Dispatches | May 31, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from managing editor Michael Nye.

When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, way back when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I gravitated toward F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know why. I bought and read all his novels. His collected stories was my Bible. When people asked me who my favorite writer was, I said Fitzgerald. Without thinking much about why. Fitzgerald is now best known for The Great Gatsby, but during his lifetime, he was a short story writer, writing stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Red Book, Liberty, and McCall’s.

I’m thirty four years old, and have only recently reached (some) level of comfort with admitting I haven’t read The Famous Book You Want To Talk About and Are Shocked I Have Not Read. I’ve also begun to question the books I have read. When I read The Grapes of Wrath, I didn’t like it: would that be true if I reread it today? Moby Dick was brilliant when I was in my late twenties; how would I feel about the book now? How many other books do I need to revisit, reconsider? Fortunately for me, this is National Short Story Month, not National Novel Month. So it seems appropriate to close May by rereading  my favorite (allegedly!) short story writer and what’s considered one of his greatest stories.

“Babylon Revisited” is the story of Charles Wales, an American living in Prague after the boom years of the Roaring Twenties have crashed and burned. The story is set in Paris, and when the story opens, Charlie has just arrived. He finds the city is, of course, not the way he remembers it; old friends are broke or just flat out gone; all his old haunts are still and quiet. None of it feels right to Charlie: nothing is quite recognizable and he’s softly embarrassed by all the things he can’t remember or never did when he lived in Paris. He tries to convince himself that the past doesn’t matter. Instead, he focuses on his nine-year-old daughter Honoria, who he hasn’t seen for ten months, in the hope of convincing her guardians, his sister-in-law Marion and her husband Lincoln, to let him take his daughter back to Prague. He hopes they can forgive him for what happened to his deceased wife Helen, which Fitzgerald is careful not to reveal too soon.

The melancholy and the hopeful stubbornness Charlie shows in the first scene resonates in each of the story’s five sections. The large, bustling city he remembers is gone, and Charlie is both relieved and nostalgic for the days when he was filthy rich and frequently drunk. It was a party that never should have ended.

Helen haunts the story. Naturally, Marion is unconvinced that Charlie has changed. Every word she speaks, every gesture she makes, is cautious, icy, a thinly veiled contempt for her brother-in-law. Charlie’s mind never focuses on Helen, too painful to linger on, too incompatible with his hopeful view of the future. Helen reminds both characters of their past—my wonderful and flawless sister; my carefree partner-in-crime wife—that no longer exists and probably wasn’t a true image of Helen anyway. They both need Helen to be a martyr, to serve their own needs.

But the story gives Charlie, and the reader, a second type of ghost: Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, “one of a crowd who had helped them make the months into days in the lavish times of three years ago.” They are doppelgängers for Charlie and Helen, the presence of the past that can be shaken off and turned into pretty memories. They are still drunk and lascivious, and Charlie tries and fails repeatedly to duck them. All of which brings the story to its apex when they corner Charlie by storming into Helen and Lincoln’s living room.

Honoria is more of a device than a character, and I wondered more than once how deliberate this characterization was. To see her as a token to be fought over seems to fit the story, fit how Charlie wants possession of her (of his past, of his change) without really contemplating why. There is little signs of love for her from Helen and Lincoln, who are simply doing their duty more than anything. It’s American of them, in the most derisive of ways, to want to have something solely for the purpose of having it, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Even of their own lives.

This week, after rereading “Babylon Revisited” once, I wrote one of my friends and said that Fitzgerald’s story really seems to be of an era rather than timelessness. I’m less convinced this is true now. All great stories are of their time … and of our own. Experiencing Charlie’s decadence and decay recalls our recent booms and busts. Whether it was the Great Recession and the housing bubble, the tech boom, Dow 36000, the Post War Boom … well, you’ve seen and heard this dance before. This time it’s different, they say. It never is. Any student of history knows better. Any reader of fiction.

Charlie’s collapse, both mental and financial, could be from any era. So too could his stubborn American view of the morning—“football weather”, he calls it—when anything is possible, anything can be done. But Fitzgerald shows us what Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This constant fragility of our lives, of what we’ve done, is the kind of tragedy that Fitzgerald orchestrated these moments better than any other writer of his era. The story’s devastating last line perfectly captures this fragility. I won’t give away the ending of this story, just in case, but close with this from the end of the first section:

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.

If you haven’t already, you can read “Babylon Revisited” here.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye