“This Side of Paradise”

 

My last word on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. I am 70 years old and Fitzgerald was a little younger than my grandfather. He should be read as an author from the distant past even though his hipster-fratboy-dudebro aesthetic seems contemporary. And if you find his characters unpleasant, well, by and large they didn’t like themselves, and Fitzgerald really didn’t either. Read it as gritty realism about precious, spoiled people.

***

It purports to be the picaresque ramble of one Stephen Palms….

Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up, p. 252 — from a 1918 letter to John Peale Bishop describing The Romantic Egoist (the early version of This Side of Paradise).

 It is a well-considered, finished whole this time.

 Fitzgerald,  August 16, 1919 letter to Maxwell  Perkins, in Hook, p. 24.

 [Amory Blaine was] a wavering quality in a phantasmagoria of incident that had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. In short, one of the chief weaknesses of TSOP is that it is not really about anything; its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture — a gesture of indefinite revolt….

 Edmund Wilson, 1924, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.

 A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.

 Fitzgerald, 1936, in  Prigozy,  p. 336.

 I think it is now one of the funniest books since “Dorian Gray” in its utter spuriousness….

 Fitzgerald, 1938, in Prigozy, p. 337.

       Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise is the story of the early life of the author-to-be Amory Blaine, and in it we can watch Fitzgerald himself becoming an author. Fitzgerald called the book “a romance and a reading list”, and in it we we are given a very detailed picture of Amory’s literary development (which was much like Fitzgerald’s). Glenway Wescott wondered whether Fitzgerald was not “the worst educated man in the world”, but the truth is that his education was specialized toward the writing of novels the way Sherlock Holmes’s education was specialized toward the detection of crime. Fitzgerald’s reading (like Amory’s) was almost all literature, almost all of it written after 1800, and enough of it was popular literature of not quite the highest grade for him to easily find an audience.

While  Fitzgerald expressed confidence about his book, he  had no confidence that others would understand what he had done. As he often did, he abased himself before their criticisms, and I am convinced that his self-effacing meekness in the face of his friends’ incomprehension was one of the reasons why his book is still   merely regarded as merely a prelude to Fitzgerald’s other, better books.

This Side of Paradise is certainly not “a well-made novel”, and it is above all not a novel of purpose bringing the reader to a satisfying conclusion. It has aspects of a boys’ book, a campus novel, a romance, a bildungsroman, a “quest novel”, a novel of  ideas, a naturalist novel, a Catholic novel built around the medieval vices of Pride and Lust,  and an autobiographical novel. However, in most of these cases it can be seen as a takeoff or parody of these familiar genres: a boys’ book full preteen kissing games and a decadent mother, a campus novel about a feckless dropout, a romance about people incapable of love, a bildungsoman / quest novel ending in confusion and defeat, a fallen-Catholic book, a novel of not-very-good ideas, and the objective naturalistic description of spoiled, artificial people rather than slum dwellers.

When young Fitzgerald put together his first novel he seemed like a novice author faking his way to a book, but when the dust had settled he could be seen to have been inventing his own genre, as modernist authors often do. As a novel of youth rebellion and failure, or as the self-referential story of a narcissist , always watching himself (and watching other narcissists watch themselves) written by an author who is also always watching himself, This Side of Paradise certainly has many descendants (whether recognized or not). This book’s pastiche of poetry, drama and fiction is also sometimes seen today, but even now few authors insert into their fiction page-long  passages written by personal friends who are the real-life models for their characters.

Rather than a defective apprentice work, This Side of Paradise  should be regarded as a pioneering neo-decadent, self-referential, picaresque, autobiographical pastiche novel set in the familiar worlds of Midwestern boys’ books, American campus novels, early Twentieth Century progressive fiction, and post-WWI disillusion. At its core are reflections on the self: the narcissistic self  vs. love, and the true self vs. public roles. The incomprehension of the conventional readers of the time, together with their envy at Fitzgerald’s fame and financial success, have led to its being underrated to this day, even by those who still admire Fitzgerald’s other work.

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Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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