Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Fitzgerald's tragic tale of wasted days and wasted nights

The Beautiful and Damned
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
First Vintage Classics Edition, August 2010 (Originally published in hardcover in the U.S. by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1922)

The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned" is Anthony Patch, an intelligent, Harvard-educated young man with excellent prospects and a bright future ahead of him.  The year is 1913, and America is on the cusp of a brand new era that includes automobiles, moving pictures and exciting new industries. But Anthony has a problem: a stupendous lack of ambition and a refusal to engage in any form of purposeful work.

"The Beautiful and Damned" tells the tragic story of Anthony Patch and his attractive, socialite wife, Gloria, over an eight-year period beginning when Anthony returns from Europe to be near his ailing grandfather, Adam Patch. Adam is a respected industrialist worth millions who disapproves of Anthony's life choices and urges his grandson to stop dilly-dallying around and establish a career.

Anthony does make half-hearted attempts to find employment and to join the workforce, but he is easily bored and soon quits any so-called 'real' jobs. If young Anthony holds any aspirations for a career, it's to become a journalist/writer, but the actual work and effort required in becoming a writer is far beyond his grasp and desires.

During the span of the novel, Anthony and Gloria manage to live a life of complete debauchery, drinking and partying to excess almost daily, with a cheerful disdain for those who have to work for a living. The one consistent theme in the couples' life is their capacity for living on a small inheritance left by Anthony's mother, an inheritance that is gradually being squandered.

As their financial circumstances worsen, they are desperate for Anthony's grandfather to die, whereupon Anthony will inherit millions. But when the grandfather finally does die, the couple are mortified to discover that Anthony has been excluded from the will (except for a meager inheritance), and they suddenly find themselves weighing three unpleasant options - contesting the will in court, finding employment, or going broke.

Both Anthony and Gloria are doomed figures in "The Beautiful and Damned." Especially Gloria who grew up believing that her charm and beauty would ensure a rich and happy life. The gradual deterioration of Gloria's beauty coincides with the strains in her marriage and the couples' growing financial misfortunes. Fitzgerald portrays Gloria as a woman trapped by her beauty, by her husband, and by her grand illusions of herself. 

A rare moment of true happiness and freedom occurs when she flees after the sexual advances of a stranger at a party at her home. Here is Gloria, having escaped the party, sitting on a railway plank in the rain:
"The oppression was lifted now - the tree-tops below her were rocking the young starlight to a haunted doze. She stretched out her arms with a gesture of freedom. This was what she had wanted, to stand alone where it was high and cool...She had thought she would never feel so young again, but this was her night, her world. Triumphantly she laughed as she left the plank, and reaching the wooden platform flung herself down happily beside an iron roof-post." 
As readers, we disapprove of the lives of Anthony and Gloria and their endless pursuit of money, and the shallowness of their characters, but Fitzgerald more than makes up for his characters' deficiencies with prose that glitters like jewellery, and his ability to portray New York high society in the early 20th century with such flair.

The ending of "The Beautiful and Damned" wasn't what I was expecting, which speaks to Fitzgerald's narrative skills in keeping readers guessing and his ability to offer delightful surprises - right up until the end.