A bright glamour of moonlight

There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age, when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly moustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents – punchbowls, finger-bowls, dinner-glasses, wine-glasses, ice-cream dishes, bonbon dishes, decanters, and cases – for, though cut glass was nothing new in the nineties, it was then especially busy reflecting the dazzling light of fashion from the Back Bay to the fastnesses of the Middle West. After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged on the sideboard with the big bowl in the centre; the glasses were set up in the china-closet; the candlesticks were put at both ends of things – and then the struggle for existence began.

F Scott Fitzgerald is one of those dazzling writers, like Capote, whose words are painfully beautiful to read. As a reader you drink in every delicious word, greedy for more… but as a writer, it will always stick in your throat a little that you’ll probably never write anything this good.

“The Cut Glass Bowl” is one of my favourite Fitzgerald stories. It centres around Evylyn, who grows from young, beautiful and callous:

“You remember young Carleton Canby? Well, he was very attentive at one time, and the night I told him I was going to marry Harold, seven years ago, in ninety-two, he drew himself way up and said: “Evylyn, I’m going to give a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.”

… to a disappointed woman, lonely within the marriage her youthful indiscretions undermined. The story’s surface gleams with Fitzgerald’s trademark sassy, Jazz Age style, but the undercurrent is his great terror of lost youth and beauty. All wrapped up in a dark, disconcerting tale of choices and curses, and a cut glass bowl.

Fitzgerald’s turns of phrase are just delicious. “If Evylyn’s beauty had hesitated in her early thirties, it came to an abrupt decision just afterward and completely left her”. Her husband Harold, “like all men who are preoccupied with their own broadness, was exceptionally narrow”.

I always find Fitzgerald a bit of a paradox – for all his characters “fastnesses” and licentiousness the stories usually have quite an old-fashioned moral… His effortless descriptions are intoxicated with the beauty of women and fashion and grand homes and things; but the characters who themselves become too fixated on beauty and things are the ones who ultimately get their comeuppance.

Harold had gone upstairs, so she stepped out on the porch for a breath of fresh air. There was a bright glamour of moonlight diffusing on the sidewalks and lawns, and with a little half yawn, half laugh, she remembered one long moonlight affair of her youth. It was astonishing to think that life had once been the sum of her current love affairs. It was now the sum of her current problems.

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