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I picked up this book to read partly as a challenge. Firstly, I had not read any early 20th century American fiction for some years, my experience consisting largely of a few Hemingway titles some years ago. Secondly, I was interested in finding out about F. Scott Fitzgerald as a person, and decided that trying one of his novels was the next logical step.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was one of the foremost writers during the Jazz Age of the 1920s (a term which he apparently coined himself), his reputation resting largely on five novels, one published posthumously. He seems to have been a bit of a rock star type before his time, leading a rather decadent lifestyle, ruining his health by too much good living and an alcohol problem, and dying from heart problems at the age of 44.
'The Beautiful and Damned' follows the early lives of Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert, between the years 1913 and 1921. Anthony is good-looking, blessed with a solid Harvard education, and looks forward to coming into a more than decent inheritance from his elderly grandfather. He is also a bit of a spoilt brat, without the inclination or ability to hold down a proper job. Good food, plenty to drink, and visits to his stockbroker are his lifestyle. Then he meets Gloria, who is equally vain and empty-headed. Spoilt and sophisticated, the kind of person to whom the idea of anything as vulgar as housework is anathema, she recognises a kindred spirit in this man with whom she can enjoy spending money in hotels and restaurants and on fine clothes, rent expensive apartments, drive good cars, and hang out with other people like themselves. If they end up literally in the gutter in the small hours after a good binge, so what?
Frankly, they are a couple of privileged, totally unsympathetic characters who seem to deserve each other and nothing else. Is there any point in persevering with a book based around two characters who are not really worth caring about?
No - and yes. I did struggle with this book at first, but despite my reservations, I found myself drawn in. Mr and Mrs Patch, as they become, are pretty worthless types, but they were probably not so very different from many of their self-obsessed, vacuous contemporaries who had too much too soon and also led pretty empty lives. Having read a certain amount about American society and social history immediately during and after the Great War was a further reason for my continuing with it. They say that one of the tests of a good novel is that you should care about at least one of the main protagonists. I couldn't really care about them at all, and I suspect many other readers would say the same - but that doesn't mean that you don't want to read to the end.
In fact, the book is autobiographical to a certain extent. It was Fitzgerald's second novel, published in 1922 when he was only 26, and Anthony and Gloria are based largely on himself and his wife Zelda.
The story follows the eight years through America's participation in the war, the first years of peace, and eventually prohibition. Anthony and Gloria are head over heels in love with each other at first, but at length it seems they are only really in love with themselves, and they soon find that married life is not all that they had hoped for. He drowns his sorrows, or should it be sheer boredom and depression, in drink, while she bemoans the loss of her gorgeous looks as she nears thirty. Perhaps one consolation they have is that there are no children, and she never wanted any; 'the reality, the earthiness, the intolerable sentiment of child-bearing, the menace to her beauty - had appalled her.' She wants to be a movie star, and is sure she can be one for the asking, but a screen test reveals that she just does not have the talent. Times change, but in the Roaring Twenties both of them begin to realise just how empty their existence is.
As the title tells us, they may be beautiful, but they are also damned. Because they have money, they think that self-indulgence is the be-all and end-all of everything, until disillusion sets in. The backdrop to their aimless lives is the city, the bright lights, the restaurants and cocktail bars of good living and excess. Fitzgerald and his wife lived this life themselves, and his prose sums up the whole era well if rather cruelly. Maybe there is an element of self-reproach in his lamenting the life he was leading, of satire? Yet there is a difference, for Anthony himself had aspirations to write but never managed to launch himself on the career, while his creator did.
Although we are talking about a very different era, while reading this book I was occasionally reminded of 'America', the classic Simon & Garfunkel song from 1968. Something about the vision of two young lovers who 'marry their fortunes together' as their initial optimism fades into emptiness seemed to echo the fate of these two bright (?) young things in the book. I wonder if Paul Simon had read it before he wrote the song.
I found this an interesting read, although to say I enjoyed it might be an exaggeration. The atmosphere is spot-on, and in the end I think the book produces just as vivid a picture in words as some of the black and white films of the 30s and 40s of the American lifestyle ever did. It's an honest picture, as Fitzgerald does not glorify it, but instead cruelly exposes the hollowness of it all beneath the materialism and selfishness of those (like himself and his wife) who led such lives. As for the ciao criteria, I'd say the characters are 'good', in the sense that they are vividly portrayed, although not pleasant.
It's not a comfortable read, but in my opinion a worthwhile one. I now feel motivated to try one or two more by the same writer - but perhaps not immediately.
As with most classic novels which have been endlessly reprinted over the last eighty years or so, there are several different editions available from various publishers. I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition (2004), which includes an excellent eight-page introduction and critical commentary on the text.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]