Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Beautiful and Damned - F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Beautiful and Damned was published in 1922, almost exactly two years after This Side of Paradise. That Fitzgerald wrote the entire novel between 1919 and 1921 amidst engagement, marriage, the publication and huge reception of his first novel, the sales of first short stories to magazines, and the beginnings of a legendary dozen years of "going on a party," is a testament to the enormous productivity one may be able to achieve in their earlier and more vulnerable years. A friend of mine did not like Beautiful and Damned when I told him he "had" to read it a few years ago. Oh, at the time he said he liked it, but recently he revealed that he thought it was too long and some other vague complaint. Another friend of mine told me, the first time I read it, about four years ago, that it was her favorite novel by Fitzgerald. I may not go as far to say that it is my favorite, but I will say it is his most underrated, and while I recently told that first friend that I felt it was better than This Side of Paradise, I'm not sure I can still believe myself. As an introduction, Paradise is about as good as you can do, but a lot of it is nostalgic and "protected" from the outside world. As a follow-up then, Beautiful is exactly what it needs to be--the logical extension, the harsh realization, the bitter slap in the face. It also stands the test of time as a fantastic example of a "New York Novel."

As far as structure goes, The Beautiful and Damned has a whole lot in common with This Side of Paradise, the main difference being that it is about 100 pages longer. The book is broken up into many "mini-chapters" and there are continued literary experiments in playwrighting format--though the character-penned poetry of Paradise is no longer to be found. The characters are pure Fitzgerald. Anthony Patch is not so different from Amory Blaine at all, except that he has more of an air of vulnerability. Gloria Gilbert is an entirely new creation, and though seeds of her may appear in Paradise, she stands as the total literary execution of the "flapper" par excellence. Aside from character, however, the story in the novel is much more highly developed than in Paradise.

It begins with Anthony as a recent Harvard graduate, going out with his friends Maury Noble and Richard Caramel. Caramel's cousin is Gloria Gilbert, and Maury meets her on a separate occasion, and so Anthony and the reader are more aware of Gloria as a reputation, a mystical figure until she makes her first appearance in the novel, which is a clever way to start writing about a romance. The two take an instant liking to each other--and it is never really clear how much it matters that Anthony Patch is the sole living heir to Adam Patch and his $75 million fortune--and decide to be married. They are given an "ample" allowance to live on and the majority of the plot concerns their first seven years or so of marriage. Anthony has two entertaining attempts at working a job himself, but finds neither of them suitable, and Gloria tries to be a late-blooming actress around age 29, but they spend most of their marriage loafing. Anthony does also have a stint in the Army during World War I that provides the longest diversion in the novel, but things only get worse afterwards, and their drinking only increases with Prohibition. A huge transformation takes place, so much that by the end, Anthony Patch has become inarguably the most disgraceful character Fitzgerald has ever featured principally. The descriptions near the end of the final chapter "No Matter!" depict a pure alcoholic, shaking in bed upon awakening, already needing a drink. Even by today's standards, these portions of the novel can still shock.

In the introduction to my edition, Kermit Vanderbilt supplies a mountain of information about every single notion of an event concerning this volume's publication, interesting because it is not considered a classic by any means. The Great Gatsby is obviously, Fitzgerald's total classic--and also his most mainstream offering--seeds of which may be contained in a choice utterance by Dick Caramel in this volume--but not his most popular at the time. Paradise earns that distinction, and is probably a leg or two behind Tender is the Night in terms of long-term critical approval. The Last Tycoon is usually written off as an unfinished novel but anyone who has read it knows that it stands on its own surprisingly well and is the most modern of all Fitzgerald novels--but the point needs to be made: all 5 of his novels are excellent. Some are better than others, but none deserve to be totally ignored. Fitzgerald had his own misgivings about the novel, which are probably correct in their estimation since this novel is, unfortunately, usually given bottom-of-the-barrel treatment along with Tycoon:

