Today, in a free two and a half hours at work, I read the latter 3/4 or so of The Beautiful And Damned. That would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel and, while not a tragedy on the scale of The Great Gatsby, it’s pretty fantastic. And, whether or not you find the ending sad (I both do and don’t), it is definitely tragic in its own right. Anthony Patch is destroyed by his alcoholism and idleness and weak will, and self-destruction on the part of the protagonist is one of the defining features of tragedy as a genre. He’s no Othello, but he does ruin himself pretty thoroughly.
Incidentally, most of the characters in the novel are neither likable nor sympathetic, which is interesting because the relationship between Anthony and Gloria is very much based on Fitzgerald’s own marriage, but that’s sort of why it works. A hero Anthony Patch is not, but the plot relies on him being this alcoholic failure clinging to an upper class lifestyle he really can’t afford. If he were a better person, with a healthy marriage and a proper job, there wouldn’t be a story. The Beautiful and Damned is a character-driven novel – it’s almost claustrophobic in how narrow the focus is. Unlike in Gatsby and Tender is the Night, there’s not much attention given to the what’s going on in the world around them, it’s just this story about some very dysfunctional people living beyond their means.
But in a way that also makes it a really accurate portrait of the time because it depicts the spirit of the Jazz Age, the cynicism and indolence and lack of motivation. Much like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (my all-time favorite novel, fyi) depicts the decline of the English upper class in the period between the World Wars, what you find in Fitzgerald’s novels is arguably the slow death of the American Dream during the same era. I could probably write an essay on that, Fitzgerald’s four novels as a deconstruction of the American Dream. Because I think of things like that when I read for fun.
That aside, I’ve found that people either really like, or really hate, Fitzgerald. I’ve met a lot of people who hated Gatsby, which is the only one most people have read, while I consider it one of the greatest ever American novels. I think the hate might have something to do with how unlikable most of his characters are. But, regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Beautiful and Damned. Is it as good as Gatsby? For me, no, but Gatsby is also a later novel (his third) and a more refined piece overall.
And, if you’re curious, this is my personal top 5 greatest American novels (in no particular order):
1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott. Fitzgerald
2. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
3. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
4. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
5. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
I might be back another day with my list of top 10 greatest English language novels. Since I’m a bibliophile and like making lists.