Lessons from a romantic egoist

Illustration from the original dust jacket

Illustration from the original dust jacket 

Warning: This is a review of This Side of Paradise, plot details may be revealed!

Like many other people I was first introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald after being badgered into reading The Great Gatsby at college. While by no means the worst thing I read that year I was largely unimpressed – as seems to happen often with cult novels it just didn’t seem to live up to its hype (other cult novels I don’t rate highly would include A Catcher in the Rye and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel – apologies to fanatics and adolescents everywhere).

At some point this year I picked up The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald’s second novel, which had long been languishing on my bookshelf. From this point onwards it’s fair to say I had a little obsession brewing. This year I have read almost everything Fitzgerald wrote (excepting – at this point- The Last Tycoon, and maybe his letters or whatever). My obsession even extended to Zelda; I read her biography by Nancy Milford and even Save me the Waltz. Yes, the Fitzgerald’s have loomed large in my literary year.

So in my usual round about way that’s how I have finally come to reading his very first novel, This Side of Paradise. Published by Scribner’s in 1920 (original title, The Romantic Egoist) I have to say it probably isn’t his best work, as first books rarely are. However, This Side of Paradise is fascinating for precisely that reason. For someone like me who has read quite a lot of Fitzgerald it is amazing to see how he developed, with the most successful elements of This Side of Paradise being transferred into later novels.

This Side of Paradise appears pieced together, and indeed it was the culmination of a number of short stories and letters etc. It follows the life on one Amory Blaine (modeled on Fitzgerald) through his childhood, adolescence and beyond. At different times it is a poem, a play, a stream of consciousness, narrated in first person, narrated in third. In short it is an experimental novel, a voyeuristic look at a young writer grappling with different styles. The piecemeal structure can be irritating as at times the different threads do not always link well together, the stories of the protagonist’s affairs might be more cleanly broken down into short stories rather than clumsily laced together in one novel. In a rejection letter from Scribner’s dated 1918 the publisher criticises the novel as being ‘crude’. I think this is certainly true, and even by the time This Side of Paradise was published Fitzgerald had still not been able to work out some of the problems pointed out by the publisher, one of these being that the story does not reach any real conclusion.

Although the publisher recgonised that this lack of conclusion was ‘not untrue to life’ and I appreciate that as well, it was nonetheless infuriating. I suppose I thought that Rosalind would reappear and Amory would marry, or that in true autobiographical style he would begin work on a novel. The ending also came as a surprise as usually Fitzgerald novels or short stories tend to culminate in something if not being wrapped up entirely neatly.

However, on a personal level I can appreciate a lot of what’s going here. This Side of Paradise is a journey through Amory Blaine’s early life from prep school to Princeton, the army to New York. As a recent college graduate I loved Amory’s Princeton antics and reading lists, especially the Dorian Gray incident; ‘Kerry read “Dorian Gray” and simulated Lord Henry, following Amory about, addressing him as “Dorian” and pretending to encourage in him wicked fancies and attenuated tendencies to ennui.’ Although I can’t really deal with the epithets now I absolutely loved Dorian Gray in my first year of college, and I was delighted when it cropped up here.

Although of course not running off to war I understood Tom and Amory’s feelings on leaving Princeton, their conversation on the final night of college might have echoed my own.

‘ ‘The grass is full of ghosts to-night.’
‘The whole campus is alive with them.’
. . .
‘You know,’ whispered Tom, ‘What we feel now is the sense of all the gorgeous youth that has rioted through here in two hundred years.’
. . .
For an instant the voices of freshman year surged around them and they looked at each other with faint tears in their eyes.’

(As an aside here I’m compelled to point out some similarities to Brideshead Revisited. Fitzgerald makes several references to both Eton and Oxford, and considers what Amory’s experience might have been in England. Fitzgerald also describes the ‘dreaming spires’ – of Princeton, and there is the same dreamy quality of a youth that will not be recaptured. Amory has a spiritual mentor in the form of Monsignor Darcy, while Sebastian Flyte was under the guardianship of ‘Samgrass’, and a grappling with religious ideas features in both novels. As a point of interest Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945, and Sebastian is at university during the interwar period rather than prewar like Amory. I have a lot to say about Fitzgerald/Waugh comparisons, but I’ll save it for another time).

There were a lot of things about Amory I identified with; cutting classes to go to the beach, falling disastrously into petty alcoholism when a romantic affair didn’t work out and his especially his rootless wandering at the end.

Having abandoned his job at the advertising agency, his fortune dwindled to nothing and Rosalind out of his reach Amory does not know what direction to take. Life has somehow slipped out of his control and he admits, ‘I know myself . . . but that is all’. I understand Amory’s feeling of insecurity at a time when he did not know what was in store for himself or for his generation, so recently shaken by war and social change. And more than that; the reason the story does not reach a conclusion is that it cannot because it is not the end, Amory/Fitzgerald were so young that the best was yet come, the story was only just beginning.

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