"His rather frenzied state of mind is obvious in the letter to Hovey. This 'bitter and insolent' novel, he feared, 'will never be popular and...will undoubtedly offend a lot of people.' Rather perversely, he added, 'Personally, I should advise you against serializing it.' (x)

What is most offensive about the novel? Probably a few of the choice religious statements made by Maury Noble, who is apparently a not-much-disguised version of H.L. Mencken. I can find no better example than an explanation offered near the end of the chapter "Symposium":

"Once upon a time all the men of mind and genius in the world became of one belief--that is to say, of no belief. But it wearied them to think that within a few years after their death many cults and systems and prognostications would be ascribed to them which they had never meditated nor intended. So they said to one another:
'Let's join together and make a great book that will last forever to mock the credulity of man. Let's persuade our more erotic poets to write about the delights of the flesh, and induce some of our robust journalists to contribute stories of famous amours. We'll include all the most preposterous old wives' tales now current. We'll choose the keenest satirist alive to compile a deity from all the deities worshipped by mankind, a deity who will be more magnificent than any of them, and yet so weakly human that he'll become a byword for laughter the world over--and we'll ascribe to him all sorts of jokes and vanities and rages, in which he'll be supposed to indulge for his own diversion, so that the people will read our book and ponder it, and there'll be no more nonsense in the world.
'Finally, let us take care that book possesses all the virtues of style, so that it may last forever as a witness to our profound scepticism and our universal irony.'
'So the men did, and they died.'
'But the book lived always, so beautifully had it been written, and so astounding the quality of imagination with which these men of mind and genius had endowed it. They had neglected to give it a name, but after they were dead it became known as the Bible." (213)

Later, Dot, the girl whom Anthony has an affair with while he is in the Army is described in euphemistic terms as being promiscuous, and I could see how these few pages describing the previous men she had "seen" could be viewed as offensive. Finally, some of the descriptions of alcoholism near the end are, again, difficult to swallow. But this is not a "pulp" or "underground" novel--most of it is concerned with the aesthetic guidelines governing the aristocracy during a short period in 20th century American history. Much of that, obviously for Fitzgerald, revolves around art and literature, and in Richard Caramel he presents what must be a skewed version of himself. Caramel's first novel "The Demon Lover" shares the original working title of The Beautiful and Damned and close to the end Fitzgerald employs the type of self-reference that would later become vogue with writers like Bret Easton Ellis:

"'The arts are very old,' said Anthony after a while. With a few glasses the tension of his nerves relaxed and he found that he could think again.
'Which art?'
'All of them. Poetry is dying first. It'll be absorbed into prose sooner or later. For instance, the beautiful word, the colored and glittering word, and the beautiful simile belong in prose now. To get attention poetry has got to strain for the unusual word, the harsh, earthy word that's never been beautiful before. Beauty, as the sum of several beautiful parts, reached its apotheosis in Swinburne. It can't go any further--except in the novel, perhaps.'
Dick interrupted him impatiently:
'You know these new novels make me tired. My God! Everywhere I go some silly girl asks me if I've read 'This Side of Paradise.' Are our girls really like that? If it's true to life, which I don't believe, the next generation is going to the dogs. I'm sick of all this shoddy realism. I think there's a place for the romanticist in literature.'" (347)

At the beginning Caramel has yet to have his success, and Patch and Noble consider him one of their best friends, but also denigrate him to some degree for always talking about himself and his writing and question his intellectual rigor. But later he is extremely successful with his first novel, and writes short stories for the income, both of which are part of the F. Scott Fitzgerald myth. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway mentions how he didn't agree with Fitzgerald that a short story could be formulaic and successful--that "cookie cutter" short stories weren't worth writing, basically. But Fitzgerald contended that there was a need for money and that he had figured out a pattern to follow and there was nothing wrong with using one's talents towards a profitable aim. Also, some of Caramel's beliefs point the way towards what would become Fitzgerald's next novel:

