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Bright Star, Green Light by Jonathan Bate review – the parallel lives of a pair of romantics

Rachel Cooke
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In my mind’s eye, I see F Scott Fitzgerald in white flannels on some Riviera beach, or at the wheel of a flashy car, its metallic curves in sharp contrast to the waistless girls all around. Forever a shiny figure, irrespective of what I know of his struggles with booze, outwardly he could not be more different to his literary idol, John Keats, with his curls, his cough and his mud-spattered boots. If both men were permanently in motion, comets blazing, Keats by design as well as necessity was a tramper: in 1818, he walked for 600 miles across Britain. Whatever the connections between them, the parallels of biography and sensibility, I can no more imagine he and Fitzgerald together than I can see them in silvery old age (Keats was 25 when tuberculosis killed him; Fitzgerald died of a heart attack aged 44).

This may be why I find the ambition of Jonathan Bate’s new book a little on the mad side. Crikey, but this is daring. Attempting to squeeze the short, dazzling lives of Fitzgerald and Keats, already so much written about, into one short volume, he asks a huge amount of himself, and of his reader. Flipping between 19th-century Hampstead and 20th-century Los Angeles, between Keats’s mooning after the barely outlined figure of Fanny Brawne and Fitzgerald’s tortured relationship with the altogether more vivid creation that was his wife, Zelda, has the potential to cause a certain amount of dizziness. I felt at moments as though I was caught between two lovers. When I was with Keats, I longed to get back to Fitzgerald; when I was with Fitzgerald, I would experience a sudden, fierce pang for Keats.

A portrait of John Keats by J. Severn
A portrait of John Keats by J. Severn. Photograph: Alamy

But this, I suppose, is the nature of the beast – and such yearning at least serves to remind you of both writers’ powerful conviction that happiness is always and inevitably fleeting. Bate has constructed Bright Star, Green Light on a model established by Plutarch, the idea being that these “parallel lives” will each shine a torch on the other. In the case of Fitzgerald, it works. The influence of Keats on The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night is well known; it’s hard to imagine a man sounding more passionately sincere than when Fitzgerald extols the virtues of his favourite odes to his daughter, Scottie, or to his last lover, Sheilah Graham. However, I’m less sure where it takes us in the case of Keats, born 100 years before. Often, it’s as if we’re looking at him through the wrong end of a telescope.

The parallels between their lives are, writes Bates, “uncanny”. Both wrote in the aftermath of war, in a period of freedom that would end with a financial crisis (the stock market panic of 1825 and the Wall Street crash of 1929). Both tried other means to bankroll their real work, Keats attempting to write for the stage, Fitzgerald for Hollywood. Both were romantics, apt to idealise women, and to long for the past. Bate puts a particular emphasis on Fitzgerald’s first love, Ginevra King, who inspired the character of Daisy in Gatsby, likening this obsession with that of Keats for Brawne (both relationships were unconsummated). But I wonder if this isn’t stretching things. Fitzgerald broke up with King in 1917. He met Zelda the following year, and she would reign almost supreme in his imaginative life; he even borrowed her lines on occasion. When Keats said goodbye to Fanny, on the other hand, he was already gravely ill and on his way to Italy, where he knew he would die.

Both were romantics, apt to idealise women, and to long for the past

Bate, whose recent biography of Wordsworth I admired, is at his best when he zeroes in on the work: his feeling for it, by being so exacting, is infectious, especially in the case of Keats. But elsewhere, he struggles. How to connect, again, Fitzgerald to Keats? This is his problem, and the strain of it tells (for instance, when he makes the perfectly redundant point that Keats had “none of the affluence of the Murphys”, the American couple who inspired the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night). Keats famously spoke of “negative capability”, a quality he believed led to greatness in literature, when “a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Bate, incidentally, sees Gatsby as a product of Fitzgerald’s “growth into Keatsian negative capability”) – and I came to wonder, caught as I was between thwarted-ness and a swoon, if such a state wouldn’t be useful in reading this book, too. Perhaps its omissions and juxtapositions are a good thing, its judicious slyness, though it necessarily involves startling frustrations, sending us back ultimately to Bate’s subjects and their work.

There’s a lot here to take pleasure in, from Edna St Vincent Millay’s description of (the pre-Gatsby) Fitzgerald as “a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond” (strangely accurate) to Byron’s dismissive remark, on reading Endymion, that Keats “is always frigging his Imagination” (ditto). But in the end, the principal achievement of this pairing is to remind us of the way that literature connects us. As Fitzgerald said to Sheilah Graham, as he enrolled her in his “college of one”, this may be its chief beauty: “You discover that your longings are universal longings… You belong.” At the end of Bright Star, Green Light, Bate instructs the reader to go to YouTube and listen to a recording of Fitzgerald reading Ode to a Nightingale (My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains…). Because I’m a good student, I did this immediately. The voice is slow, almost drowsy: under the influence, not of liquor, but of something even stronger. Poetry.

• Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful Works and Damned Lives of John Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald by Jonathan Bate is published by HarperCollins (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply