Yesterday was F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday. He turned 117.
Unfortunately, we wrote a Gatsby post on the day before his birthday; we will redress this by offering a belated exploration of his most personal book, his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. The novel, a collection of vignettes (and a short play) generally mirroring Fitzgerald's own experiences, propelled him to literary glory.
This Side of Paradise is modeled so closely on Fitzgerald's own story that it's hard to picture Fitzgerald having the guts to actually write the thing. Autobiographical novels rarely portray the author in an overwhelmingly negative light. Kerouac's On the Road casts Sal Paradise as a slightly insane hipster, but Sal is admirable for his ridiculous idealism and celebration of Everything. But in the beginning of Fitzgerald's novel, Amory Blaine is a jerk through and through.
Amory is often an insightful jerk, and the end of book sees him cast away his obsession with the trivial (a gorgeous last sentence: "I know myself", he cried, "but that is all - ") but the majority of the book's first section is founded on his womanizing attitude coupled with a cringe-worthy egotism. Of course, Fitzgerald is well aware of Amory's (and his own) jerk-ness, mirthfully assigning his chapters titles such as "The Egotist Considers" and "Narcissus Off Duty".
And as expected, much of Part I of the novel is extremely funny. Yet Fitzgerald sets Amory's egotistic perceptions against a backdrop that is very gray, a base-level sadness with uncertain origins. The resulting story moves the reader to a constant state of sad laughter, a laughter with precise roots in Amory's travails, encased in a melancholy similar to the magical gloom that permeates The Great Gatsby -
Silently he admired himself. How conveniently well he looked, and how well a dinner coat became him. He stepped into the hall and then waited at the top of the stairs, for he heard footsteps coming. It was Isabelle, and from the top of her shining hair to her little golden slippers she had never seemed so beautiful.
"Isabelle!" he cried, half involuntarily, and held out his arms. As in the story-books, she ran into them, and on that half-minute, as their lips first touched, rested the high point of vanity, the crest of his young egotism.
While it's easy to find humor in the image of Amory admiring himself in the mirror, exulting in his own grace, the scene is also nostalgic of a time in Amory's life when such egotism was tolerable, even expected. Isabelle's unyielding affection, her youthful beauty, can only be transient; Isabelle "had never seemed so beautiful" but the scene marks "the high point of vanity, the crest of his [Amory's] young egotism." And Amory Blaine's crest can only precede a downfall, just as Tom Buchanan's crest at 21 years of age left "everything afterwards savour[ing] of anti-climax".
This scene ends Chapter II of Part I. And Fitzgerald hilariously begins Chapter III ("The Egotist Considers") with a continuation of the previous scene -
"Ouch! Let me go!"
He dropped his arms to his sides.
"What's the matter?"
"Your shirt stud — it hurt me — look!" She was looking down at her neck, where a little blue spot about the size of a pea marred its pallor.
And thus, the story-book moment is ruined. The young egotist's ego has suffered. But Amory quickly gathers his thoughts after he and Isabelle separate on uncertain terms -
"Damn her!" he said bitterly, "she's spoiled my year!"
However, Amory is disturbed by his soiled relationship with Isabelle, if only because his ego has been wounded; he ponders a verse from Robert Browning's "Youth and Art" that seems to reflect his situation -
Each life unfulfilled, you see,
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy;
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired — been happy.
This show of empathy and perceptiveness, while questionable in intent, does leave the reader with an inkling of respect for Amory, and only furthers the scene's wistful sadness.
Of course, wistful humor is very satisfying and all, but a reader is immediately sold if an obvious personal connection is found in a novel. And after a day of loafing around in brutally boring classes, some of Amory's poetry regarding "popular professors" seems awfully astute -
Three times a week
You hold us helpless while you speak,
Teasing our thirsty souls with the
Sleek 'yeas' of your philosophy...
Well, here we are, your hundred sheep,
Tune up, play on, pour forth ... we sleep...
Happy Belated Birthday, Fitzgerald! Tune up, play on, pour forth … and sleep well.