Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review: This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

The original dust jacket of This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920.

F. Scott Fitzgerald during his Princeton years.
F. Scott Fitzgerald burst onto the literary scene in 1920 with the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. The book immediately attracted the attention of critics and readers across the country, and the twenty-three-year-old from Saint Paul was hailed as a bright new talent in American literature.

This Side of Paradise is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, as it follows Amory Blaine from birth through college and a little beyond. The focus is on Amory’s education and his romantic attachments to various young women.

There are numerous parallels between Fitzgerald and Amory Blaine. Fitzgerald was not as wealthy as he makes Blaine, but he grew up in an upper-middle-class household. His maternal grandfather had made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business and then died young. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1896. (Yes, he was distantly related to the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”) In 1898 the family moved to Buffalo, New York for ten years, before returning to Saint Paul in 1908. Fitzgerald went to all the right schools, and rubbed shoulders with the very rich. The image of him as a poor boy obsessed with the rich is wrong, but because his social and financial positions were slightly more precarious than that of his wealthier friends, he was finely attuned to differences in class and status. Fitzgerald knew that he was not going to be able to just drift aimlessly through life with the family fortune supporting him.

One minor difference between Fitzgerald and Blaine is that Blaine spends several years as a teenager in Minneapolis, living with relatives. For his junior and senior years of high school, Fitzgerald attended the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey, called St. Regis in This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald then attended Princeton University, as Amory Blaine does. While Blaine completed his college studies, Fitzgerald did not graduate from Princeton, as a case of tuberculosis kept him back in Saint Paul for most of his junior year of 1915-16. Fitzgerald was also in danger of flunking out of Princeton, and his poor grades meant that he could not participate in extracurricular activities. In the fall of 1917 he left Princeton for officers’ training school.

In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald is brutally honest about the academic reputation of Princeton at the time, writing of Amory Blaine, “Princeton drew him most, with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America.” (p.41) This, coupled with the fact that Blaine seemingly never attends class or does any work at Princeton, greatly annoyed the President of Princeton, John Grier Hibben, who wrote a letter to Fitzgerald admonishing him for how the university was portrayed in the novel. It was this reputation of Princeton as a cushy country club that Woodrow Wilson was trying to change when he was President of Princeton from 1902-1910. Wilson also wanted to do away with the social clubs that were a fixture of Princeton life. Election to these clubs, at the end of an undergraduate’s sophomore year, determined a student’s social future for their next two years at the school. Just like Blaine, Fitzgerald made the prestigious Cottage Club, but both Blaine and Fitzgerald ultimately lost those positions due to poor academic standing.

Fitzgerald’s writing on college life is sharp. His description of the poses that Blaine goes through in the novel are incisive, beginning with his first day at Princeton: “By afternoon Amory realized that now the newest arrivals were taking him for an upper classman, and he tried conscientiously to look both pleasantly blasé and casually critical, which was as near as he could analyze the prevalent facial expression.” (p.44)  

Blaine later says, “’I’m a cynical idealist.’ He paused and wondered if that meant anything.” (p.94) That seems like a good way of summing up Fitzgerald as well.

Fitzgerald’s youthful romances and infatuations inspired Blaine’s relationships with women in the novel. Blaine’s relationship with Isabelle at the beginning of the novel was modeled after Fitzgerald’s infatuation with Ginevra King, a beautiful and wealthy Chicago socialite. Fitzgerald’s sense of humor is on display with this line: “They lunched in a gay party of six in a private dining-room at the club, while Isabelle and Amory looked at each other tenderly over the fried chicken and knew that their love was to be eternal.” (p.98) The failure of his relationship with Ginevra King was a severe disappointment to the young Fitzgerald, and she was the model for other characters in his fiction as well.

Blaine’s relationship with Rosalind Connage, the sister of one of his best friends, is drawn somewhat from Fitzgerald’s courtship of Zelda Sayre. Fitzgerald had met Zelda while he was stationed in Alabama during his Army service. Zelda broke off their engagement in June of 1919, when Fitzgerald was living in New York City after his discharge and trying to make a living working for an advertising agency. Depressed after Zelda’s rejection of him, and accumulating nothing but rejection slips for his short stories, Fitzgerald quit his job and headed back to Saint Paul to attempt to finish his novel.

Another brilliant line in This Side of Paradise is when Rosalind says to Amory, “You’re not sentimental?” He replies, “No, I’m romantic-a sentimental person thinks things will last-a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.” (p.193) Again, this seems like an apt description of Fitzgerald himself.

One of the female characters in This Side of Paradise who did not have a real life counterpart is Eleanor Savage, who Blaine meets in Maryland during a torrential rainstorm. As her last name implies, Eleanor is a wild country girl, although she still comes from a wealthy family. Although Blaine’s romance with Eleanor feels rather improbable in the context of the rest of the novel, Fitzgerald gives her one of the best speeches in the book:

“…here am I with the brains to do everything, yet tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony. If I were born a hundred years from now, well and good, but now what’s in store for me-I have to marry, that goes without saying. Who? I’m too bright for most men, and yet I have to descend to their level and let them patronize my intellect in order to get their attention. Every year that I don’t marry I’ve got less chance for a first-class man.” (p.258)

Fitzgerald has eloquently summed up the dilemma of well-born women of his generation.

