By the time he wrote “Babylon Revisited,” F. Scott Fitzgerald was pretty well fucked. It’s surprising, but true. The Great Gatsby had been a notorious flop that almost ruined his writing career. Fitzgerald’s wife, the lovely Zelda, was in the throes of a nervous breakdown. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been institutionalized. And Fitzgerald himself was a pretty hopeless alcoholic.
When you think of Fitzgerald, think of him this way, for context. He was Bret Easton Ellis, but a thousand times more famous. Bret Easton Ellis got famous for writing about 13-year-olds doing cocaine and college students having gang-bangs. Fitzgerald did the same thing, except in the 1920s. He wrote about girls cutting their hair short and wearing trousers and smoking cigarettes, and about guys who drank and had premarital sex and thought that society was bullshit, man. That was about as shocking as you could get in the 1920s, and it made Fitzgerald very. very famous, and also wealthy (for a writer, at least). No one had ever written about stuff like this before, and the public gobbled it up.
The goofy thing about Fitzgerald is that he got famous based on his first two novels and they aren’t very good. This Side of Paradise is his first novel and it shot him to fame and it’s… not great? I never read The Beautiful and the Damned, but everyone says it’s lousy. And yet, and yet…
Scotty wrote This Side of Paradise when he was twenty-three. It’s a little harsh to critique a twenty-three year old’s novel. It’s amazing that he wrote it at all. The novel was a thinly-veiled autobiography and was covered basically everything in his life that had happened to him up to that point. Again, fine. You work with what you’ve got.
But what saved him in his early writing was his honesty and his sincerity. Fitzgerald was a deeply sincere writer. You can read it in every line of his. Here, try this, taken almost at random, from The Great Gatsby:
The bottle of whiskey — a second one — was now in constant demand by all present, excepting Catherine, who “felt just as good on nothing at all.” Tom rang for the janitor and sent him for some celebrated sandwiches, which were a complete supper in themselves. I wanted to get out and walk southward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
Look at that. That’s amazing. Look at the constant attention paid to everyone and everything. All Fitzgerald is doing there is describing a crappy impromptu party that his narrator wants to bail on, but he also sees something significant in it. All the details. The “celebrated sandwiches” because drunken Tom cannot be bothered to get his guests a real meal, the whiskey bottle in demand by everyone except for the over-proud mistress, the stupid arguments the narrator gets stuck in every time he tries to leave the scene, but then… “and I was him too,” the watcher (seeing everything from outside) and the scene. The scene, unimportant in itself, but viewedfrom a distance, through the yellow windows, and it might strike someone has having meaning — someone, somewhere. That’s Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby is a classic, far different from his first two novels. And it flopped. Flopped badly. People were tired of hearing about the Jazz Age and “The Lost Generation” and didn’t see the meaning that Fitzgerald was imbuing to his subjects. Critics accused Fitzgerald of being a one-trick pony, always with the same topic, blah blah blah. The novel sank like a stone. Then Zelda broke down, and Scotty’s drinking got way worse.
Which brings us to “Babylon Revisited.”
But wait, let’s go back.
Even in This Side of Paradise (his first book, remember), there’s something odd about Fitzgerald’s writing. Even as a young man, he was unusually obsessed with nostalgia, with looking back on things as they are happening. Take, for example, this section of This Side of Paradise —
As he put in his studs he realized that he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again. Everything was hallowed by the haze of his own youth…
Silently he admired himself. How conveniently well he looked, and how well a dinner coat became him. He stepped into the hall and then waited at the top of the stairs, for he heard footsteps coming. It was Isabelle, and from the top of her shining hair to her little golden slippers she had never seemed so beautiful.
“Isabelle!” he cried, half involuntarily, and held out his arms. As in the story-books, she ran into them, and in that half-minute, as their lips first touched, rested the high point of vanity, the crest of his young egotism.
Don’t worry, seconds after that paragraph ends, everything turns to shit. But look at Fitzgerald predicting it. “As he put in his studs he realized that he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again.” The young man, already nostalgic for a thing as it is still happening. Even as a twenty-three-year-old, Fitzgerald was fascinated by the moment when things fail and fold into themselves.
Which brings us to “Babylon Revisited”
So sorry that it took me this long to get to the actual story, but I like context, and I feel like without context, the story wouldn’t mean so much.
I didn’t remember this story so well, though, though I read it in college and again in grad school. For instance, I thought Charlie Wales (our main character) fucked up and got drunk at the end. He does not. I also thought he said at the end: “Jesus, drunk for ten years.” He does not. That’s a different Fitzgerald story.
Anyway, here’s the plot. It’s pretty simple.
Charlie Wales returns to Paris, where he had lived during the Roaring Twenties. But now it’s 1931, the middle of the Great Depression, and the fun times are finished. The “most expensive orgy in history,” as Fitzgerald called it, was over.
Charlie Wales is a obvious stand-in for Fitzgerald himself. He and Zelda lived in Paris, had great drunken times and also awful times, had a daughter, and then the stock market crashed and Zelda got worse, and no one really is into Fitzgerald’s writing anymore, and now Zelda is in a mental hospital and Scotty is literally writing short stories to make enough money to pay for her treatment. This is the situation for Fitzgerald as he’s writing this story.
Charlie comes back to Paris to get his daughter, who has been staying with his wife’s sister, Marion. We get the backstory that Charlie made tons of money in the stock market, became a drunk in Paris, and then lost everything to the crash. He then went to a sanitarium, which is code for a mental hospital, which is code for where they sent you in 1930 if you were a hopeless alcoholic. Meanwhile, Charlie’s beloved wife has died of unspecified “heart trouble.”
Now Charlie is back in Paris, and he wants custody of his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria. But Marion doesn’t want to give her back to Charlie. She hates Charlie, and blames him for the death of her sister, without ever directly saying that to him. (Marion’s husband is nicer about the whole thing.) Charlie has gotten his life back together, he has a job again, and he only has one drink a day, strictly and religiously.
(Sidenote: having suffered from addiction in my own life: being an alcoholic and then drinking once a day sounds like a really bad idea. It sounds like something F. Scott must have tried in his own life. And he died of alcoholism, so — you know. But Alcoholics Anonymous hadn’t even been invented yet, in the early 1930s, so he was doing his best.)
Charlie really, desperately wants his daughter back. In-between debating matters with Marion, he revisits old haunts in Paris, has lunch with his daughter (who adores him), and also runs into two old friends, who are still fucking up, who are drunk every time we see them, and who implore Charlie to hang out with them and slam a few back, for auld lang synge and all of that.
At the end of the story, just as Marion about to allow Charlie to take his daughter back, the two friends show up at her house, looking for Charlie. They’re roaring drunk and fuck up the whole thing, humiliating Charlie, who is seen as guilty by association (though he’s not drunk). He doesn’t get his daughter back, though at the end of the story, he plans on trying again in six months.
That’s the whole plot. This is Fitzgerald’s most famous short story, and his most frequently anthologized. Like I say, I had read it at least twice before this. I misremembered the story by thinking Charlie gets drunk at the end (he remains sober, impressively, even after his two friends show up a). But though I got that wrong, I did remember the story’s most famous lines, which are these —
The men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.
The snow of 1929 wasn’t real snow. 1929, the lost era, before the crash. Back when Fitzgerald’s books sold like hotcakes and he and Zelda were young and happy, and she hadn’t gone schizophrenic yet and he hadn’t had to put her in an asylum.
We may as well do the paragraph before as well:
Again the memory of those days swept over him like a nightmare — the people they had met traveling; then people who couldn’t add a row of figures or speak a coherent sentence. The little man Helen [Charlie’s wife] had consented to dance with at the ship’s party, who had insulted her ten feet from the table; the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places —
— The men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.
So here we encapsulate a whole era. When people were young and happy and could be drunk all the time, and everyone was rich, and if there was a problem, you just paid more money.
I remembered this as being the main quote from “Babylon Revisited,” but I forgot that the quote is about Charlie himself. He’s the one who locked his wife out in the snow. His wife Helen. And this is what Marion, his sister-in-law, can never forgive him for. Charlie tries to explain, but Marion isn’t having it. He tries to explain, they were both very drunk, and Helen had kissed another man at a party, and Charlie left, and he didn’t think she would come home, and he locked the door in anger, not realizing that Helen would come back and be so drunk that she would wander around in a snowstorm in her slippers, and almost die of pneumonia, then showup at Marion’s door… He’s trying to explain all of this, to give context, but Marion isn’t having it, can’t even bear to him. And when his drunk friends show up, that seals the deal, and she won’t give him his daughter back. The story ends with Charlie swearing to himself that he will come back, and rescue his nine-year-old daughter, but who knows if he will? And who knows if he won’t get drunk tomorrow?
As someone who has struggled with addiction, I relate to this story a lot. Drunken things that seem coherent and even funny or at least acceptable at the time then coming back to haunt you.
But here, also, we have Charlie thinking back on those drunken days —
All the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word “dissipate” — to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion.
He remembered thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab.
But it hadn’t been given for nothing.
It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember — his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.
This is sad, but we can also see the allure of it all. “It hadn’t been given for nothing.” The allure of constant motion, until it comes crashing down.
Fitzgerald wrote “Babylon Revisited” in the middle of his struggles with alcoholism, which he never overcame. Ahead of him was the completion of Tender of the Night, a novel which took him forever to write (the drinking didn’t help), and which, like Gatsby, flopped when it was released. And Zelda would go through a period in and out of mental hospitals, and eventually would remain in one for the rest of her life. And after Tender of the Night, Fitzgerald was exiled to Hollywood, where he tried to write screenplays and died young.
“Babylon Revisited” is a good story, though it never achieves the quality of universality that The Great Gatsby somehow magically achieves. “Babylon Revisited” uses too much old-fashioned slang, and too many specific references, and everything seems a little olde-tymey, whereas Gatsby does not. (And even though the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Gatsby wasn’t great, I liked that they used Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray as the music for it, instead of, say, jazz. It reminds us that this story was on the cutting edge for its time — that it’s not tied to one specific time, it’s not just about flappers and bathtub gin, but is simply about people.)
But “Babylon Revisited” is perhaps the most Fitzgerald-y of Fitzgerald stories, based very much on his life. We should remember the arc here. When people met Scotty and Zelda, in their youth, they were stunned. Dorothy Parker met them both when they were riding on the roof of a taxi in New York. “They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun,” she said, “their youth was striking. Everyone wanted to meet him.”
But Fitzgerald had this ingrained sense that it would never last, could never last — so evident in “Babylon Revisited,” where Charlie walks among the fallen ruins. Fitzgerald had this tendency to embracie the highest moments while simultaneously foreseeing their downfall. He was nostalgic for things as they happened. And that trait doesn’t just implicate him, it implicates us all, but maybe there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, anyway. The famed ending of The Great Gatsby gives us all this:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
“He did not know that it was already behind him.” Jay Gatsby wants to relive the past. Charlie Wales wants to repair it. But maybe you just can’t do either.