Paradise in Bits and Pieces

Bits of Paradise by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Charles Scribner's Sons; $7.95; 386 pp.

"How wonderful it is to be young and beautiful and a success." --Scott addressing an older writer after the publication of This Side of Paradise

SCOTT FITZGERALD was by his own admission a man divided; he wanted to be both wealthy and a serious writer. As extravagant as his fictional characters, Scott was always in debt, and in times of financial need, short stories were his bread and butter. The Saturday Evening Post paid up to $4000 for a potboiler Fitzgerald could finish in a day or two, so he often turned to the Post even though he chafed at having to conform to their writing requirements.

Scott's stories in Bits of Paradise give the impression that he wrote them quickly and without much attention, as if the bill collector were beating at the door. The stories are not hack jobs, but they are a bit slick and simplistic, making Fitzgerald's unmistakable heroes and heroines mighty unbelievable. Not surprisingly, eight of the eleven stories in this collection first appeared in the Post.

Scott once remarked that after he'd written about a character for a while it just became himself again. The only people whose thoughts he could accurately describe were himself and Zelda. Perhaps he devoted so many pages to the beautiful and rich and charming because he doubted the quick and relatively effortless success, which made him a part of that genre.

Fitzgerald has been severely criticized because of the elite he chose to depict--after all, of what general interest are people who consider an Atlantic crossing routine? The objection seems largely unjustified. Fitzgerald's characters have common denominators that make them exciting if we look beyond the thin veneer of wealth and poise. "Babylon Revisited" is an elegant, sophisticated treatment of an expatriate's loneliness in Paris. His wealth is integral to the plot, not obtrusive. The story is also structured meticulously, interweaving flashbacks to younger, more foolish days and ending in an indefinite way that reinforces the story's mood.


BUT IN Bits of Paradise the characters are shallow, their situations trite, and the resolutions predictable. As a result, Scott's common themes--loneliness, disillusionment, fascination with the superficial-- which are usually well-engineered and gripping, grow repetitive and dull. "Love in the Night" like several other stories in this collection, ends with a saccharine postscript amounting to "they married and lived happily ever after." "The Dance" which involves a jealous murder, is so blatant that it reads like a cruddy mystery. Where plot and dialogue run thinnest, Fitzgerald seems to dwell on elaborate descriptions of resorts, bars, and clothes, reducing stories like "The Hotel Child" to lists of Europe's lush spots. Even the rich can be handled adroitly; in these stories they are not.

Zelda's work is clearly the more interesting half of Bits of Paradise. This is the first time her stories appear under her name alone; during her lifetime publishers insisted that Scott's name be used as well to enhance sales. Although Zelda wasn't a professional writer, her style is distinctive and her stories offer far more than entertainment. Zelda's writings resemble sketches, relying little on dialogue and heavily on impressionistic character analysis. Her best, "A Couple of Nuts," traces the destruction of a young couple's marriage due to the interference of an older couple. The episode's interest lies mainly in the narrator's (and therefore Zelda's) outlook--the marriage couldn't have lasted; disaster was courted by the couple's youth, success and innocence. But the story is also full of keen observations and haunting comments.

In her preface to the book, the Fitzgeralds' daughter concludes that if the stories are read "less as literature than as reports from another, more romantic world, one will find bits in them that evoke the best of both Fitzgeralds." Certainly there are scattered passages where the prose is highly polished and sensitive. But these cannot offset the feeling that Scott didn't put much thought into his characterizations. The stories were probably written to make money, and, in the wave of a Twenties- Fitzgerald revival, this collection was printed to make some more. If they thought it would sell, Scribners might be tempted to publish the grocery bills. Bits of Paradise represents the trappings of Fitzgerald's writing--his style, characters and themes-- without the substance: the elements of paradise are very fragmentary.