The 1920s have always held a glittery fascination to me, an era of great social change in the wake of the society-shattering events of the First World War and an almost literal tossing out the window of the values of the previous century. It was a turning point era when people started to think differently, almost the Twentieth Century’s rebellious teen phase if you will—women cut their hair and refused to look upon corsets again, the classes began to merge and mingle, jazz music caused a sensation, and of course the backdrop to all this was the Prohibition, America’s bright idea to rid themselves of the corruptive devil’s blood that was alcohol by banning it.
It was a time of shifting morals and changing attitudes, iconic for much of the western world, and thus it needed a writer to document and decode it.
And here enters F. Scott Fitzgerald, a typewriter before him, dry wit social commentary in one hand and rolling prose in the other, ready to fuse them together and create an elegant electrical storm that would be immortalised as the voice of the era.
What gives Fitzgerald double points on being an icon of the Jazz Age is that he lived it himself—he and his wife Zelda were almost poster children for the mischievous, flighty and devil-may-care decadence of the time period. They dined and danced in hotels and clubs, travelled Europe on a voyage of fashionable artistic soul-searching and were once recorded to be met dancing in a New York fountain.
If you’re thinking “They sound as good as fictional characters” then you’d be right—obviously Fitzgerald caught onto the “You could write a novel about these people” vibe he and his wife and friends gave off as they feature, in photocopies and carnival mirror images, in all of his writing.
Many of his female leads, for example, seem to follow a certain template, and if you examine it for more than a few moments you’ll realise that it’s Zelda. Most commonly they are blonde of hair, flighty and cheeky, a little over dramatic and easily bored, and often attuned to whatever the latest fashions are and prone to seeking to make themselves into a sensation.
This may seem cute, but Fitzgerald is doing far more than simply beaming his darling wife onto the page as a tribute to her wonder: these love interests are never allowed to simply sit fair and flouncy and two-dimensional; there is always a very human and flawed element to them that no doubt comes through, however tweaked from his real-life model, from Zelda as well. Daisy Bucchanan, for example, from his most famous novel The Great Gatsby is a typical modern gal, ex-debutante with a thirst for glamour and entertainment, glowingly beautiful… fickle, shallow, and flighty, revealing herself as the book draws to a close to be far from the idealised love interest that Gatsby saw her to be, with dangerous consequences. F. Scott Fitzgerald was warning the world against Manic Pixie Dream Girls before they were even a thing.
Even the premise of Gatsby has echoes in real life—long story short, Scott couldn’t quite get Zelda to accept his serious romantic advances, so he went away and wrote This Side of Paradise, had it published and popularised, and then returned to her with the fame and profits and asked her once again. Gatsby too was a lovelorn man who flung himself into the pursuit of material success to win the heart and favour of his golden glamour girl, and he turned into a metaphor for the shallowness and corruption of the modern era.
Does this mean that Fitzgerald saw himself and his lifestyle as shallow and corrupt? He certainly makes allusions to it. Themes that echo throughout most of his major works are the decay of social standards and morality in this shiny, decadent post-war era, where people are grappling for the pursuit of pleasure in place of the bewildering trauma that the War left them and their families with. His social commentary is gently scathing this new world and the people who epitomise it, the Anthony Patches and the Jay Gatsbys, while giving them a flawed and human nature as well.
And most of his works are, in essence, character studies—let me state this: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s social commentary and descriptive prose are absolutely delicious, but sometimes the stories themselves can take a bit of effort to chew through. Perhaps another reason why Gatsby is the most famous novel is because it’s one of the shortest, with one of the most succinct and rounded storylines. In comparison to my experience with The Beautiful and Damned, which I still need to give back to my friend after going on a year, I whizzed through it drinking in the drama and the descriptions of this bright and decadent world, and hastily added one of Gatsby’s parties to the list of fictional places lush and beautiful description has made me want to visit.
The Beautiful and Damned had his trademark prose in spades, oh yes, and drawling commentary that makes the reader smile tongue-in-cheek at the exploits and behaviours of the characters, but not an awful lot seems to happen. What Fitzgerald delights in most, as far as I can tell (especially from his short stories) is telling life stories, sprawling tales of the experiences of people as they buff against the tide of passing time and their love affairs become marriages and children and they move through wars and eras. The story of Gloria and Anthony Patch does just this, but over the course of many years and many hundreds of pages, so that eventually the reader’s interest must be supercharged to their lazy and fanciful adventures for them to retain their interest. Fictional biographies are all very well, but the trouble with life is that it doesn’t follow a narrative structure.
These work far better when rounded into short story form, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is one of the few stories of his which contains any fantastical element (though it is not really treated as such… the man who ages backwards is told, more than once, to stop playing at his silly games and behave like a normal person), which details the life of a man who is born an old man and ages in reverse, traipsing with his bizarre condition from 1860 to the First World War, which he unfortunately cannot participate in as he has matured into an adolescent by that point.
The Cut-Glass Bowl follows a family over a prolonged period of time also, with each misfortune in their lives somehow connected or overseen by a bowl of cut-glass that the husband gave to the wife in the early days of their now-flagging romance. Head and Shoulders follows the growth of a relationship between a seventeen-year-old prodigy and a dancer, and the way it changes both of them and their perceptions over time; and The Four Fists tells the story of a man whose great developments in character have all come about, at several stages throughout his life, from being punched deservedly in the face.
I would recommend him to anyone who wants to dip backwards into the start of the Twentieth Century and take a look at the complicated, entertaining and not always sympathetic characters that populated it, carried along on beautiful and vivid description and ponderous prose that poses drawling questions about these modern times we live in. Of course, we don’t live in them anymore, but it is always of interest to see that similar issues and commentary existed in the hearts and minds of people in the past. It’s like history and fiction! Double nerd points!
And one day, one day, I swear I will finish that damned book and return it to you, Writing Buddy. I’m so very sorry.