Monday, February 21, 2011

The Egotist

The opening passages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's semi-autobiographical This Side of Paradise were discouraging. They're not bad--to the contrary, they are quite well-written. But there is a self-consciousness, a smugness to their quality, that occasionally bordered on the insufferable. Take the opening line:

Amory Blaine inhereited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.

Bold writing this is, but tactless. It's much like the book's subject Amory Blaine, who starts off an entitled brat determined to make his way into high society even though he's convinced he's too good for it. The consciously clever prose, then, is almost certainly an intentional reflection of The Romantic Egotist of This Side of Paradise's original title. Not only does Amory think himself "worth while," not only did he actually take the time to consider himself so, but there are aspects of his grace that beggar expression.

Even his catastrophic illnesses are to be Midas-touched:

However, four hours out from land, Italy bound, with Beatrice, his appendix burst, probably from too many meals in bed, and after a series of frantic telegrams to Europe and America, to the amazement of the passengers the great ship slowly wheeled around and returned to New York to deposit Amory at the pier. You will admit that if it was not life it was magnificent.

Much of this writing is "magnificent," too, but too much and too obviously so. It doesn't have the sleight-of-hand quality of The Great Gatsby's prose, which worked like a benevolent pickpocket that would deposit literary valuables and leave his target marveling. But that was not under present consideration. I wondered in This Side of Paradise's early episodes if it would be worth my time and following this arrogant little snot for 270+ pages.

But of course it was. Fitzgerald can be forgiven for not scaling Gatsby's heights on what was essentially his first publication. There was room to grow, and growth is indeed a central concern of the book, as it follows Amory's development as his socialite upbringing and Princeton education gives way to complications of love and living. The novel's style develops with him: descriptive passages like the "Damp, Symbolic Interlude" give way to a hallucination of the devil and a drinking binge. A pivotal episode which finds Amory at his most vexed due to beguiling love interest Rosalind, is written as a play: his most vulnerable period is appropriately dialogue-heavy, with only occasional prose stage directions to hide behind.

Amory is a budding philosopher in the early chapters of the book, but it's later on that he becomes most abstracted, particularly when he meets his last love, Eleanor. Here the prose abandons its earlier show-offiness and works some terrific scene-setting:

Suddenly a strange sound fell on his ears. It was a song, in a low, husky voice, a girl's voice, and whoever was ssinging was very close to him. A year before he might have laughed, or trembled; but in his restless mood he only stood and listened while the words sank into his consciousness:

"Les sanglot longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon coeur
D'une langueure

The lightning split the sky but the song went on without a quaver.

Perhaps most audacious of all, the book's finale eschews any kind of action for what amounts to a philosophical dialogue, if not an outright monologue, in which Amory, now penniless, considers socialism, renounces the high society to which he once aspired, and rails disconcertingly against the female sex. It goes on for pages and should bring the story to a crashing halt, yet in light of the Amory of old and how far he has come it works. It's also helped by some glorious writing:

Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken...

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself--art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria--he could accept what was acceptable, roam grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights....

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth--yet the waters of disillusion had left a depoit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams. But--oh, Rosalind! Rosalind!

The final line--I can't bring myself to spoil it, even though it's almost a century old--seems, out of context, almost pedestrian. But as the culmination of Amory's development, it is the perfect finish. But the smarminess of those early pages...! The beginning of Fitzgerald's career shows him to have a fine command of the English language, and a less assured control of his own talents.

Paradoxically, F. Scott Fitzgerald's debut was such a smash success that he "never recovered." We will recall too, that Gatsby sold poorly initially and Fitzgerald considered himself a failure at his death. This Side of Paradise, then, may have proven more biographical than its author intended.

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