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Fitzgerald's French.

For John Callahan

Everyone knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald came from St. Paul, Minnesota, but fewer are aware that the city was originally French-Canadian. Before 1841 it was just a hamlet called L'Oeil du Cochon (Pig's Eye) after a tavern established by trapper Pierre Parrant. In 1841 the first Catholic missionary resident in Minnesota, Father Lucien Galtier from the Ardeche, raised the tone of the place by giving it a more respectable name. His colleague Joseph Cretin, the first bishop of St. Paul, went on to establish the city's cathedral and contribute toward making the town the "middle-class, dull, unpoetical and fettering" center of Midwestern Catholicism that Shane Leslie felt it had become by the early twentieth century (qtd. in Meyers 11). Many of its established inhabitants were thus of French origin, and they tended to look down on later settlers and coreligionists, in particular the Irish.

The fact that the St. Paul Fitzgeralds had their own patrician pretensions no doubt complicated their relation to these French top dogs. Scott's parents Edward and Mary had spent their honeymoon in 1890 on the French Riviera, of which, according to LeVot, "Mary retained an enchanted memory" (10). Judging by a letter of 1909, Edward seems to have spelled his daughter's name the French way ("Mother and Annabelle are very well and enjoying Duluth" (Bruccoli and Duggan 5), and perhaps the family may have meditated more generally on the name Fitzgerald in the Franco-Irish context of the city. Irish fitz is of course French fils, and some of these Midwestern "Sons of Gerald" may have felt that the name they bore had a sufficiently aristocratic ring to entitle them to look the city's French Catholic nabobs in the eye. At any rate, Fitzgerald would later satirically encode aristocratic pretension in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" by providing the founder of the Montana Washington dynasty with the sonorous Anglo-Franco-Irish Christian name Fitz-Norman Culpeper (Jazz Age 291).

In the St. Paul years of his childhood, Fitzgerald grew up surrounded by French names, with whose sounds, I shall suggest, he became fascinated, which had significant consequences for his writing. French, I want to show, became for him a language of dreams expressing fantasies of glamour, elegance, sexual conquest, and upward social mobility--even if all these were equally understood by his daytime consciousness as pretensions offering apt targets for social satire. I shall also examine how failing to speak French well becomes a symptom, in Tender Is the Night in particular, of a cardinal Fitzgerald preoccupation with failure tout court, and perhaps of a more general modernist preoccupation with decline and dissolution.

Minnesota is full of French names, and so is Fitzgerald's fiction. In This Side of Paradise, where Amory Blaine and Froggy Parker are given to strolling through Minneapolis "in the balmy air of August night, dreaming along Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues" (17), wandering down streets named after seventeenth-century French explorers. Fitzgerald himself spent his 1909 summer holiday at Frontenac, named after the governor general of New France, and commemorates this fact in the story "Three Hours between Planes," where Nancy Gifford attempts to recall "unspeakable" holiday sexual exploration there: "It was at Frontenac--the summer we--we used to go to the cave" (Collected Stories 577). Frontenac, Hennepin, Nicollet: the names clearly resonate, and later perhaps generate, inter alia, Nicole, the daughter of Devereux Warren.

On the basis of such evidence, it would be profitable to take a new look at Fitzgerald's French. His daughter Scottie certainly agreed with the judgment upon his "horrendous French" (qtd. in Meyers 110) and "atrocious accent" by all those who heard him speak the language. He was thoroughly aware of his drastic linguistic limitations, mocking his habit of Franglais on several occasions in his letters: "'Je suis a stranger here,' I said in flawless French. 'Je veux aller to le best hotel dans le town'" is one example cited by Meyers (110).And of course there is the significant point that in Tender Is the Night Dick Diver's inadequacy in this sphere becomes a potent symbol of the failure of his life, as Nicole first taunts him at the Gare St Lazare with "how can you do any good--with your French ?" (96) and later flirts with Tommy Barban in French.

