Yesterday’s Book

Is there anything sadder than a book which doesn’t stand the test of time? I have just re-read Scott FItzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, which I have long thought of as one of my favourites. Tragically, I couldn’t say that any more. Was I completely wrong about it in the first place, or am I a different person from the one who read it all those years ago?

Published in 1920, this coming-of-age novel made Fitzgerald famous overnight. It follows the life of aesthete and would-be writer Amory Blaine from his childhood in a rich Midwestern family, through his student days at Princeton, into an adult world in which he struggles – his heart broken, his inheritance largely gone. That Amory is based on Fitzgerald himself is never in any doubt.

Amory is intelligent, good-looking, precocious and conceited: in Fitzgerald’s phrase, a ‘Romantic Egotist’. To stick with the book, you have to forgive Amory a lot. The writing is self-conscious and self-indulgent, switching from prose to theatrical dialogue to long excerpts from letters and poems attributed to the characters…so you have to forgive Fitzgerald a lot too. But you can see why the world hailed him as a magnificent new talent: the supremely evocative style which reached its apotheosis in The Great Gatsby is already in plain view in his descriptions of young love and Princeton’s ‘spires and gargoyles’.

The other captivating quality I attributed to This Side of Paradise was a sense of energy and fun. I loved the pages devoted to a student revue called Ha-Ha Hortense! (‘Hey, ponies – how about easing up on that crap game and shaking a mean hip?’ the director exhorts his cast.) Then there was the impromptu audience participation at a local cinema, with everyone singing along to

Oh-h-h-h-h

She works in a Jam Factoree

And – that-may-be-all-right

But you can’t-fool-me

For I know – DAMN – WELL

That she DON’T-make-jam-all-night!

      Re-reading it, though, I could find only a few isolated highlights of this kind; the overall mood seemed much more subdued, tying it to the autumnal pre-war world of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (an Oxford novel which clearly influenced FItzgerald) rather than the Jazz Age which was about to break upon America. But the real shock was to recognise how incredibly snobbish Fitzgerald’s book was. Snobbery is an essential part of the Young Egotist’s character: Amory believes himself to be socially, aesthetically and intellectually superior to most of those around him, and Fitzgerald makes this damningly clear. The problem is that the novelist does not sufficiently distance himself from his creation. When Amory catches a train and finds himself repelled by the smell of the ‘immigrants’ around him, it is hard not to believe that Fitzgerald’s nostrils have been similarly offended. And when Amory and his Princeton friends set off penniless for the seaside and stave off hunger by cheating the local restaurateurs, it is all presented as the greatest fun – whereas Evelyn Waugh would have shown their behaviour to be hilarious but also appalling. In This Side of Paradise, the people outside Fitzgerald’s social set barely exist.

This makes me wonder about my young self: was I equally snooty, or was I so in thrall to the author of The Great Gatsby that I was prepared to swallow his view of the world whoesale? I hadn’t yet gone to university when I first read This Side of Paradise, so perhaps I was unreasoningly eager to imbible a dream of what student life could be.

In Fitzgerald’s defence, I should make it clear that Amory learns from his mistakes – and the parts of the book where he does so now strike me as the most powerful: above all, the scene in which he imagines that he glimpses the Devil. In the final pages, the self-centred patrician even debates the merits of Socialism. (This a less successful episode, and indeed few of the novel’s detailed discussions of ideas are very engrossing: I wonder whether, as we grow older, we hunger more for clear-cut revelations.) But Fitzgerald himself is still in love with high society; and if you didn’t know that he had gone on to write the book which more than any other cuts through its illusions, I very much doubt that you could have guessed.

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