Reviewed by Harriet
It’s been many years since I read anything by Scott Fitzgerald, but he used to be a favourite of mine. So when I saw that OUP was reprinting this, the only one of his novels I hadn’t read, I was looking forward to it very much. I knew next to nothing about it apart from the fact that it was his first novel, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I plunged in. It might have been better to have read Philip McGowan’s very interesting introduction to this edition first, as it provides some very useful context.
The novel was first published a hundred years ago, in 1920, when its author was just twenty-three. The first version of the novel, entitled ‘The Romantic Egoist’, had been written in 1917, when, as Fitzgerald wrote in a 1920 article, ‘I only had three months to live – in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live – and I had left no mark on the world’. In the event, of course, WW1 ended before he had seen any action, but though he had initially hoped to become a published poet, circumstances had changed his direction for him. He finished this version in 1918 and sent it to Scribners, who turned it down, though not without some helpful pointers about how he might improve it. This was disappointing, as he had fallen in love with Zelda Sayre, who had agreed to marry him if he could secure a publishing contract. So he returned to the novel and revised it drastically, got his contract, and married Zelda on 3 April 1920.
All this explains to some extent the undeniable unevenness of the structure: the original ‘The Romantic Egoist’ is now Book One, with an added Book Two, ‘The Education of a Personage’. There’s a certain disconnect between the two parts, with the second showing a greater maturity in style. The whole novel also experiments with genre, being threaded through with Fitzgerald’s poems, and with an entertaining section at the start of Book Two which is in the form of a play, or dramatic dialogue.
But what is the book about? I hear you ask. Well, it’s the story of a young man’s life from the age of thirteen to his early twenties. Amory Blaine, especially in the first part of the novel, undoubtedly bears a close relation to his author, as Fitzgerald himself admitted: ‘I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination’. Amory is an attractive and intelligent young man, as he’s well aware, and he has literary aspirations, believing he is headed for a golden future. He has strong opinions on contemporary authors, who he either admires or despises. He’s been brought up as a Catholic by his eccentric, alcoholic mother, who, though her own attitude to her faith is a little questionable, introduces him to her friend Monsignor Darcy, who becomes his mentor. And he likes girls very much – his first flirtation, when he’s thirteen, paves the way for his first real romantic relationship, with his childhood friend Isobelle Borgé. He goes to Princeton, where he writes her intense, flowery poems, but the relationship peters out when the two realise their feelings have changed.
There’s a short ‘interlude’ between the two books, in which Amory joins the army and is shipped overseas, though we don’t see him in action. Then in Book Two, returning after the war, he meets and falls in love with Rosalind Connage. She agrees to marry him, but his finances fall apart when capital and property inherited from his parents drop substantially in value, and she breaks off the engagement in order to marry a wealthy man. Amory, meanwhile, has taken a job with an advertising agency, but feels it’s not using his creative talents. He quits, and spends three weeks drinking. He meets another young woman, but the relationship does not prosper. The novel ends with Amory, now homeless, hitching a lift to Princeton, with no idea what his future holds.
So this is the story. But it doesn’t really give much idea of the experience of reading the novel. Its huge success – the first printing of 3000 ran out in three days and the novel was reprinted numerous times in the following years – was certainly largely owing to the fact that everything in it spoke to Fitzgerald’s peers: ‘I write always to reach my generation’, as he wrote in 1920. His readers greatly appreciated his honest handling of the way they lived their lives: Amory’s world is lived in a whirl of drinking, smoking, dancing and of course relations with the opposite sex, which, though rather tame by today’s standards, seemed daring at the time. All this makes the novel, especially the early part, proceed at quite a galloping pace. Another way Fitzgerald reaches out to them (as well as demonstrating his own voracious reading and strong opinions) is through Amory’s frequent – very frequent – allusions to and quotations from writers and books which were popular at the time. The introduction tells us that the novel ‘references some sixty-odd other works of literature and almost one hundred writers’. Even a well-read twenty-first century reader will almost certainly not be familiar with a large percentage of them, which necessitates either a great deal of reference to the admirably thorough endnotes or a policy of just gliding on regardless. But young people of Fitzgerald’s class and generation would have been able to relate to them. They would also have responded to Amory’s musings on the meaning and purpose of life, which are threaded throughout, allowing the reader to follow his mental and moral development over the novel’s ten-year timespan.
All this may sound as if the novel only has value as a historical document. It is that, of course, and it would be hard to find a better glimpse of life on that level of American society a hundred years ago. But it is so well worth reading too for its liveliness, its honesty, its experimentation, and of course as an insight into the way Fitzgerald’s writing developed over the coming years.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (Oxford University Press, 2020). 978-0198848110, 336pp., paperback original.
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