Fitzgerald's early writings are yearningly full of resonant French signifiers, gesturing toward distant worlds of glamour and mystery in which fantasies of sexual and material power are to be fulfilled. The dreamer dreams, from the provincial perspectives of Hennepin and Nicollet, of magical places, with France and Paris in particular as a regular focus. Thus in the story "Josephine: A Woman with a Past" Josephine indulges in Midwestern reveries of New Haven, "city of her adolescent dreams ... city ancient as Mecca, shining as Paris, hidden as Timbuktu" (Collected Stories 502), and in This Side of Paradise Amory Blaine lies at night "dreaming awake of secret cafes in Mont Martre, where ivory women delved in romantic mysteries with diplomats and soldiers of fortune, while orchestras played Hungarian waltzes and the air was thick and exotic with intrigue and moonlight and adventure" (32).

But the most interesting evidence of French as a dream language is perhaps that provided in "Basil: The Freshest Boy," a story with obvious autobiographical foundation. It concerns Basil Lee, who bears a famous Southern aristocratic name but channels his ignoble soul into glamour-girl pinups and dreams of catching a glimpse of their ilk in New York. The interesting thing for our purposes is that only pictures of girls with French names seem to unleash the full panoply of fantasy and desire. One of the pinups named Gretchen, for example, clearly doesn't have the desired effect; her "Dutch cap seemed unromantic and precluded the element of mystery." By contrast, a certain Babette is thoroughly arous
      "Babette," he whispered to himself--"beautiful Babette."

      The sound of the word, so melancholy and suggestive, like
   "Vilia" or "I'm happy at Maxim's" on the phonograph, softened
   him and, turning over on his face, he sobbed into the pillow....
   Babette, svelte and piquante, looked down at him coquettishly
   from the wall. (Collected Stories 492-93)

During the ensuing chaperoned visit to New York, Basil is permitted to attend a matinee performance of a Broadway show (The Quacker Girl, as he misspells it in a manner symptomatic of Fitzgerald's inadequacies both with English and French) and so to see one of his fantasy gifts in the flesh. Of course she bears a French name, Ina Claire. And while he waits at the Manhattan Hotel before the show he limbers up for his voyeuristic climax with a riot of suitably exotic signifiers: French fried potatoes; a chocolate parfait; a letter from his mother about Grenoble, Montreux, and his school St. Regis; and observation of "the nonchalant, debonair, blase New Yorkers" about him (494--95).

Basil, it seems, is a mirror image of the Fitzgerald who described himself as arriving in New York like "a youth of the Midi dazzled by the boulevards of Paris" (Crack-up 21). As befits a writer alive to the ephemeral fashions and trends of modern urban life, we find him frequently referring to an American fascination with France in the early decades of the twentieth century. "In America ... everyone is yearning for Paris" he remarks in a letter to Maxwell Perkins (Bruccoli 80), trying to get him to publish an American version of Radiguet's Le Bal de Comte Orgel, and again a little later, "the success of The Little French Girl is a pointer of taste" (97). And so it is that in his fiction, the names of New York clubs and restaurants are invariably French and regularly attempt to conjure up the glamour of Paris. "I ran into Nancy Lamar at the Montmartre in New York one evening," writes the narrator of "The Last of the Belles" a story that evokes the fascination of both South and North with French names (Collected Stories 201). The names themselves are again usually authentic, as "My Lost City" testifies, exuding a fondness for the magic French: "The first speak-easies had arrived, the toddle was passe, the Montmartre was the smart place to dance. The plays were Declassee and Sacred and Profane Love" (Crack-up 25). In The Beautiful and Damned the Boul' Mich' is equally prominent, and again the name unleashes a flurry of French signifiers: Anthony and Gloria are "the noisiest and most conspicuous members of the noisiest and most conspicuous party at the Boul' Mich, or the Club Ramee, or at other resorts much less particular about the hilarity of their chentele" (232). Lunch is taken in the same novel at the Beaux Arts (72) or, in This Side of Paradise, at the Lafayette, where Monsignor D'Arcy takes Amory Blaine on a treat (21).

In Fitzgerald's representation of these places, the glamour is shadowed by shallowness or emptiness and callow egotism. Fitzgerald's French is not only the language of dreams but also (again perhaps reflecting his St. Paul background) the language of social pretension and snobbishness. This point comes across amusingly in the story "O Russet Witch!" where the indigent Merlin Grainger takes Miss Masters out to dinner at a French restaurant in New York as the fit setting for a solemn occasion: "it was at Pulpat's on Saturday night and over a $1.75 bottle of water diluted with vin ordinaire that the proposal occurred" (Jazz Age 358). Here, at the lowest end of the scale, the principle of Fitzgerald's French as a marker of social class in America is unveiled: people live or attempt to live, in varying degrees according to their status and wealth, as if they were Louis XIV at the Chateau de Versailles. At the top end, in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, "John Unger is "enchanted by the wonders of the chateau and the valley" where Braddock Washington had caused to be kidnapped "a landscape gardener, an architect, a designer of state [sic] settings, and a French decadent poet left over from the last century" (Jazz Age 302). In the upwardly mobile middle range, Mrs. Fairboalt in "The Cut-Glass Bowl" admires the Pipers' home: "the nicest smaller house in town, and Mrs. Piper had talked of moving to a larger house on Devereaux Avenue" (Jazz Age 84). Mrs. Fairboalt obviously shares Mrs. Piper's view that she must now "go French" on a street whose name anticipates Tender Is the Night and Nicole's father's first name (Tender 140).

At Princeton, Fitzgerald's fascination with the sounds of a language he was unable to master grammatically took on new dimensions. It became the language of specific intellectual and philosophical pretensions, with French names given in This Side of Paradise to characters like Thomas Parke d'Invilliers (a portrait of John Peale Bishop), infatuated by the fantasy of achieving glory as a symbolist poet, or to the philosophers whom Horace Tarbox admires in "Head and Shoulders" in Flappers and Philosophers--the real-life Henri Bergson and the fictional Anton Laurier. And Fitzgerald would later pay humorous homage to Christian Gauss, the professor of French and Italian (but of German origin) whom he so much admired at Princeton, despite his own inability to make academic headway with French, by inscribing a frenchified version of his name in Tender Is the Night, giving it to Gausse, the Alsatian hotel keeper.

Laurier, like Holderlin's Socrates, moves from wisdom to beauty, subverting the apparent superiority of the world of philosophy over the world of the flapper by ending up as an admirer of Horace's wife. Yet Fitzgerald's flappers and their appropriately named beaux are just as much associated with French as his philosophers are. Racine's Berenice becomes Bernice in the story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair": she comes from Eau Claire, and when she goes to the Sevier Hotel Barber Shop to have her hair bobbed she "had all the sensations of Marie Antoinette bound for the guillotine in a tumbril" (jazz Age 120). There is Genevieve Ormonde in the same story, "who regularly made the rounds of dances, house-parties, and football games at Princeton, Yale, Williams, and Cornell" (103). More interesting still, perhaps, the names of the flapper-chasing football heroes are frequently French. In The Beautiful and Damned, for instance, there is "Touch down" Michaud--Gloria is "flattered that 'Touch down' Michaud had 'rushed' her all evening" (117). There is Severance the quarterback, who has a double association with France, first through his name and second through the fact that he carries the ethos of the playing fields of Harvard and Princeton into the battlefields of France, "for he had given up his life rather neatly and gracefully with the Foreign Legion on the Aisne" (224).

In fact, with Severance's exemplary severance from life, we broach some of the most essential aspects of Fitzgerald's fascination with French. What seems to have happened is that the France that suffered so much in the First World War became for him the theater of male heroism, and French (hitherto associated with lesser fantasies) the authoritative language of these particular dreams. "War purifies and regenerates" writes Pat Hobby (in "Teamed with Genius" [Collected Stories 254]) in the first revise of his screenplay for Ballet Shoes, which he hopes to collaborate on with an English playwright with a symbolic French first name, Rene Wilcox. Pat is comically but pathetically obsessed with sending the heroine to war: "have the dancer go as a Red Cross nurse and then she could get regenerated" but of course his ideas are irrelevant: he is duped by Rene and left with "a certain dreariness, a grey malaise" (258-59).

That malaise began for Fitzgerald before the war, stemming initially perhaps from the consciousness of belonging to a post-Civil War generation. He missed out on that chance of glory, obviously, and then again on the Napoleonic fantasy conjured up by his Catholic mentor, Sigourney Fay, after the fall of the Russian Tsar--the fantasy of the riconquista of the Orthodox Church. "We may play a part in the restoration of Russia to Catholic unity" he told Fitzgerald, though laughably, the role assigned to Scott was that of expert interpreter and translator: "we shall have to work very hard going over your French. Get a Rosenthal method at once and go right through with it" (Bruccoli and Duggan 20).

