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.
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.
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.
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.