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From a master of the short-story
on 21 January 2009
I'd never read Scott Fitzgerald's short stories before and this seemed as good an introduction as any. I was not disappointed: the stories are witty and complex with a huge amount of atmosphere from early 20th century America.
The title story, Benjamin Button, is an imaginative fable, in which the "baby" is born a full grown man and during the course of the next 70 years grows younger and younger until he ends his life as a baby. I am not quite sure what the purpose of the story is other than as a curiosity, but it is well done and Scott Fitzgerald dreams up some amusing scenarios. Button's father goes to see the new child in the maternity hospital and sees, ". . . an old man apparently about 70 years of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-coloured beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned by the breeze coming in at the window".
Mr Button Senior buys his new son a rattle and insists that he plays with it, whereupon, ". . . the old man took it with a weary expression and could be heard jingling it obediently at intervals throughout the day".
Lead soldiers, toy trains and soft toys failed to arouse Benjamin's interest, although he seemed to have a preference for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and also for his father's dark Havana cigars.
When Benjamin reaches the age of 18, his physique has improved, although appearing like a man of fifty, with dark grey hair and a healthy baritone voice. He enrols at college. A few years later he joins his father's firm and the two men appear to be roughly the same age. They go to a dance, and he is taken for his father's brother, and dances with a young woman Hildegarde who likes the company of older men.
Within six months, Benjamin and Hildegarde are engaged to be married. Alas, fifteen or so years later, Benjamin is increasingly attracted by the "gay side of life" and soon he finds that his wife ceases to attract him. Benjamin joins the army and fights in the Spanish-American war but on returning home a hero, finds a woman of forty waiting for him while he now looks only thirty. I won't spoil the story by describing Benjamin's precocious "childhood", but needless to say, Scott Fitzgerald works the logic of the story through to its inevitable conclusion.
The other stories are equally readable and enjoyable. The Cut-Glass Bowl is set in the 1890s when it was fashionable for newly weds to receive various cut-glass objects as wedding presents. Evelyn Piper receives a huge cut glass bowl as a present from a former admirer who tells her, "Evelyn, I'm going to give you a present that's as hard as you are and as beautiful and empty and as easy to see through". The story sees the outworking of this statement with the bowl acting as a device to illustrate various episodes of Evelyn's life, until disaster happens.
The Four Fists is a strange story which shows how a punch in the face on four different occasions teaches a man some deep lessons about life. May Day is a graphic word picture of the post-war celebrations in a "great city" with various characters working out their lives in conflict with each other. Other stories complete this taster of Scott Fitzgerald's stories in fine style, leaving the reader thinking that this would be a good time for the short story form to be revived by modern writers - but would many have such skill in this demanding genre?