Thursday, April 09, 2009

Babylon Revisited

Charlie Wales returns to Paris hoping to gain custody of his young daughter Honoria. Charlie was in no shape to take care of her when her mother died seven years ago. He was an alcoholic who spent all his time in the fashionable bars and restaurants of the glittering city.

Honoria has been raised by her aunt, a woman who despises Charlie for the way he treated his wife--much like Scott and Zelda, they battled a great deal--drunkenly locking her out in the snow one night not too long before she died. While there is no real connection between what he did and her death both the sister and Charlie are burdened with it--she in rage, Charlie in grief and remorse.

In the course of the story Charlie revisits some of the bars where he once drank along with his rich American friends and the more successful of the expatriate colony. But the world-wide Depression has changed everything. The bartender has a grim story for every name Charlie brings up. Death, madness, loss of fortune. The glamor of Paris is no more just as Charlie is no more, not the charming, glib, handsome Charlie of old anyway. He is now a frightened alcoholic trying to rebuild his life, limiting himself to one drink a day. He hopes.

At his sister-in-law's, while Charlie is trying to present himself as a responsible man these days, a couple he knew from the golden days burst in. They are loud and giddy and silly in their drunken folly. For them the heyday of the city has never ended. They've remained rich. Charlie sees in them the man he once was and is disgusted. He runs them out of the house. But to no avail. His sister-in-law insists on keeping Honoria. Charlie is in no condition, so tentatively sober, to take her.

Charlie ends up looking for the silly couple he ran out of the house. He sits at the bar with an empty glass in front of him. One drink a day. He's had his ration. Or so he tries to convince himself. But as night crowds in will he be able to control himself after his failure to get custody of his daughter?

You don't have to be an alcoholic to understand this story but it doesn't hurt. I quit drinking thirty-five years ago after fifteen years of living inside a bottle. But even after all this time I recognized everything Charlie is going through. Not a day goes by when I don't cringe at something I did in my bottle days, a cruel word or argument or fight. I'm haunted just as Charlie is.

The terrible beauty of the story is its portrait of a man who must face the world sober and is overwhelmed by it. He is weak and fragile man and in the two scenes with his little girl we see a man very near the crack-up Fitzgerald himself would have a few years after writing the story. The weight of these moments is crushing, for the girl and for Charlie Wales alike.

The gloom of the Depression is familiar to us today. Charlie's world is crumbling--and so is the world around him. Sitting in the bar with his empty glass, fighting off the desire to have a second drink, we have a portrait of Fitzgerald's last years. Hard to imagine that he'd be dead in his early forties. Even harder to imagine that he died with all his books out of print, forgotten by many, even mocked by a few. In his journals you find the following line : "Ernest (Hemingway) speaks with the authority of success; I with the authority of failure." If you look past the self-pity of that remark you see its irony. Hemingway's "success" has not worn well (except for the short stories) while Fitzgerald's "failure" is all too contemporary.


mybillcrider said...

A fine story that I inflicted on generations of sophomores. Some day they'll thank me.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful little piece Ed. Thanks
Terry Butler