I read somewhere that Fitzgerald’s prose is like pizza and sex – even when it’s bad, it is still damn good. I am a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and I might not always be objective about the quality of his works. After all, he is part of the Holy Trinity – that is the Holy Trinity of my most favourite authors – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Erich Maria Remarque (apparently I like writers with three names). Nevertheless, in Flappers and Philosophers, his first collection of short stories, one can feel the youth of the author. While some of the stories are a bit predictable and others – a bit naive, I cannot help but admire Fitzgerald’s talent. He writes with ease and imagination, producing eight short stories that are entertaining and thought-provoking for the mind. Given this is his first collection, published the same year as his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and given he was in his early twenties at that time, I believe he is and must be excused for the naiveté of his prose. Yet, one can feel through these pages the genius that Fitzgerald would eventually become.
I must admit what drew me to the collection, despite of course the name of Fitzgerald, is the title. I mean, come on, Flappers and Philosophers is simply genial. I doubt anyone in the 1920s would ever use the word philosopher do describe a flapper. Flappers, for those of you who don’t know, were a “new breed” of young Western women in the 1920s who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior. Flappers were seen as brash for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, treating sex in a casual manner, smoking, driving automobiles, and otherwise flouting social and sexual norms.” First rule of every student – when possible, always use Wikipedia (even one of the professors in the ever so acclaimed HEC cited Wikipedia in a finance class, so I don’t feel guilty at all). I wouldn’t provide a definition of a philosopher here, except to say that for most people it would be the exact opposite to a flapper. And yet somewhat magically Fitzgerald manages to balance the duality of flapper and the philosopher in his characters. I must say, all of us women are flappers and philosophers, simultaneously. Whatever works for us at that particular moment.
The stories in Flappers and Philosophers are of course about the Jazz Age – the excess, the debauchery and the greed associated with it. Fitzgerald’s characters in this collection foreshadow his more complex characters in the future novels to come – shallow, self-absorbed, obsessed with beauty, money, and power, greedy, and sometimes extremely cruel. And yet, exactly these flappers produce so profound conclusions about life that the reader has nothing else to do but gasp with astonishment:
At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.
All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase – ‘I love you.’
“What was it? Why won’t you tell me?” / “I don’t want to break down your illusions.” / “My dear man, I have no illusions about you.” / “I mean your illusions about yourself.”
I suppose books mean more than people to me anyway.
I won’t kiss you. It might get to be a habit and I can’t get rid of habits.
But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it.
If I have to single out the stories that impressed me the most, I would go with three out of the eight. The Offshore Pirate opens the collection to the world of a typical flapper. The beautiful and sensual Ardita has the world at her feet and is not afraid to express her opinions – be it shouting at her uncle, openly dating a man associated with another woman, or escaping with a sea pirate in the middle of the ocean. Yet Ardita is in for a big surprise, or how I would like to put it – the messer becomes the messee.
The Cut-Glass Bowl is probably the most tragic of the stories. The upsides and downsides of Evelyn and Harold Piper are inevitably connected to a cut-glass bowl she once received from an admirer of hers. As the story unfolds, more tragedy falls upon the family, and one gets to reminisce about how our life choices eventually come to haunt us, even years later.
I was quite surprised to include the only religion-related story in this list but I must admit Benediction is probably the best short story in Flappers and Philosophers. In the peak of her youth Luis decides to visit her brother, who is on the verge of becoming a priest. She hasn’t seen him since she was a little child and although the meeting is joyful and happy at first, it ends on a somewhat melancholy note. As Luis is struggling to understand her much older brother’s decision to leave the joys of the world and succumb to the somewhat boring life of a priest, she is confronted with her own fear of the future and with her own terror of missing out or making the wrong choice.
Overall, Flappers and Philosophers only just hints to the fame and glory awaiting one of the best American authors. If I read it before his other novels, I might not have liked it this much. However, having seen what eventually becomes of Fitzgerald, I must admit that for his tender age, his lack of experience, and his ever so passionate love for the destructive Zelda (to whom this collection is dedicated), Fitzgerald did very, very well.
More from F. Scott Fitzgerald: