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Bright Star, Green Light Reviews

Bright Star, Green Light by Jonathan Bate

Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful and Damned Lives of John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jonathan Bate

3.50 out of 5

5 reviews

Imprint: William Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4 Feb 2021
ISBN: 9780008424978

A dazzling biography of two interwoven, tragic lives: John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  • The ObserverBook of the Week
4 stars out of 5
Rachel Cooke
24 Jan 2021

"A daring, dizzying attempt to connect Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald has plenty to take pleasure in"

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.

Reviews

3 stars out of 5
13 Mar 2021

"Bright Star, Green Light is a problematic diptych portrait of the two men — both less beautiful, or damned, than struggling to make it as professional authors in an ever rough world."

Not just the beauty of their way with words, but the visceral practicality of both writers, binds them: Keats’s recognition as a doctor that the bright blood he coughed up meant he would die, and the at once living and haunting hand he held out in his verse; Fitzgerald’s horror of what people did for love, and how wrecked the filthy modern tide made the world, resonant in all he wrote. Bright Star, Green Light is a problematic diptych portrait of the two men — both less beautiful, or damned, than struggling to make it as professional authors in an ever rough world.

3 stars out of 5
28 Feb 2021

"Keats is unmissably present in Fitzgerald’s work. This book tries to track the parallels between these two great writers"

However, what Bate has attempted here for the general or student reader — he assumes no prior knowledge of the work of either writer “beyond perhaps The Great Gatsby or the odes of Keats”, not even the poet’s letters — is an entirely different undertaking; the writing of parallel lives of the two men in the mode of Plutarch comparing the lives of the Greeks and Romans, like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, with an emphasis on anecdotes and incidents revelatory of character.

3 stars out of 5
17 Feb 2021

"certainly an excellent introduction to each writer"

The idea of a “binocular” biography of Fitzgerald and Keats – the bicentenary of whose death is commemorated on 23 February – is, Bate says, an attempt to follow the classical example of Plutarch, whose biographies couple Greek and Roman figures together, inviting the reader to compare and contrast. However, Bate’s subtitle – the “beautiful and damned lives” – comes dangerously near to trivialising the notion, and does less than justice to the book itself. It seems to imply that the two writers are primarily examples of a common type: self-destructive aesthetes. Keats died, aged 25, from tuberculosis in 1821; Fitzgerald’s alcoholism probably contributed to his death, aged 44, in 1940. But Bate’s typically lively and well-researched narrative shows clearly enough that Keats’s tragically early death had nothing to do with any self-destructive impulses, and that Fitzgerald’s most distinctive and mature work has a sparseness, tightness and irony that cannot be reduced to a bundle of exotic special effects.

4 stars out of 5
Laura Freeman
6 Feb 2021

"This energetic study explores the similarities between these two great literary figures"

The result is an energetic and highly engaging game of literary ping-pong across the ages. Life, writing and inspiration are served and returned in a rapid rally of ideas. If the book lacks the pulse and propulsion of Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes, it’s the fault of the format. Just as you’re getting into the rhythm of Keats and the Romantics, you’re bounced on to Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age. Still, what an immensely charismatic pair they are.