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By Elias Forneris
When the name Francis Scott Fitzgerald is brought-up most will think of his sensational work, The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel taught in high-schools in the four corners of the world and adapted to the big screen by iconic actors such as Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Leonardo Di Caprio.
Those truly enamored with Fitzgerald’s prose or studying at Princeton University will often go a little further and read This Side of Paradise (1920), Fitzgerald’s enchanting first novel on the coming of age of a young Amory Blaine — the story of an idealistic college student, a romantic and intellectual born in the wrong century, wandering aimlessly in the times of World War One and New York’s roaring twenties. “The idea is that the sentimental person thinks things will last — the romantic person has a desperate confidence they won’t”, Amory explains.
However, often forgotten in the shadow of these two monumental works, there exists a discrete prowess of a novel: The Beautiful and Damned (1922). It tells the story of Anthony Patch, a young presumptive heir of a fortune the likes of a Carnegie, a Rockefeller, or a Vanderbilt. Anthony grows-up in the early twentieth century, an orphan in a family torn by tragedy and precocious deaths. His only relative: a stern, tempestuous, and distant grand-father who wishes to raise him in the spirit of humility, studiousness, and to orient him towards philanthropy. His grandfather was a self-made man but Anthony, on the other hand, is a hedonist used to travelling through Europe in the most opulent of palaces, and hasn’t faced many obstacles throughout his childhood. First home-schooled, and then a graduate of Harvard College, Anthony cruises through school and literary studies with comfort. He has an innate sense of the aesthetic, and devours novels of all sorts.
Upon entering the adult world, the necessity of work strikes him. He lives in an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, in quite comfortable conditions, but the budget given to him by his grand-father doesn’t allow him to afford a car or spend much on dinners and outings. He would like to achieve great things and write many, wonderful books, but the comfort of his satin sheets always lure him back to bed and prevent him from ever working on a given project for more than a week. He tries his hand at writing, at working for an advertising firm, and even at bond-trading, but the rigor of the workplace and the constraints of the schedule displease him thoroughly. Thus, Anthony falls into a lazy café society routine of meeting friends, heavily drinking, and abstractly discussing future projects — the likes of which he will never accomplish.
The failure and the success both believe in their hearts that they have accurately balanced points of view, the success because he’s succeeded, and the failure because he’s failed. The successful man tells his son to profit by his father’s good fortunes, and the failure tells his son to profit by his father’s mistakes.
Anthony’s indolent world is turned upside-down when he meets the gorgeous socialite, Gloria Gilbert. Envied by all, Gloria is a clever ‘social butterfly’ who thrives on her beauty. She, like many others, understands that were it not for her looks and clumsy, charming personality, her superficial knowledge of things wouldn’t bring her any success. Her popularity is a ticking time-bomb which will wane as her beauty fades, so she lives life as if everyday were her last, constantly traveling, partying, and drinking. Gloria is the perfect counterpart to Anthony: they both renounce work, implicitly hoping that Anthony’s grand-father will soon pass-away and leave him his fortune. And so this elegant, fortuned, but mutually destructive couple drink-away their days while waiting for Anthony Patch’s inheritance to fall in his lap. The question, however, is whether the couple destroy itself before the old magnate passes-away?
The Beautiful and Damned is a four-hundred page novel and is often criticized for lacking the conciseness, vision, and coherent thematic of Fitzgerald’s other two monumental works mentioned previously — granted. However, I would like to argue that it is precisely the uneven pace of narration and the long, perhaps tedious, but realist descriptions that make this book magnificent! Fitzgerald doesn’t try to make his characters likeable ; on the contrary, he creates detestable, sometimes grotesque, but beautifully reckless personages that remind us of Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart family. Today, these would most resemble the self-destructive characters of Martin Scorsese’s films The King of Comedy (1982), and to a greater extent, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Talented characters, who by their folly, go too far in their ambition and squander everything they have!
There was a kindliness about intoxication — there was that indescribable gloss and glamour it gave, like the memories of ephemeral and faded evenings. After a few high-balls there was a magic in the tall glowing Arabian night of the Bush Terminal Building — its summit a peak of sheer grandeur, gold and dreaming against the inaccessible sky. […] The fruit of youth or of the grape, the transitory magic of the brief passage from darkness to darkness — the old illusion that truth and beauty were in some way entwined.
The Beautiful and Damned is also a fascinating insight into the worst that human nature has to offer, during an epoch that was both incredible and arduous for the United States. This is a time where alcohol consumption is at a summum, on the eve of Prohibition, and the main characters—Anthony Patch and his wife— are not spared. Alcoholism renders them intolerable to their friends, a curse which prevents Anthony from working and focusing on anything productive, which empties their pockets, and plunges them into a debt-spiral that nearly puts them on the street! Ironically, Anthony Patch’s fate of ending his days alone and alcoholic is very much the same fate that Francis Scott Fitzgerald endured many years later, following the death of his dear Zelda. Had Fitzgerald already sensed his own dangerous penchant for alcohol at a young age, and proceeded to drift uncontrollably down a slippery slope for the rest of his days? How poetic that an author is able to write his own death…
Thus, for anyone like me who fell in love with Fitzgerald’s works, The Beautiful and Damned is a novel that must absolutely be read. In every person’s life comes a moment, I believe, where one reads a book and can proclaim: “this is the book I have always wanted to write!” This is my book. Fitzgerald, an author who had experienced both the best and worst that life had to offer, who had travelled extensively through Europe, and who had spent many years in New York and Antibes, truly had “some heightened sensitivity of the promises of life”. It were “as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away”, as Nick Carraway said of Gatsby.
I leave you here, fellow reader, with another enchanting extract of the novel:
Italy — if the verdict was in their favor it meant Italy. The word had become a sort of talisman to him, a land where the intolerable anxieties of life would fall away like an old garment. They would go to the watering-places first and among the bright and colorful crowds forget the gray appendages of despair. Marvelously renewed, he would walk again in the Piazza di Spagna at twilight, moving in that drifting flotsam of dark women and ragged beggars, of austere, barefooted friars.