Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Beautiful and the Damned (1922)

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in 1922, the follow-up to his first hit, This Side of Paradise. As in all his book, Fitzgerald takes the stock story and twists it with a simple concept, breaking an unseen pattern and creating something that felt new, fresh, and modern. To be all together honest, I'm not really sure what the pattern was this time.

The story begins with a young man named Anthony, his aimlessness in life, and his courtship of Gloria, ending that first, almost too brief section, with two young lovers who have finally gotten together. In that, we could call it a typical enough story. What makes this story atypical is two things: Anthony and Gloria. Each is shown as a thoroughly flawed person, and those flaws not only never get ironed out, the grow deeper and more ugly as the novel slips by. If I had to guess, I would say that Mr. Fitzerald met rich people for the first time after he wrote his last book, and they were so terrible that he had to write this one.

If the purpose of this book was to make you despise the upper class, the author succeeded. By the end, despite your human fondness for these characters, you have lost all respect for them. At best, they can be said to party their way from one of this novel to the other, and at worst, illustrate the moral collapse of our so-called better classes. Two people, who never work, systematically flush their lives down the toilet, along with their fortunes, their friends, and their self-esteem.

As in so many books of this period, this book has an ending which you can't call happy and yet you can't call bad. Mostly, this book seems to have an ending because a book must end, and it must end somehow. Since it can't end happily, with everyone older and wiser, the book ends with everyone older and rich, but no wiser. No, there is no wisdom gained in this long, tortuous journey. Life is drunk like a bottle of hard liquor, and when empty, another bottle is ordered, while the empty is discarded, its lessons unlearned.

If you aren't a fan of this sort of book, or a sucker for a long, brutal train wreck in slow motion, then I can't recommend this book. On the other hand, if you want a slice of life from the 1910's and 1920's, devoid of all modern reinterpretation, filled with the sort of things that people in the 1920's would finding both shocking and fascinating, then do read this. There's nothing like a period book to demystify an age so quickly and so fervently.