On this day in 1928 Sylvia Beach hosted a dinner party so that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who “worshipped James Joyce, but was afraid to approach him,” might do so. In her Shakespeare and Company memoir Beach delicately avoids describing what happened, although she perhaps suggests an explanation: “Poor Scott was earning so much from his books that he and Zelda had to drink a great deal of champagne in Montmartre in an effort to get rid of it.” According to Herbert Gorman, another guest and Joyce’s first biographer, Fitzgerald sank down on one knee before Joyce, kissed his hand, and declared: “How does it feel to be a great genius, Sir? I am so excited at seeing you, Sir, that I could weep.” As the evening progressed, Fitzgerald “enlarged upon Nora Joyce’s beauty, and, finally, darted through an open window to the stone balcony outside, jumped on to the eighteen-inch-wide parapet and threatened to fling himself to the cobbled thoroughfare below unless Nora declared that she loved him.”
Beach, like almost everyone, liked and lamented Fitzgerald in equal measure: “…[W]ith his blue eyes and good looks, his concern for others, that wild recklessness of his, and his fallen-angel fascination, he streaked across the rue de l’Odéon, dazzling us for a moment.” Joyce was alarmed at the fallen-angel side. “That young man must be mad,” he later told Beach. “I’m afraid he’ll do himself an injury some day.”
Fitzgerald’s letters make clear his admiration of Joyce, and his hope to write “something really NEW in form, idea, structure–the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are searching for, that Conrad didn’t find.” Zelda’s letters are less enthusiastic about both Joyce and the modern novel. When undergoing treatment for her first breakdown–this was 1930, several years after the dinner–she asked Scott to choose her some books, carefully: “I have been reading Joyce and find it a nightmare in my present condition…and not Lawrence and not Virginia Wolf [sic] or anybody who writes by dipping the broken threads of their heads into the ink of literary history, please.” Several years later, Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, would have the same psychiatrist as Zelda and stay for a time in the same Lake Geneva clinic.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com..