This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)


Wanting to read something from the Lost Generation time period and having really enjoyed The Great Gatsby, I picked up this 1920 fiction book from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It follows the course of lead character Amory Blaine as he enjoys a privileged childhood of much traveling and little school, until, with the realization that college would be soon on the horizon, his mother enrolls him in his first middle school. This is rather a shock to the old bean of Amory, and as the novel progresses through his adolescence and young adulthood, it’s easy to see that his peripatetic childhood was fun but had not done him any favors in regard to his academics.

So Fitzgerald shows the reader how Amory’s life progresses (or doesn’t as the case may be), and how he is unmoored in life, not really understanding that academics are important (because they haven’t been up until this point in his life), fully aware that who he knows and who knows him is of utmost importance, and realizing he has very little intention of having a serious career of any type with not many consequences for him. His mum will always be able to rescue him.

This was written right after the Great War (WWI) had just ended (1918), and so Europe and the U.S. were still reeling from the high death count of their soldiers, the unrecognized PTSD (or shell shock, as it was called back then), and the large numbers of young men returning to an indifferent home after having survived the terrifying experiences of trench warfare. It’s around now that the U.S. has what’s termed the Gilded Age*, the “gilding” piece referring to something that is bright and shiny on the outside, but is shallow beneath the surface – just a superficial layer to cover deeper problems below.

Up until now, war had been rather a glorious thing for the returning soldiers (now free to live their own lives), and I would think that it must have been rather a let-down for them to return back to their home towns and try to pick up their lives from before the war. Another name for this time period is the Lost Generation which references back to the view that once the war was over, many did not know what would be next. For some young men, soldiering was all that they ever known, career-wise, and those skills didn’t always translate once they were demobbed. Thus, the idea of the Lost Generation – what would they do now that was peace?

So you have this idealistic young man, who had grown up in the earlier war time, who had few goals and even less structure in his life, and this rather aimless mooning around is cleverly reflected in the narrative structure – it reads as a collection of short paragraphs (almost notes) about different pieces of Amory’s life. It’s an unusual set up (especially for writing in the 1920’s) and is quite PoMo in some ways, It’s a narrative structure that works really well – the random jumping around from subject to subject, and the changes in perspective all echo the rapidly changing opinions and moods of Amory as an undergraduate finding his way through college life at Princeton.

Wiki reports that this spotty narrative structure comes from the fact that Fitzgerald only had some bits and pieces of writing put together when he first started to write the novel. The deadline for the novel came very quickly for him, and so he had to throw some writing pieces together to make a complete project. Thus, the short pieces (poems, essays, sometimes just thoughts) carry the reader along with Amory on his coming-of-age experiences as he starts the process to become an adult. (So, not sure whether Fitzgerald was structuring it like on purpose or whether it was just a lucky break for him. Either way, it worked for the most part.)

So a pretty fast read which mostly kept my attention. There were parts that you could tell were just thrown together and the ending gets very serious and philosophical (and a wee bit boring if I’m honest with you), so you can tell it’s a first novel effort. Overall, it was a pretty good read though.

* (Actually, just found out that the Gilded Age phrase was actually referring to the last 20 years or so of the nineteenth century, but only came into common knowledge about 1920 or so. Thought to be coined by Mark Twain. Huh. Now you know…)

Related Reading:

The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford (1927)

book217This title has been on my TBR list for ages, and as I happen to be going through a phase of reading early 20th century books, this rose to the surface of the TBR pile. This is the story of two couples who get mixed up in each other’s affairs, all from the perspective of one of the husbands who happens to be an unreliable narrator (or is he?)

This is not a book to daydream through – it jumps across countries, it goes back and forth with time, and it discusses each of the characters in turn, so, as a reader, you’ll need to keep your wits about you in keeping everything straight. (Or I did, at least.) In fact, I would probably suggest that this would be a book to be read in great big swathes of time so you can dive into the story and experience the narrative as one continuous stream. Overall, it’s rather a bleak and sad read, but it’s still very good. Not every book has to be a happy read.

This reminded me of Fitzgerald’s writing (i.e. The Great Gatsby) in that it spotlights an opulent over-the-top and superficial lifestyle but with barebones morality – money can buy you lots of things, but it can’t buy you happiness. There is also a similar ennui that pervades the story – there are people having affairs with each other, but they’re not acknowledged or addressed in any way – only a vague sense, a hint of things gone awry and no energy is spent to change things…

This was published in 1915, so it’s set before the Great War (WWI) and before the Jazz Age (which might have been an American thing anyway). Ford (or Madox Ford?) founded several literary magazines, one of which was when he was in Paris in the 1920’s and hanging out with James Joyce, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others of that “Lost Generation” group.

ford_madox_fordHis writing in this book reminded me of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but this was written and published years before, so I wonder who influenced whom in writing style. (If indeed, they did.) I know that Ford collaborated with Joseph Conrad, but not sure about others. They must have been familiar with each other’s writing though, so if one goes by chronological reasoning, Ford must have influenced Hemingway.

Ford was smack in the middle of the Modernist period (info of which can be found here from Wiki) and as I was reading about this creative “movement” (good word for it as it was constantly changing and reflected the huge transformations going on in the world), I was struck by how inter-linked the worlds of painting, sculpture, literary and music are.

The early 20th century was a huge time of cultural unrest for many places – the uneasy acceptance of more machinery-based industry, a time of change and possibility, but also of disruption and unbalance, of questioning culture and the things about you… Having just read Forster, Fitzgerald, Madox Ford and others, learning about this time period helped to change it in my head from being a flat one-dimensional time to one of depth. It’s hard to explain, but it’s similar to the difference you see between normal TV and high-res.

So – good read. Not entirely sure that I will follow up with more Ford in the near future, but glad that I have read it as it triggered more in-depth reading about the times.

Speaking of Fitzgerald, I saw the recent movie of The Great Gatsby, and when combined with my very recent readings of the novel, have to say that this was one of the best movies that I have seen this year and in recent memory. I think if you go in to the movie with a flexible interpretation of the original novel, you’ll enjoy this, and if you’re into fashion et al, the costumes are amazing. (Actually, even if you’re not, the clothes are sumptuous. I’m hardly a fashion maven, but even I noticed the great outfits.) It also struck me as being a very sad story as well for most of the characters, although people in the audience were laughing in places. Excellent movie though.