Book number 55 on my Classics Club list is another by the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned. It slotted in with my reading plans with the lovely Belinda, and is thus part of this week’s Gregory Peck-a-long spectacular.
The heir to his grandfather’s relatively large fortune, protagonist Anthony Patch is ‘led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations of the 1920s Jazz Age. His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery’. The gorgeous Alma Classics edition which I read heralds The Beautiful and Damned ‘a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty’.
The novel, Fitzgerald’s second, was published in 1922, and is split into three separate books. It takes place in New York City, and paints rather a ‘satirical portrait of the Jazz Age’. As with much of his fiction, The Beautiful and Damned contains parallels to the fascinating and rather heartbreaking lives of F. Scott and his wife, Zelda. It is possible to see certain characteristics of Fitzgerald himself in his initial description of Anthony, for instance: ‘As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honour and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment and somewhat more significant than anyone else he knows’.
The writing is beautiful, as one might expect, and those sentences and paragraphs which focus upon the young couple are sublime. One could easily imagine scenes such as the following featuring F. Scott and Zelda: ‘They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretence created the actuality. Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression – yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony. He often felt like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving’.
The Beautiful and Damned does feel quite different to some of Fitzgerald’s later work, but it is possible – and rather enjoyable, too – to view the progression from one work to the next, and also to pinpoint those aspects of his writing which he bettered over time. Whilst the prose itself is stylish, it does not always have the feel to it of a Fitzgerald novel, and perhaps lacks a little of the sparkle which I have come to expect from his stories. There is something a little less tight about its feel than in his later novels, but it is certainly worth reading, and is a most enjoyable novel nonetheless.