tedious and tenuous premise promised by the book's subtitle, CARELESS PEOPLE is a mostly engaging and educational read. With its scrapbook style - done in homage to the fact that the Fitzgeralds kept their own scrapbooks of ephemera - Ms. Churchwell admirably offers us the atmosphere and ambiance of the years covered, giving us a sense of the simultaneity of histories and happenings, a macroscopic vision of an enormous time and place that found its rich, intoxicating distillation in F. Scott Fitzgerald's miracle of a book - a book that, while very much of its time and place, also transcended both and is now a star in the firmament of World literature, shining gaudily yet greatly and for all time. Ms. Churchwell is to be commended for the depth and breadth of her look at Fitzgerald's masterpiece.
on 11 December 2013
I loved this book - I felt something was missing from my life when I'd finished it. I felt that I had a better understanding of the Great Gatsby after reading about the life of the Fitzgeralds and America at the time of its writing - but mostly I just really enjoyed the story. It was easy to get lost in the story while at the same time learning about American history (the first use of words/phrases that I'd considered to be much more recent, for example, was a surprise). The book takes the reader through the life of the Fitzgeralds from around the time of their marriage through their lives. It tells us the lives of a couple, through fun, passion and sadness, how the book was received at the time of publication - and its effect on the Fitzgeralds. I particularly liked that this wasn't about the author, it was about the subject - there was no 'I did this, I think that'. It's clear that this is a meticulously researched book, but this research is delivered in a very enjoyable read that flowed beautifully and gave me a history lesson. I thoroughly recommend this book!
on 6 August 2013
Careless People is both an exhillarating read and a masterly piece of scholarship, bringing to life Fitzgerald's (and Gatsby's) world of extraordinary parties, fast cars, fast women, jazz, bootleggers and speakeasies, the literari and the socialites.
I absolutely loved it - it's much more than a superb companion piece for The Great Gatsby, it's also an entertaining and exhaustively researched examination of the conception and genesis of the book Fitzgerald set out to make his masterpiece.
on 29 May 2013
The first time I read The Great Gatsby was one of the great experiences of my life - so it was already a book that meant a great deal to me. I am grateful to Sarah Churchwell for making it mean even more to me, and for bringing practically every aspect of Fitzgerald's masterpiece into even sharper focus in my mind.
Churchwell has always had an Alistair Cooke-like gift for analysing America for Americans whilst simultaneously explaining it to Britons, and I think she uses it better here than she ever has before. I have read very few books that place a great a work of art so completely, and illuminatingly, in context.
Churchwell mixes biography, modern history, literary criticism and a true crime murder mystery to create a brilliantly detailed picture of the Jazz Age and the writer who Christened it. And, most importantly, she does so in prose that is always a joy, and never a chore, to read.
It's not necessary to have read The Great Gatsby before reading Careless People (if your interest in Gatsby has been sparked by the recent Leonardo DiCaprio film, this book is definitely for you) but I would recommend that you do, so that the twists of Gatsby's story stay unspoiled.
A final point: if you're debating whether to buy this in hardcover or for your Kindle, I'd suggest hardcover because the book is, fittingly, an enchanting object. The clever cover design (which is explained within the text) means it's sure to look lovely on your shelf or to make an impressive present.
on 23 September 2014
The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite novels and I re-read it every couple of years. There is much to love about Sarah Churchwell’s book and she has undoubtedly undertaken an enormous amount of research in preparation for this dense, informative book which is part social history, part biography and part literary analysis.
As other reviewers have noted, Churchwell makes much of the unsolved Hall-Mills double murder but her attempts to draw parallels between people and events in the case and wider American society, are tenuous at best. The murder seems to have had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on either The Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald’s thought processes, so its inclusion is something of a mystery.
Like so many academics, Churchwell feels the need to parade her politically correct credentials and her condemnation of Fitzgerald’s ‘casual racism’ is laughably anachronistic. She chides Fitzgerald for holding the views common to his time and class and seems to think that he should have anticipated and embraced concepts of racial equality that would not become fashionable for at least another generation. Every mention of the word negro (common parlance in the 1920s and not a racist term at that time) is carefully enclosed in quotation marks to make it clear that the author is distancing herself from it. As the writer of a book that is part historical, Churchwell should realise the absurdity of measuring historical social attitudes against current mores.
Churchwell is on firmer ground in other aspects of the book and there are some fascinating insights into not just the Fitzgeralds but other literary figures of the day. She successfully fleshes out the places and events that influenced Fitzgerald’s manuscript and describes the real-life figures on which Fitzgerald based so many of his fictional characters.
The last chapters of the book are mainly concerned with the latter years of Scott Fitzgerald’s life. Extracts from Zelda’s letters, in particular, make for heart-breaking reading as she is in a fog of mental illness by this time and Scott’s fortunes have collapsed. Scott died of a heart attack at the tragically young age of 44 and Zelda burned to death in the locked ward of a lunatic asylum less than a decade later.
Despite the minor niggles noted above, this is an entertaining and informative read and has enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of what remains the quintessential American novel.
on 18 June 2016
Sarah Churchwell has the blood-seeking instincts of a journalist, the diligence of an academic and an enviable command of the English language. There are fascinating asides such as a list of words invented between 1918 and 1923 ("feedback", "rebrand", "teenage", "encode", "comfort zone", "junkie", "mass market", "multi-purpose", "comparison-shopping", "posh", "mock-up", "cool" and "wicked"), which does read as she suggests "like a jazz-age divination of the century to come". There are poignant and also wonderfully funny bits, such as the little scraps of doggerel communication between Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner. There are startling pieces of grim history and a thoughtful excavation of a contemporary unsolved murder case, knowledge of which, Churchwell argues convincingly, is important for anyone studying The Great Gatsby.
Churchwell, however, never loses sight of the main purpose of the book: she weaves a tapestry of personal and historical context to the famous classic with a clarity and focus which, at the end, sends you hungrily straight to the primary text. It is a biography of Fitzgerald's artistic process rather than of his life, but he and his contemporaries were brought alive for me as never before.