There were silences as murmurous as sound

beautiful-damnedThe Beautiful and Damned
by F Scott Fitzgerald

I love the way Fitzgerald writes, but his books sure are depressing. This book lives up to the title and to its reputation as Fitzgerald’s most pessimistic work. I started the book wondering why it’s so long since I last read Fitzgerald but by the end I’d decided long breaks in-between are necessary for my sanity.

It is the story of Anthony and Gloria. They are the young and the beautiful, the idle rich. Anthony is expecting to inherit billions on the death of his grandfather, so he spends his allowance frivolously on himself, his friends, girls. Gloria dates eligible bachelor after eligible bachelor, sometimes even getting engaged, but never staying with one man for long enough to fall in love. They of course fall for each other, but is it really love or is it a shared appreciation for the same carefree lifestyle?

“There were silences as murmurous as sound. There were pauses that seemed about to shatter and were only to be snatched back to oblivion by the tightening of his arms about her and the sense that she was resting there as a caught, gossamer feather, drifted in out of the dark…Such a kiss – it was a flower held against the face, never to be described, scarcely to be remembered; as though her beauty were giving off emanations of itself which settled transiently and already dissolving upon his heart.”

Anthony and Gloria are not good for each other. They both know they’re overspending but they enjoy partying too much to stop. As the partying itself begins to take a toll, alcoholism and depression rear their ugly heads. It’s all so beautiful, sad, inevitable.

The story begins in 1913 and the First World War looms large for much of the book, but by the time it truly intervenes in Anthony and Gloria’s love story, it becomes clear that it is just one more opportunity for self-improvement that the couple will fail at. Their friends grow up and move on to grown-up things, so Anthony and Gloria’s partying gets lonelier and wilder. Money troubles and alienation from their friends add to what was always an argumentative relationship, veering on the line of love and hate.

I spent much of the book trying to understand Anthony and Gloria. They aren’t stupid – they both have intellectual leanings and enjoy hearing their smarter friends debate philosophically. They know that their lifestyle is unsustainable but Anthony is stubbornly determined that one day soon his grandfather will die and the money will solve everything. Gloria is more realistic but she is also terrified of not making the most of her youth. She is painfully aware that she will not be young and beautiful forever and has deliberately chosen to party as hard and as long as she can, no matter how reckless, even disastrous, that decision proves.

“Out of the deep sophistication of Anthony an understanding formed…as she talked and caught his eyes and turned her lovely head, she moved him as he had never been moved before. The sheath that held her soul had assumed significance – that was all. She was a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it – then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, to that part of him that cherished all beauty and illusion.”

Stylistically, the book is slightly odd, in that several chapters, or shorter sections, are written in the form of a script or screenplay. I found this effect odd and distancing, which was strange when the rest of the novel was so intimately revealing of characters. Like all Fitzgerald’s novels, this is to an extent autobiographical, and there is an insight into alcoholism and partying to excess that feels not just true to life but painfully honest.

There is a friend of the central couple called Richard “Dick” Caramel who writes one original, critically acclaimed novel and then follows it with hastily written formulaic short stories that are about making money rather than art. He gives in to this “popularized” style and is a huge success as a result. Fitzgerald famously considered his own short stories to be “whoring” and refused to write his novels in the same manner, with the result that they were not big financial successes, and there is a certain bitterness to Anthony’s opinion of Dick that betrays Fitzgerald’s own fears and prejudices.

“As always when he was with her she seemed to grow gradually older until at the end ruminations too deep for words would be wintering in her eyes.”

This all sounds rather miserable, and it is bleak by the end, but that bleakness steadily increases and actually at the start of the book it is often romantic or funny, even hopeful. And Fitzgerald’s mastery of language makes even the darkest sections gorgeously readable. It isn’t flowery but simply well-observed, with all those wonderful details that turn a good story into a great one.

First published 1922 by Scribner’s.

Source: Secondhand, not sure which shop.

Challenges: This counts towards the Classics Club.

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