Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise (1920)

For not being one myself, I’ve had more than my fair share of run-ins with rich folk. The girl who gave me this book told me I had good breeding. I didn’t. Maybe somewhere in my blood is some toughness wrought by centuries in the Ukranian bloodlands, by warriors of sworn obeisance to William the Conqueror, but by 1920 the family war poor all around, violent and abusive tempers on both sides of the family, maybe some peasants, maybe doing what they could to lift their names out of the dust.

Let me quote the entire back of the book:

F’s first novel…was an immediate, spectacular success and established his literary reputation. Perhaps the definitive novel of the “Lost Generation,” it tells the story of Amory Blaine, a handsome, wealthy Princeton student who halfheartedly involves himself in literary cults, “liberal” student activities and a series of empty flirtations with young women. When he finally does fall truly in love, however, the young woman rejects him for another.

After serving in France during the war, Blaine returns to embark on a career in advertising. Still young, but already cynical and world-weary, he exemplifies the young men and women of the 20s, described by F as “a new generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

I don’t know what idiot wrote this description of it, but it reminds me of what Caleb’s father once told me, that English departments suffer because literature is all taught as if it’s a vehicle for something–a theme, usually. I still don’t know what a “theme” is–I couldn’t even use the word in a sentence.

The distance between us and Fitzgerald is more or less than distance between Fitzgerald and Byron. And to me, the speed of change in that period is positively wonderful. The difference between the carefree prose of Coleridge (i.e., his autobiography), and the critical prose of Pater, and finally the novels of Fitzgerald is one merely of degrees of expressiveness, as all three always use the right word always always, Fitzgerald owns the language in a way that must have previously been unimaginable–Henry James spends half a chapter forcing a character off a train and into a hotel, building a man out of nothing. Fitzgerald does it within a few sentences, distilling a million people into this one, hateful boy, introducing us to a person we’d already known.

I suppose the question is whether or not the person existed already?

I think, yes. Byron and Shelley, for example. Rich kids fooling around because they know that ultimately they’ll face no real consequences. Byron’s dislike of Keats because he’s poor. Shelley, no different than all those rich uber-hip vegan dumpster-divers I once knew–you can eat out of the trash and eschew bathing all you please, but at the end of the day you’re really going to have to return to the trust fund. Tragedies are stories about rich kids who accidentally don’t pick themselves up in time.

I can’t remember that word…the one Baudelaire loves…yes, ennui, and there’s amusement and the constant waiting for it to present itself to you, other people, life, the dullness of old age and dying and how delicious bodily filth and venereal diseases are, the mid-atlantic accent, the knowledge that anything is possible, truly, anything, if you have money to throw at it–this i’ve seen, this i’ve experienced. Sadly, hatefully, it so often comes with the intelligence that has no choice but to happen if you attend the right schools. Perhaps I’m only bitter because more people that I’ve known than that I haven’t had discarded me once they realized that I haven’t l’argent to back up the number of books I’ve read.

The book more or less skips over the war, and whatever significance love holds for Amory Blaine seems trivial in his stylized treatment of it, I hardly remember his stint in advertising–but despite his world-weariness and cynicism, I don’t think he exemplifies the young of the 20s so much as he does the young rich, always.

Henry Miller is my favorite because he comes from my family’s world, from the streets of Brooklyn, from immigrants, and rises up to always use the right word. But he speaks as a poet. And he spends frivolously. And his 1920s are entirely different than Fitzgerald’s. His 1920s are a decade of subsistence within a lifetime of subsistence.

But this is where it all ended. Well, the second war, where the onslaught of the middle classes into the universities turned the rest of literary history into a portrait of the middle classes going to war and then to universities and then doing the day-to-day things we know like the back of our hands. And the right words stopped being used and everything’s postmodern or groovy or emo or hip and all of a sudden we find ourselves listening to the rich kids who are trying to write like the middle class kids and I cry and I cry and I cry and find myself sitting in doctors’ offices reading car-repair manuals instead of novels, and I don’t know what the right words are to say, I don’t know them except when I look at them in a dictionary.

I don’t know how Fitzgerald felt, but he felt enough to make fun of these people.

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