Friday, September 30, 2022

Back to the Classics #18

I read this book for the reading challenge Back to the Classics 2022.

20th Century Classic: This novel is generally regarded as set in the Jazz Age – but it’s not: it’s set a couple years before and a bit after the Great War so it’s hardly a mirror of Flaming Youth in the Roaring Twenties. Plus, I never knew critics regarded this one as the worst of his four complete novels. Besides inordinate length and immaturity of vision, it seems they didn’t like his uncertain stance toward his characters. My stance as a reader was uncertain. I didn’t sympathize with their partying but I warmly sympathized with their love – Fitzgerald can make thems that was young once and married 40+ years since remember falling in love. How is that not a super-power?

The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In this 1922 American novel, an indolent young man with expectations of millions meets a beautiful woman who wants to party as hard as possible while she is still young and attractive. In luminous prose, Fitzgerald tells the story of how their love turns tumultuous and then just sour. It’s the kind of love story with self-destructive characters that reminds us how good life can be even though we face money worries, have plain looks and narrow prospects, get married with eyes wide open, and stay married with eyes wide shut.

And don’t abuse alcohol.

It’s certainly not a novel for readers who need to like the characters. The characters are as detestable here as Trump, Daisy, and Jordan in The Great Gatsby: nonchalant, manipulative, sullen, hostile, rude, stubborn, with favorite words being “now” and “more.” For other readers it’s fun to toss back the popcorn and revel in how two sweethearts paint the pre-WWI Big Apple red, spend money they don’t have, live in nonstop denial, and hang out with worse and worse companions. Nya-nya, you inept rich and pretty people should’ve stayed home, read Thackeray, and listened to Mama Told Me (Not to Come), like we hardcore readers do.

How does Fitzgerald make us stick with these dissolute characters, giving abject lessons for readers that don’t need reminders that alcohol abuse will drive them to the dogs? Because he gives the familiar moralistic reminders in new vivid ways. For instance, he raises the question if Americans twisted up the “pursuit of happiness” into the hedonic treadmill. In short, get over chasing the next big thing:

And that taught me you can't have anything, you can't have anything at all. Because desire just cheats you. It's like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it - but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you've got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone.

But we don’t read serious fiction only for reminders on how to live a flourishing life. Fitzgerald tells and shows information about his characters and mixes in truths about the weird irrationality of love that aren’t beautiful. Gloria broached the idea that losses and disappointments may accrue to the extent that even love is left behind. Love isn’t enough to balance expectations failed over time.

What a writer Fitzgerald was! Perfect, natural flow of writing. I put it down only when I felt too exhausted to read it as closely as it ought to be read. I suppose some readers and editors wish that many melodramatic details of Anthony and Gloria's lazy decline were cut. It’s painful to see them and their friends shredded by their ignorance – nobody in the second-generation of rich raised them to equip themselves with any values that would protect them, so they were inevitable victims of their feelings and dissipation, bent under the weight of boredom and bad company, so young and naive about time. 

But after the sound of decanters shattering and frenzied laughter, the ending gives us hope for Gloria as an genuine grown-up who just happens to wear a Russian sable coat.

Note re Errata: Tom, Tom Buchanan, not Trump. Silly me, getting two arrogant hypocritical hulking bullies confused. One last point: Anthony’s expected inheritance is $30 million in 1920 which is the equivalent of about $400 million in 2022.

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