Thursday, 12 April 2012

Penguin no. 1867: This Side of Paradise
by F.Scott Fitzgerald

     "...I think the worst thing to contemplate is this - it's all happened before, how soon will it happen again? Fifty years after Waterloo Napoleon was as much a hero to English school children as Wellington. How do we know our grandchildren won't idolize Von Hindenburg the same way?"
     "What brings it about?"
     "Time, damn it, and the historian. If we could only learn to look on evil as evil, whether it's clothed in filth or monotony or magnificence."

Amory Blaine starts life with a sense of being elect. It is more than vanity, it is a sense that he should be the centre not only of his own world but of everyone else's - that the natural order of things should see him preferred. This seems to be predominately the consequence of a pampered and leisured upbringing as the only child of an unstable mother who also craves attention,  with his indolent father remaining in the background in the company of his books, providing little more than the financial means for these two to continue their self-centred existences. However, as Amory ages he craves more than just his mother's attention: he wants to be someone socially, recognised as the first amongst his peers. Fitzgerald entitles the first part of his book The Romantic Egotist, and tells the story of Amory's path from innocence to maturity, detailing the rise and fall of this self-absorbed and idealistic young man.

Fitzgerald modelled the character of Amory on himself, and event after event in Amory's life has a parallel in his own. He includes a character based on Sigourney Fay, an influential figure in his own life and the person to whom the book is dedicated, describes his life, friends, and dorm at Princeton, his early social success in writing for the Triangle club, and the eventual failure to fulfil his social ambitions due to poor grades. And in the post-Princeton years there is the enlistment in the army, the whirlwind romance with the beautiful young debutante and the job in advertising.

The failure of his social ambitions marks a turning point in the novel, when Amory begins the transition from egoist to what is referred to as a personage, someone assessed not for who he is but for what he has done. Maturity comes with the loss of his dreams and certainties, but it brings with it a sense of disillusionment. It is a trajectory mirrored in American Society in the early years of the 20th Century, in the giving up of Victorian certainties, and the widespread disillusionment of the generation who fought the war.

But did Fitzgerald share the sense of disillusionment and apathy which he projects upon his fictional self? The corrupting influence of wealth is a major theme of the book, it is shown to trump human feeling and decency; it is the rich man who gets the girl. But it is exactly here, and exactly on this point, that the paths of author and character seem to diverge. Amory sinks into disillusion after giving up his advertising job, rejects all his former ambitions, and starts to think of the reorganisation of society through something resembling socialism as the answer, but Fitzgerald himself doesn't admit defeat. When he gives up his advertising job it is to take to his mother's attic to re-draft a novel, this novel, with the hope that it will bring him fame and wealth and enable him to marry Zelda. His character may be lost and disillusioned, but Fitzgerald remains determined, and money and success continue as his goals. It seems a contradiction, as though he preaching one thing while doing another. And importantly, he is successful, marrying Zelda one week after this novel was published.

His affection for Princeton is evident in every word he writes about the University. The focus is not on the academic side, except where it intrudes in Amory's life and undermines his social ambitions, but on his love for the appearance and the lifestyle, and for what it represents. It is presented as a haven, an escape from everything the modern world has to offer.  And it is here that the story has most to offer, recording the experience of being young in a particular time and place, a world of male companionship, the discovery of literature, of jiggers, eating clubs, and elections, and parties in New York.

It is a novel which is interesting in parts: in some small passages of insight, and some longer ones chronicling Princeton campus life and the changing values of American society as it embraces modernity. It is written as a composite of many styles, with lists and letters, a play, and a lot of poetry embedded in the text, as though Fitzgerald was intent on showing everything of which he was capable. The real problem is that it goes on too long, and becomes tedious towards the end. His themes of post-war disillusionment and the corrupting influence of wealth and excessive leisure were ones he returned to again, much more effectively than here.


  1. Gosh, it's a long, long time since I read this - when I was about 17 I read every Fitzgerald I could lay my hands on, but the only 'constants' have been The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, possible because these were the ones where he explored his themes most successfully - and where the characters were the most credible.

  2. I always thought that Fitzgerald was a bit over rated but maybe I should try him out again sometime soon. These old Peguins are very alluring.

  3. The maturation of Fitzgerald's talent between this title and The Great Gatsby is astounding.

  4. Love the cover, mine is a 1978 Penguin edition with a portrait of a decadent young man wearing a coat with a fur collar! SD



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