Fitzgerald from a Frenchman's view; F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography, by Andre Le Vot. Translated by William Byron. New York: Doubleday & Co. 398 pp. $19.95.
One of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories tells about a young American artist who goes abroad ''to paint something new into the Bay of Naples.'' My first reaction to this new biography of Fitzgerald was that Professor Le Vot had undertaken a similar rather unlikely task. Hadn't the life of the American writer been pretty well limned by Arthur Mizener, Andrew Turnbull, Matthew Bruccoli, and the rest?
In fact, Professor Le Vot does bring fresh insights to bear, so that we read this thrice-told tale with a real sense of discovery. From his very Gallic approach there emerges a deeper understanding of the writer whom another French critic once aptly referred to as un Americain peu tranquil.
Fitzgerald's whole life (1896-1940) was indeed a kind of turmoil. Le Vot calls its short span ''the lover's quarrel he waged with the word.'' As a youth, Fitzgerald wanted fame, and he wanted it fast. Shortcuts to it were to be athletic prowess and the chance to be a hero in World War I. So the ''shoulder pads worn one day on the Princeton freshman football field . . . and the overseas cap never worn overseas'' became symbols of failure in the vivid lexicon he would soon create.
For Fitzgerald really was a born writer. At first, as his mentor Edmund Wilson quickly saw, he had ''a gift of expression without many ideas to express.'' The heart and core of Le Vot's splendid book is the analysis of how Scott Fitzgerald's ideas did blossom, and how he went on to become one of the finest American writers. (Here Le Vot has an advantage over some of the earlier biographers: The fame is secure now. The superficialities and syncopations of the Jazz Age are seen to be trappings only, not the heart of the matter.)
How completely Fitzgerald drew on direct experience is made clearer than ever before. He himself said, ''I must start with an emotion that's close to me and that I can understand.'' Le Vot expands this: ''Any subject foreign to his preoccupation . . . was useless unless it touched some secret chord.''
As a result, the exploitation of two or three great lifetime experiences is what informs Fitzgerald's work. In much the same way that architects are forever designing the same building, authors endlessly recycle their material. The wonder of Fitzgerald, as Le Vot observes him, is that he was able to extract variations from his uneven, often despairing life. To understand the novels and stories, the familiar landmarks in Scott and Zelda's reckless journey must be studied again, and this Le Vot does with competence. What he adds is a very French appreciation of Fitzgerald's compulsive affairs, as Zelda's bright star faded and her health gave way. . . .
New, too, is Le Vot's exploration of the use of color in Fitzgerald, most particularly in ''The Great Gatsby.'' Blue, like the blue of Gatsby's gardens, stands for twilight and nostalgia. Yellow is for hope, exemplified by the girls in their yellow dresses at the many fetes. But yellow is also green promise gone dry and menacing, as in the yellow of Dr. Eckleburg's spectacles on the billboard dominating the desert of ash between New York and West Egg.
A further insight of Le Vot's is his evocation of music, and its close relation to color, in Fitzgerald: ''The two great antithetical magnetic fields wheeling around blue and yellow correspond to the two registers of ragtime: the left hand plays a grave blues rhythm, its throbbing beat like a call, or rather a wistful recall. . . . The right hand gives a striking musical equivalent of the gamut of sharp, hyperactive yellow.'' It is out of the subtle use of these two registers and contrasting tones that the novelist created mood with such brilliance.
On the Fitzgerald-Hemingway relationship and its ambiguity, ''spontaneous on one side, reticent on the other,'' Le Vot has sharp views. He identifies the year 1926 as the time when the warmhearted Fitzgerald, convinced of Hemingway's greater talent, abandoned territory that his friend was staking out. This ''nullified all Fitzgerald's searching and rendered obsolete the complex architecture of 'Gatsby.' ''
Arbitrary conclusions such as this may be a little far-fetched. So, perhaps, is the use of words like ''paratactic'' and ''semiotician'' in the text, which could, of course, be the fault of the otherwise impeccable translator. Despite such occasional lapses, Andre Le Vot's biography - perceptive, provocative, and most unusual - will send many of us scurrying back to the works of an American master.