Friday, March 2, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Beautiful and Damned (1922)

In some ways I kind of wish I hadn't embarked on this project of reading most of Fitzgerald.  There have been discoveries, but so far nothing has really come close to Gatsby, and so maybe it would have been better to let that book remain alone and untouched in my memory.  To a greater or lesser extent everything else has been a disappointment.

The Beautiful and Damned is probably the second-best thing he wrote, at least among the novels.  (And I guess I've read them all now, except the last, unfinished one.)  It's a truly harrowing portrait of two people who start their adult lives provisionally rich and go downhill from there, sinking into a morass of genteel poverty, idleness, and alcoholism.  It's actually a very simple, almost archetypal book:  it's about the Fall, or one of them, and it has the power that such a primal theme can marshal.  And it has a perfect ending, a deus-ex-machina* that saves them economically while damning them emotionally.  Irony, baby.

Which makes it sound like a simple story, and in its outlines it is, but in fact the story of Anthony Patch and his wife Gloria is told with enough detail, enough character-revealing incident, that it never feels barren.  In fact it feels like the collective generational self-portrait that This Side of Paradise was meant to be:  it contains, if not exactly multitudes, then a good-sized dinner party's worth of individually-detailed types.  It's a satisfying book.

Satisfying because it seems truthful in its details.  Like, here too the protagonist is drafted, but instead of going to glorious service in Europe he spends his war in Southern shitholes, engaging in ignominious behavior.  If Fitzgerald's great theme is the moral vacuity, the well-heeled nihilism, of his generation, then this war experience fits it far better than the fakery in his first book.  It works:  it really constructs Patch for us.

But it's not a perfect book, not like Gatsby.  What's most problematic for me is the ugliness of the attitudes it displays toward anybody who's not a rich male WASP.  Granted, Anthony is something of an antihero, so maybe we're supposed to be a bit shocked when he, or the narrator when exploring Anthony's point of view, says something bigoted about black people or Jews or Italians or Irish or Eastern Europeans or women or poor people or...  Just like we're (probably) supposed to be shocked when Tom Buchanan talks racial Darwinism in Gatsby (I remember a long class discussion about this in high school).  But the thing is, these attitudes are on display in pretty much everything I've read of Fitzgerald's so far - and they're not always carefully couched in the context of an antihero.  So was this how Fitzgerald really felt?  I guess in the context of this book the question is, how much of an antihero is Patch?  Are we supposed to feel any sympathy for him at any point?  He's actually pretty seductive at first...

*Actually, FSF lays the groundwork for the ending from at least halfway through the book.  But I, at least, never thought it would actually happen, so it worked on me like a bolt from the blue.

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