The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Title:  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Author:  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Paperback:  32 pages

Date Published:  February 18, 2008

Publisher:  Juniper Grove

ISBN:  9781603550833

A nurse was sitting behind a desk in the opaque gloom of the hall.  Swallowing his shame, Mr. Button approached her.

“Good-morning,” she remarked, looking up at him pleasantly.

“Good-morning.  I -I am Mr. Button.”

At this a look of utter terror spread itself over the girl’s face.  She rose to her feet and seemed about to fly from the hall, restraining herself only with the most apparent difficulty.

“I want to see my child,” said Mr. Button.

…Ranged around the walls were half a dozen white-enameled rolling cribs, each with a tag tied at the head.

“Well,” gasped Mr. Button, “which is mine?”

“There!” said the nurse.

Mr. Button’s eyes followed her pointing finger, and this is what he saw.  Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partially crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age.  His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-colored beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned by the breeze coming in at the window.  He looked up at Mr. Button with dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.

“Am I mad?”  thundered Mr. Button, his terror resolving into rage.  “Is this some ghastly hospital joke?”

“It doesn’t seem like a joke to us,”  replied the nurse severely.  “And I don’t know whether you’re mad or not – but that is most certainly your child.”

-”The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, pages 3-4

Originally published in Collier’s,  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” was inspired by a comment once made by Mark Twain.

Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.

Such was the beginning for the stories main character, Benjamin Button.  Born as an elderly man, much to the chagrin of his socially and financially prominent family, his father initially intends to name his newborn “Methuselah” after the longest-living biblical patriarch who died at the age of 969 years of age.

Throughout the story, Benjamin lives a life that lacks, for the most part, acceptance.  His father doesn’t accept him as  a child and insists he wear short pants and play with toys, all the while the aged young Button would rather read the Encyclopedia Britannica and smoke Cuban cigars.  At the age of 18 (though looking 50), Benjamin is run out of New Haven, Connecticut by a mob when he insists to the Yale registrar that he is indeed both a freshman and eighteen.  As he grows younger and his wife grows older, she insists he stop being different and grow old like normal people, a sentiment later echoed by his own son.

While “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is an interesting story, it is dated in it’s language and cultural sense.  A fifty-year-old college freshman would be commended today, rather than mocked.  In a world with the Internet and Paparazzi lurking behind every bush, waiting to snap a picture of the social elite, when those same pictures are discussed for weeks and speculations are made on national television, blogs and by comedians and late-night talk show host as to whether they’ve had work done, are suffering from an eating disorder or are doing crack, the global nature of our “community” would render it impossible to notice Button’s de-aging process.

And I won’t even go into the physiological impossibility for a woman of average height, 5′ 4″ to give birth to a 5’8″ baby.  She wouldn’t have even been able to carry the baby to term.  And this same baby is born with the ability to talk intelligently, to know the difference between milk and steak, and to walk home from the hospital?  OKAY… so this story requires an incredible amount of “willingness to suspend belief”.

But, most of all…. This is a short story that I very much wish had been fleshed out into a novel.  It leaves out so much detail and is over so quickly.  I was able to read it in about an hour, as it was only 26 pages, and I judged a cartwheel contest in that hour, as well.

It is important to remember that “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was written by Fitzgerald in the early 20s.  I thought about one of my favorite television series from my childhood, Mork and Mindy, the movie Jack and, of course, the recent film version of the short story starring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.

Not only did Fitzgerald take his inspiration for the story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” from Mark Twain, but the writing style also had a Twain-esque feel to it, which was probably one of the things that helped me get through it.  All in all, I’d say, if ya got the book lying around,  read it… it’s short enough not to be a punishment… but don’t go out of your way to find a copy.  I can now watch the movie, guilt-free, and I’m betting the movie is better than the book, which feels more like a concept for a novel than a completed work.  I give “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Trailer for the movie version of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons”…  And I would definitely HAVE TO SAY that the movie is about as much “based” on Fitzgerald’s story as the story was “based” on Twain’s quote.  From what I’ve seen in the trailer, I’d have to say that it bears little resemblance to the short story, but it looks a lot more magical than the written story was.

The Book Thief companion post

I decided to make a second post for The Book Thief, as my review was taking on an extended life of it’s own and would have eventually grown beyond 3000 words.  Since a lot of what is in this post isn’t a review of the book itself, I thought it best to put the following in a companion post.

