Real Time Short Stories

Real Time Reads: F.Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited”

Posted on: May 8, 2011

We’ve been here before. Reading an 80-year-old story about a return, we can recognise that stories don’t simply repeat themselves: they repeat ourselves.

When we read a short story we can see a performance of life taking place. Life in the fiction slows to the pace at which its readers live; moments unfold before us; we connect to the characters in their taking and losing of breath: through all this we come to an understanding that this life we’re holding in our hands, this apparent fiction, is our own. Consider this moment in Chekhov’s At Home, in which Bikovsky, a lawyer and widower, whose seven-year-old son, Seriozha, has been caught smoking while he was at work in court; as he attempts to convey the nature of the wrongdoing to his son, the boy climbs onto his lap and starts to play with his father’s facial hair:

The lawyer felt the child’s breath on his face, the soft hair brushed from his cheek, and warmth and tenderness crept into his heart as if his whole soul, and not his hands alone, were lying on the velvet of Seriozha’s tunic.
He looked into the boy’s large, dark eyes and seemed to see mother and wife and everything he had once loved gazing out of those wide pupils.
[Anton Chekhov, At Home, from Wordsworth Classics “Selected Stories]

Eighteen eighty-seven. Yet how modern, how startling to find that that sensual transference of breath from a child’s mouth to a parent’s skin, the hypnotic ardour that encircles a shared gaze between loved ones, has remained intact for a century and a quarter, and has travelled to take up new positions between us and our parents, our children, our spouses and lovers. We are the breath, the skin, the eyes, the gaze, the emotion.

Consider now the bare plot details of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s 1931 story, Babylon Revisited, republished by Penguin Modern Classics, and also online HERE. Charlie Wales, an American businessman now living in Prague, also widowed and also father to a young child, returns to Paris where his fortunes and then misfortunes were played out, in order to spend time with his daughter, Honoria. Charlie’s drinking and mistreatment of his wife, Helen, meant that when she died of heart disease, her sister Marion Peters and Marion’s husband, Lincoln, also living in Paris, had become Honoria’s legal guardians. Charlie is now sober and solvent and his reunion with his daughter goes well: she wants to come to Prague to live with him. The difficulty is overcoming Marion’s hostility. At the most promising moment of this process, two of Charlie’s old friends from his drinking days – Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles (those doubles consonants seemingly designed to be slurred over one cocktail too many) – show up at Marion and Lincoln’s home, attempting to drag Charlie out on the town with them…

The human relationships here once more strike a chord with the lives we lead. As with the intimate nuzzle shared by Bikhovsky and Seriozha, we can relate to the thrill and delight expressed in Honoria’s greeting of “Oh daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, dads, dads, dads!” when he first arrives at the Peters’ household, which we may find resonates with Jenny Agutter’s unforgettable “Daddy, my Daddy!” at the end of the 1970 film of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. We can also see versions of the lives we have lived or known in the relationship between Charlie and Marion, poisoned by Helen’s death, the circumstances that led to it and the way their lives have been shaped since. Duncan and Lorraine play a familiar role, symbols of Charlie’s dissolute past and, particularly in the person of Lorraine, with whom Charlie shared a mutual attraction when both were married, a potential anchor, dragging him back into those waters.

One of the ideas about short fiction I’m using this blog to explore is the way, as I noted in the April 17 Coffee Spoons post, “short stories never really progress as a form – and [the way] conversely, they are always relevant.” No story does anything that stories have never done before except simply to find a new element in the ways we live, the ways our minds work, the ways we tell each other stories, to present back to us. While the personal story of Charlie Wales is absorbing, what gives it an extra kick and deeper resonance today is the social and economic setting. In this context, it relates to my ongoing discussion about the relationship between short fiction and cafe society. Fitzgerald picks Charlie up from the Ritz bar, where he is taking the one drink he allows himself each day, and has him observe that this place that once buzzed with American noises and cash, now shuffles to a parochial French beat. Later, he has him re-discovering the pleasure gardens of Parisian nightlife for the first time with a clear head, during which outing he watches Josephine Baker “go through her chocolate arabesques.”

The ghosts of the period, which can be summed up best by Fitzgerald’s “beautiful and damned”, are still visible, Duncan and Lorraine providing ghastly evidence, but the money has gone. This is what underpins the whole story. It is the time after. Charlie is doing well for himself again in business but he first has had to lose everything. The world has re-organised itself around the vicissitudes of capitalism and people are finding out or attempting to decide whether they are victims or survivors.

These are the times in which we live. For Prague, read Mumbai; read Beijing. For the sparse bar in the Ritz, read the hegeomy of closed shutters coming soon to a High Street or retail park near you. On Thursday, across the UK, voters registered a huge protest vote against the austerity measures of the incumbent coalition government and the duplicity of the Liberal Democrat leader who helped form the coalition – and magically ended up with the ruling Conservatives in the position to become still more dominant for the foreseeable future, with Wales and Northern England flushed back to the economic despair and political insignificance of 30 years ago. The story is called Babylon Revisited. You better stick to just the one drink every day because you’re going to want to make it last.

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2 Responses to "Real Time Reads: F.Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited”"

“Eighteen eighty-seven. Yet how modern, how startling to find that that sensual transference of breath from a child’s mouth to a parent’s skin, the hypnotic ardour that encircles a shared gaze between loved ones, has remained intact for a century and a quarter, and has travelled to take up new positions between us and our parents, our children, our spouses and lovers. We are the breath, the skin, the eyes, the gaze, the emotion. ”

This is truly beautiful Din. It reminds me of the ending of The Bridge of San Luis Rey- in which we realise that even memory will one day evaporate but love exists…And Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb- What will survive of us is love-Indeed.

[…] proposition when he finds himself picked up in a cab by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we have previously had, in 1985′s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia […]

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