Fitzgerald develops a jocoserious heroic myth out of these disappointments. In "The Rough Crossing," the band of men who carry on partying during bad weather at sea "were samurai chosen from several hundred for their triumphant resistance to the storm" (Collected Stories 475). In "The Baby Party," fighting is regarded as a primitive Darwinian male urge, again in the ludicrous context of a punch-up at a children's party. At the end, as he lovingly caresses his daughter, the badly bruised "John Andros knew ... what it was he had fought for so savagely that evening" (Collected Stories 423). And in Tender Is the Night, there are the dueling males who elicit Abe North's ironic comment about the link between fisticuffs and war: "this fight's between two men--what Tommy needs is a good war" (54).

French here is the language of Tommy Barban, the "real" dueler--the language of heroism, according to Nicole, who hears him pronounce on heroic deeds in French ("nous ne pouvons pas faire de petits exercices d'heroisme--il faut faire les grands compositions") and comments that "in French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity" (Tender 290). Leaving aside the complex ironies here, it might be suggested that not to have gone right through with the Rosenthal method, so to speak, became for Fitzgerald a sign of failure and decline. "All in all, everything has never gone better," says Nicole of her life at Gausse's hotel on the Riviera, "I am among friends who like me. I am here on this tranquil beach with my husband and two children. Everything is all right--if I can finish translating this damn recipe for chicken a la Maryland into French" (Tender 179). It seems that to be "all right" in Nicole's domestic sphere is to move easily from one language to another; to be "not all right," as earlier, is to be incapable of this transference: "I was to do the French translation but I'm tired these days--I am afraid of falling, I'm so heavy and clumsy" (176).

Of course she is afraid of falling because she is pregnant, a condition suggesting the very opposite of decline and degradation. Yet the paradigmatic Fitzgerald narrative is an obsessive modernist working out of that naturalist preoccupation--originally French--with decline and degeneracy, or more literally with falling and downward motion, as announced on the first page of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, where Tony remembers her catechism: "When you were once fairly started, she thought, it was very like going down 'Mount Jerusalem' with your brothers on the little sled: you had no time to think, and you couldn't stop even if you wanted to" (19). The motif was mediated for Fitzgerald through Eliot's The Waste Land:
   And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
   My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
   And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
   Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. (37)

This modulates to Dick the Diver (a descendant perhaps of Dexter in "Winter Dreams" "who gave an exhibition of fancy diving from the springboard of the club raft" [Collected Stories 365]), whose fall necessarily takes place in a liquid element. And one marker of Dick's slow descent through an alcoholic wasteland toward death is the dissolution of glamorous items of French lexis into fragmentary heaps of heterogeneous signifiers--as in Paris, where, on the way to the Par Excellence Studio in Passy,
   on either side he read :"Papeterie," "Patisserie" "Solde"
   "Reclame"--and Constance Talmadge in "Dejeuner de Soleil"
   and farther away there were more sombre announcements:
   "Vetements Ecclesiastiques," "Declarations de Deces" and
   "Pompes Funebres," (Tender 103)

That experience of dissolution, I suggest, is mapped out in Fitzgerald's handling of the French in this novel. In it we find expressed the fullest range of associations that the language held for him.

Works cited

Bruccoli, Matthew J., ed. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Margaret M. Duggan, eds. The Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Random, 1980.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-50. New York: Harcourt, 1962.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Beautiful and Damned. Ed. Alan Margolies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

--. The Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

--. The Crack-up with Other Pieces and Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

--. Flappers and Philosophers. Ed. James L. W. West III. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

--. Jazz Age Stories. Ed. Patrick O'Donnell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

--. Tender Is the Night. Ed. Arnold Goldman. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

--. This Side of Paradise. New York: Scribner's, 1960.

Le Vot, Andre F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. NewY ork: Doubleday, 1983. Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks. Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter. London: Folio, 1989. Meyers, Jeffrey. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. London: Macmillan, 1994.

Michael Hollington has taught at the University of New South Wales and the Universite de Toulouse--Mirail. He has written books on Dickens and Gunter Grass, as well as numerous articles on literature from Shakespeare through the twentieth century.
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Title Annotation:F. Scott Fitzgerald
Author:Hollington, Michael
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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