There was one question that kept coming back to me during The Beautiful And Damned: how much can you enjoy a book where characters you like are subjected to a prolonged though well-deserved fall from grace? Or a book in which principle characters spend most of the story feeling interminably bored and doing nothing about it? The answer, as it turns out, is “a lot more than you’d expect”. I think the main reason for this is that F Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer of two things: prose, and deteriorating relationships.
The story is of Anthony Patch, helpfully and entertainingly sketched out in the opening pages as a man almost entirely alone in the world, and attempting to navigate the temptations and distractions of New York in the 1910s and 20s. He doesn’t have many relatives, the only one of note being his benefactor grandfather, and spends his time intellectualising with old university friends and gallivanting around the city. He meets Gloria Gilbert, a hugely popular yet relatively chaste socialite, and they get married. The rest of the book then chronicles the ups and downs of their marriage, and their attempts to be happy despite diminishing funds and no impetus to get jobs or do anything to relieve the boredom of idleness and frivolity.
I think if anyone else had been the main characters of this story, Anthony and Gloria would have been reprehensible side characters who would contribute nothing to anyone else’s narratives – indeed, they barely contribute anything to their own. The main source of the reader’s sympathy for them stems from the sheer amount of narrative time they occupy, and how much Fitzgerald himself is willing to gloss over their more egregious faults. They represent every vice of the “lost generation” of the 1920s, from indolence to alcoholism, wasting potential with each breath they take. They occupy a pernicious listlessness, where dreams go to die and talk trumps action every time.
Fitzgerald’s satire of 1920s culture is a little more on-the-nose in other areas. His thoughts on the literary environment of the time are extremely interesting, as he uses the character of Richard Caramel to explore the relationship between popularity and artistic merit which Fitzgerald felt himself (and if you’re in any doubt about that, just read the passage in the book where Fitzgerald explicitly references public responses to his previous book, This Side Of Paradise). There are also several moments throughout the book where Fitzgerald chooses to present a scene or exchange between characters in the form of a script, abandoning the traditional form of the novel sometimes for pages at a time. This has the effect of satirising the artifice both of contemporary cinema, and of the conversations and characters themselves. It highlights the staged nature of these social interactions, the pretences each character is keeping up to remain socially acceptable, and the futility of attempting to maintain these charades for extended stretches of time.
Dramatic irony is heavily invoked in the reader when each of them is handed opportunities on a gilded platter to change their lives for the better, and they both fail to pursue these courses of action. Anthony could have been a writer, or a war reporter; Gloria could have been a movie star. Their lives, both as individuals and as a couple, are defined by their purposeless, their emptiness, and their loneliness.
Though the lives of the main characters feel empty, the book itself does not, which I think is nothing short of a miracle. Given his well-documented personal life, it’s no wonder that Fitzgerald is able to so vividly realise a stormy marriage for the reader. Every petty fight, every ill-chosen word, and every private struggle neither of them airs to the other lends the book a beautiful melancholy atmosphere in its second half, and the main reason it’s so successful is because of the sweeping romanticism painted into the foundations of their relationship. Fitzgerald makes their courtship and early marriage so engaging and so beautiful that it heightens the tragedy of their struggles later on.
The ending is absolutely worth mentioning, but I will confine all discussion of it to this paragraph – so if you want to avoid spoilers, skip straight to the end. Anthony pins all of his hopes on inheriting enough money from his grandfather to live a comfortably idle life, but a lengthy court case stands between him and his millions. The final third of the book details his descent into alcoholism and his crumbling marriage as he waits for all the legal wrangling to subside and land in his favour. Fitzgerald throws enough narrative stumbling blocks in Anthony’s way to make it crystal clear that Anthony’s behaviours and attitudes are intolerable, so the logical ending would be for Anthony to lose his court case and receive his just-desserts. Yet he wins, and the novel’s ending seems rather open-ended to me. A book like this one needs a strong conclusion, and the lack of one here makes me confused about what Fitzgerald is really trying to say about his characters and the decisions they (don’t) make.
I normally post a book review a few days after reading a book, but I’ve been sitting on this one for well over a week now and I’m struggling to sum up my disenchantment with it with any coherency. It is gratifying to have finally fulfilled the promise I made in my very first book review for this blog, in which I described the book as a “tantalising” prospect. Of the three Fitzgerald books I’ve read thus far, this is definitely the third-best one – indeed, I’m rather worried about damning the book with faint praise. For those who value beautiful prose above all else, this fits the bill nicely. Fitzgerald completists (as I will one day be) will also find a lot to like here, I’m sure. Otherwise, it’s difficult to recommend – too pessimistic in its outlook as a morality tale, lacking the kind of redeeming spark that makes Gatsby or Tender is the Night much more enjoyable.