Other thoughts about and quotes from The Book Thief:

Last week’s “Booking Through Thursday” question had to do with books made into movies, including the question “What book would you NOT want to be made into a movie?”  At the time, I really didn’t have an answer for that question, but NOW I do.

I don’t ever want to see The Book Thief made into a movie.  One of the major points of beauty with this book is the writing itself.  Zusak’s poetic and illustrative narrative cannot POSSIBLY be translated to the screen.  It is the word pictures and imaginative imagery that make The Book Thief so special, and I believe that when this book is presented in an acted-out format it will simply become just another sad, hard-knock-life, World-War-Two story like so many others that line the video store’s shelves.

Sadly, it is already optioned and in the pre-production stage with a tentative release date of 2010.  *sighs and cries*   Honestly, tell me how the following passage can be “re-formatted” for the big screen:

     …For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to.  Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.

The voices suddenly all sounded the same.
     Robert Holtzapfel collapsed to his right, onto the cold and steamy ground.
     I’m sure he expected to meet me there and then.
He didn’t.
     Unfortunately for the young German, I did not take him that afternoon.  I stepped over him with the other poor souls in my arms and made my way back to the Russians.
     Back and forth, I travelled.
Disassembled men.
     It was no ski-trip, I can tell you.

     As Michael told his mother, it was three very long days later that I finally came for the soldier who left his feet behind in Stalingrad.  I showed up very much invited at the temporary hospital and flinched at the smell.
     A man with a bandaged hand was telling the mute, shock-faced soldier that he would survive.  “You’ll soon be going home,” he assured him.
     Yes, home, I thought.  For good.
     “I’ll wait for you,” he continued.  “I was going back at the end of the week, but I’ll wait.”
     In the middle of his brother’s next sentence, I gathered up the soul of Robert Holtzapfel.
     Usually, I need to exert myself, to look through the ceiling when I’m inside, but I was lucky in that particular building.  A small section of the roof had been destroyed and I could see straight up.  A metre away, Michael Holtzapfel was still talking.  I tried to ignore him by watching the hole above me.  The sky was white but deteriorating fast.  As always, it was becoming an enormous dust sheet.  Blood was bleeding through, and in patches, the clouds were dirty, like footprints in melting snow.
     Footprints? you ask.
Well, I wonder whose those could be.

     In Frau Holtzapfel’s kitchen, Liesel read.  The pages waded by unheard, and for me, when the Russian scenery fades in my eyes, the snow refuses to stop falling from the ceiling.  The kettle is covered, as is the table.  The humans, too, are wearing patches of snow, on their heads and shoulders.
     The brother shivers.
The woman weeps.
     And the girl goes on reading, for that’s why she’s there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.

 -The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, pages 475-477

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When Nazi soldiers march some Jewish prisoners back to the work camp in Dachau, the “parade” makes its way through Molching.   The following quote describes this event:

On Munich Street, they watched.
     … They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalogue of colours.  That wasn’t how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that’s exactly what they were, for many of them would die.  They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke, and their souls trailing behind.

     When they arrived in full, the noise of their feet throbbed amongst the road.  Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls.  And the dirt.  The dirt was moulded to them.  Their legs staggered as they were pushed by soldiers’ hands – a few wayward steps of forced running before the slow return to a malnourished walk.
     … The suffering faces of depleted men and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help – they were beyond that – but for an explanation.  Just something to subdue this confusion.
     Their feet could barely rise above the ground.
Stars of David were plastered to their shirts, and misery was attached to them as if assigned. “Don’t forget your misery…” In some cases, it grew on them like a vine.
     At their side, the soldiers also made their way past, ordering them to hurry up and to stop moaning.  Some of those soldiers were only boys themselves.  They had the Fuhrer in their eyes.
     … Liesel was certain that these were the poorest souls alive…  Their gaunt faces were stretched with torture.  Hunger ate them as they continued forward, some of them watching the ground to avoid the people on the side of the road.  Some looked appealingly at those who had come to observe their humiliation, this prelude to their deaths.  Others pleaded for someone, anyone, to step forward and catch them in their arms.
     No-one did.
Whether they watched this parade with pride, temerity or shame, nobody came forward to interrupt it.  Not yet.
     Once in a while, a man or woman – no, they were not men and women, they were Jews – would find Liesel’s face amongst the crowd.  They would meet her with their defeat, and the book thief could only watch them back in a long, incurable moment before they were gone again.  She could only hope they could read the depth of sorrow in her face, to recognise that it was true, and not fleeting.
     … She understood that she was utterly worthless to these people.  They could not be saved, and in a few minutes, she would see what would happen to those who might try to help them.

