It is unusual that an author’s first novel is good. Especially when he is 22, he just came back from the war and he is suffering from unrequited love. Or maybe just because he is 22 and his pen is still young, his disillusionment with life after the bombshells and his romantic feeling is not altered by the realization that most of the time love is painful, that he is able to convey his thoughts in a masterly fashion.
This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first and largely autobiographical novel. It describes the life of the Lost Generation of the 1920s, the young men that fought in WWI and were (un)fortunate enough to return alive, through the eyes of Amory Blaine. The protagonist is clearly based on Fitzgerald – both from the Mid-West, both attended Princeton, both went to war, and both suffered through multiple disappointments in love.
Born and raised with the idea that he is special, Amory grows to be eccentric, egoistic and self-absorbed. He believes he is destined for greatness and becomes quite disappointed when in high school and later in Princeton, his exclusiveness is left unnoticed by others:
It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.
Amory develops the habit of looking over people, despising simplicity, poverty, lack of originality. He surrounds himself with friends among which he can shine – or attempt to. It seems, however, that the ever so confident young man is actually not so secure about his qualities. In the desperate search of his own personality, which usually strikes men in the early 20s, he develops a doctrine of the man he believes he is supposed to be:
- Clever sense of social values.
- Dresses well. Pretends that dress is superficial – but knows that it isn’t.
- Goes into such activities as he can shine in.
- Gets to college and is in a worldly way, successful.
- Hair slicked
And yet it seems his confidence is just a mask to cover his deep insecurity. Any reproach or doubt in his greatness causes him deep disappointment and depression. In his mind he is supposed to be famous, successful, looked upon, but his failure to succeed in school causes bitterness and resentment. And yet, one cannot judge Amory too harshly. A young boy raised by his mother to believe he is exceptional, is surely to suffer when he realizes life doesn’t revolve around him:
I like having a bunch of hot cats on top, but gosh Kerry, I’ve got to be one of them.
This Side of Paradise sets the trend for Fitzgerald’s later novels – the exuberance of the Jazz Age, the obsession of young men and women with money and social status, the disillusionment that came with the end of the war, and the desperate desire to be richer, faster, stronger and more beautiful. After returning from the battlefield, Amory goes through several painful relationships – one of which strongly reminds of Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda. Rosalind is a match for Amory – rich, educated, witty and just as self-absorbed as himself:
Oh, I’m bright, quite selfish, emotional when aroused, fond of admiration
Their love relationship escalates quickly, burns passionately and ends painfully. For Rosalind is a flapper – the spreading behavior among young women in the 1920s of contempt and disdain for socially acceptable behavior and their growing obsession with money. And so just as Rosalind rejects Amory for being poor and without future, Zelda breaks off the engagement with Fitzgerald. After months of excessive alcohol consumption, Fitzgerald sets to finish the novel, hoping to win Zelda back, now as a successful young novelist.
This Side of Paradise is a novel about growing up – the dreams of becoming someone you believe you are supposed to be. Amory goes through transformation – a self-absorbed young man, a soldier, a student with interest in literature and philosophy, a man-in-love. His wandering in the possibilities of who he can be or who he wants to be is painfully familiar:
He found something that he wanted, had always wanted and always would want – not to be admired, as he had feared; not to be loved, as he had made himself believe; but to be necessary to people, to be indispensable.
And with that comes even the more painful realization:
You’re a slave, a bound helpless slave to one thing in the world, your imagination.
This Side of Paradise is certainly not Fitzgerald best novel, but it sets pace for his successful future as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. The themes that are going to dominate his work, and the ones he develops most brilliantly in The Great Gatsby are here – the obsession with wealth and luxury of the Jazz Era, the disillusionment of young people, the corruptness of love. A very good novel, that gives a sneak peek into the author’s turbulent youth and one that makes you think about your own:
Youth is like having a bit plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again. The matron doesn’t want to repeat her girlhood – she wants to repeat her honeymoon. I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.
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