"In the two years since the publication of 'The Demon Lover,' Dick had made over twenty-five thousand dollars, most of it lately, when the reward of the author of fiction had begun to swell unprecedentedly as a result of the voracious hunger of the motion pictures for plots. He received seven hundred dollars for every story, at that time a large emolument for such a young man--he was not quite thirty--and for every one that contained enough 'action' (kissing, shooting, and sacrificing) for the movies, he obtained an additional thousand. His stories varied; there was a measure of vitality and a sort of instinctive technic in all of them, but none attained the personality of 'The Demon Lover,' and there were several that Anthony considered downright cheap. These, Dick explained severely, were to widen his audience. Wasn't it true that men who had attained real permanence from Shakespeare to Mark Twain had appealed to many as well as to the elect?" (184)

Ultimately, the most compelling aspect of this novel is the depiction of the non-working life. Near the beginning, Gloria states that she doesn't know why anyone ever does anything, and Anthony tries a variety of earning methods, though most of his attention remains focused on writing historical essays about the Middle Ages. He later, on advice from Dick, attempts to sell his own short stories to magazines, which doesn't work either. He tries two jobs--one of them a non-descript office job in the sales industry and the other selling stocks in a book called "Heart Talks on Ambition" which is a kind of cross between How to Win Friends and Influence People and Think and Grow Rich in a kind of "get rich quick" scheme that is redolent of the online scam ads of today. The second contains the more entertaining sequence, with Anthony getting progressively drunker and trying to conduct "business" through cold-knocking on doors, and eventually shouting at everyone in a delicatessen, but the first contains one of the most powerful statements on the compromise that society makes on the artistic soul:

"One discussed how Mr. Wilson had made his money, what method Mr. Hiemer had employed, and the means resorted to by Mr. Hardy. One related age-old but eternally breathless anecdotes of the fortunes stumbled on precipitously in the street by a 'butcher' or a 'bartender,' or 'a darn messenger boy, by golly!' and then one talked of the current gambles, and whether it was best to go out for a hundred thousand a year or be content with twenty. During the preceding year one of the assistant secretaries had invested all his savings in Bethlehem Steel. The story of his spectacular magnificence, of his haughty resignation in January, and of the triumphal palace he was now building in California, was the favorite office subject. The man's very name had acquired a magic significance, symbolizing as he did the aspirations of all good Americans. Anecdotes were told about him--how one of the vice-presidents had advised him to sell, by golly, but he had hung on, even bought on margin, 'and now look where he is!'
Such, obviously, was the stuff of life--a dizzy triumph dazzling the eyes of all of them, a gypsy siren to content them with meagre wage and with the arithmetical improbability of their eventual success.
To Anthony the notion became appalling. He felt that to succeed here the idea of success must grasp and limit his mind. It seemed to him that the essential element in these men at the top was their faith that their affairs were the very core of life. All other things being equal, self-assurance and opportunism won out over technical knowledge; it was obvious that the more expert work went on near the bottom--so, with appropriate efficiency, the technical experts were kept there." (190-191)

Fitzgerald's prose is "reproachless," to use a word that is repeated often throughout this novel, and one could scarcely hope for a better model for the "early marriage" story. I am interested in reading Revolutionary Road to see how closely it compares with this, though they already seem quite different. And Beautiful and Damned is not so different from Tender is the Night, either, except Tender is more intricately constructed, an infinitely more laborious product, and depicts the actual end of a marriage whereas Beautiful depicts a marriage inflated to the point of bursting with conflict and debauched behavior. It may not technically be his "best," but I just want to say that with Fitzgerald, it doesn't really matter--as long as it's a Fitzgerald novel, it's going to be excellent. Even if the closing lines do reflect the closing lines of This Side of Paradise, on a severely less eloquent note,

"'I showed them,' he was saying. 'It was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!" (370)

there are still many cases one could make for this novel eclipsing the quality of its predecessor. But that's beside the point--these first two novels show Fitzgerald at his most ambitious, his most driven, his most productive, and his most experimental, while also providing a glimpse into his uncertain, mythological future.

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