In a small gap in the procession, there was a man, older than the others.
     He wore a beard and torn clothes.
His eyes were the colour of agony, and weightless as he was, he was too heavy for his legs to carry.

-The book Thief by Markus Zusak, pages 398-400

I particularly love the line, “His eyes were the colour of agony,” and hate to see that lost when it’s on screen. 

One line in the previous quote that I find particularly chilling is, “Some of those soldiers were only boys themselves.  They had the Fuhrer in their eyes.” 

We often consider Hitler’s greatest evil being the systematic devastation of an entire people group.  Certainly, his “final solution” that brought about the deaths of approximately 6 million Jews, what is more commonly referred to as The Holocaust, was an unimaginably horribly wicked thing.  However, not to sound dismissive, those six million people are dead and gone.  If it had ended there, it would have been an appallingly grotesque act of a fiend.

No, the greatest evil still being perpetrated by Hitler was the indoctrination of childred.  “They had the Fuhrer in their eyes.”  Those boy soldiers grew up and taught their children the doctrines of hate.  And when those children had children of their own, they too passed on the poisonous cancer of intolerance.  As terrible as these beliefs are for those to whom they are directed, the worst pain of all is inflicted on the believers themselves.  They will never know peace and love, and they will never truly experience a sense of self-acceptance.  Hate only breeds more hate.  And in this way, Hitler still lives on and continues to enslave and destroy his followers.

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The following quote describes the residents of an undamaged Himmel Street returning home after an air raid:

The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west.  It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of humans into apparitions.
     There were no people on the street any more.
     They were rumours carrying bags.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 390

ARGH!  I just can’t see a movie being able to give you that.  “They were rumours carrying bags.”  They can make the set smoky, and they can have people trudge in front of the camera, but how can it ever fully express them as rumors?

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One of the stresses in the Hubermann household is that Hans isn’t a card-carrying party member.  Because he gave a Jewish shop owner back a little bit of his dignity by painting over an anti-Semitic slur on his door, Hans had never been approved membership.  Without being a member, people were reluctant to hire him as a painter.

What probably saved him was that people knew he was at least waiting for his application to be approved.  For this, he was tolerated, if not endorsed as the competent painter he was.
     Then There was his other saviour.
It was the accordion that most likely spared him from total ostracism.  Painters there were, from all over Munich, but under the brief tutorage of Erik Vandenburg and nearly two decades of his own steady practice, there was no-one in Molching who could play exactly like him.  It was a style not of perfection, but of warmth.  Even mistakes had a good feeling about them.

-The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak, page 191

Hans’ accordion had belonged to Erik Vandenburg, his friend and fellow soldier in World War I and the man who saved Hans’ life.  Hans and Erik had passed the time learning and playing the accordion, and in the years that followed Hans had developed his own special style that was much loved in his community.  Ironically, Erik Vandenburg was a Jew.

And being a Jew in Nazi Germany was the least desirable position of all, as the following quote points out:

You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy.  She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg.  Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms.  Her mother abandoned her.

But anything was better than being a Jew.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 168

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When Liesel first comes to live with the Hubermann’s at nine years of age, she is completely illiterate.  As Hans works with her, first teaching her the alphabet then words and sentences, she begins to understand and sense the power bound within the covers of books, and books themselves become objects of priceless worth.  So, when Liesel first steps into the personal library of Mayor’s wife, she is overcome with joy at the sight of it:

“Jesus, Mary… “

She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books.  Books everywhere!  Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving.  It was barely possible to see the paintwork.  There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the grey, the every-coloured books.  It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder she smiled.

That such a room existed!

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 141

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The last of my little post-it flags have been removed from my book, and I’m out of quotes.  I think I can finally part with my copy of The Book Thief, it’s destined for a fellow BookMoocher, though I guarantee I will grab any… and every, in all likelihood… copy I come across in the future.  I know I will re-read this book again, and probably more than once.

The final quote I’ll end this post with is the first few lines of the book:

First the colours.
     Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
     Or at least, how I try.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 13

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