This Side of Paradise originally came to life as The Romantic Egotist, written while Fitzgerald was in the Army in 1918. The book was rejected by Scribner’s, but an editor working there, Maxwell Perkins, encouraged Fitzgerald to revise the novel and re-submit it.

In June of 1919, Fitzgerald returned to Saint Paul and moved back in with his parents, who were living in a Victorian brownstone at 599 Summit Avenue. They were less than thrilled that Scott had quit his job, but they gave him time and space to work on his novel. Working furiously over the summer, Fitzgerald rearranged the structure and added new scenes to the novel. In early September 1919, he sent the manuscript to Scribner’s again. Maxwell Perkins was the only editor who wanted to publish the novel. Perkins said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Matthew J. Bruccoli, p.99) Of course, Perkins was right. Scribner’s accepted This Side of Paradise just before Fitzgerald’s twenty-third birthday, and soon his short stories began selling to magazines. With his new success, he was able to win Zelda back, and they were married on April 3, 1920, just a week after This Side of Paradise was published on March 26th.

The first printing of This Side of Paradise was 3,000 copies. While Fitzgerald hoped for sales of 20,000 copies, Scribner’s informed him that a good total for a first novel would be 5,000 copies. The first printing sold out in just three days. F. Scott Fitzgerald was on his way. By the end of 1921 This Side of Paradise had sold 49,000 copies. It would be Fitzgerald’s best-selling book during his lifetime.

How does This Side of Paradise hold up now, almost 100 years later? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. This Side of Paradise clearly has its failings. It’s overstuffed, as Fitzgerald includes everything he can think of in the novel, including letters, poems written by the characters, and he even presents the first meeting of Amory and Rosalind as a play, complete with stage directions. It’s clear that Fitzgerald is throwing everything he can at the reader and seeing what sticks. It’s remarkable that Fitzgerald was able to move from the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of This Side of Paradise to the crisp, clear economy of The Great Gatsby in just five years. But for all of the faults of This Side of Paradise, it’s also clear that Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer, with keen insight into the human condition. In the hands of a lesser talent, the book would probably be insufferable.

This Side of Paradise throbs with passion, emotion and feeling, and I think this is probably what spoke to young people in 1920. Fitzgerald wrote of the book in 1937, “A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.” (From the essay “Early Success,” published in The Crack-Up, p.88) What I think he meant is that there’s a lot of intellectual posing going on, but all of the emotion in the book was real.

I’m reasonably certain that had I written a novel at the age of 23, it would probably have been very similar to This Side of Paradise. As an adolescent and young man, like Fitzgerald and Amory Blaine, I was always seeking the attentions of attractive females, usually unsuccessfully. Also like Amory Blaine, my own self-image at that age was constructed in large part from books I had read, or authors I was seeking to emulate. This may account for the reason that I am rather forgiving of the youthful faults of This Side of Paradise.

When This Side of Paradise was first published, the text was riddled with spelling errors. Some of this was the fault of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he was a terrible speller, but Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli also assigns blame to editor Maxwell Perkins for proofreading the book himself, rather than handing it off to a professional. (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.127) Unfortunately, these textual errors gave rise to the idea that Fitzgerald simply wasn’t very smart. It’s a criticism that was fairly common in highbrow literary circles during Fitzgerald’s life. His Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson, who I think was probably jealous of Fitzgerald’s talent, published a harsh critique of Fitzgerald in 1922, writing, “...he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.161) That’s almost exactly what my American literature professor said of Fitzgerald eighty years later. I remember him saying in class, “Fitzgerald writes like an angel, but he doesn’t write about anything.” I disagreed, saying that I thought he understood class and status better than any other American writer, and I considered that a real achievement. Bruccoli writes that Wilson’s view of Fitzgerald became a part of the standard treatment of the writer, “that he was a natural, but not an artist.” (SSOEG, p.161) This idea might have gained traction among the highbrow literary set because of Fitzgerald’s sudden early success and rise to fame. There’s nearly always a critical backlash against authors who become too well-known. And of course, Fitzgerald was turning out stories for popular magazines left and right, so how serious a writer could he really be?

Of course, Fitzgerald was a serious writer, and in a self-interview from 1920 he wrote: “The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critic of the next and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” How prophetic that statement proved to be.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: Heart of Darkness (1899) and The Secret Sharer (1910) by Joseph Conrad

Paperback cover of the Signet Classics edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad.

Author Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924. English was his third language.
While reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which I reviewed here, I decided that I needed to finally read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Hochschild devotes a fair number of pages in King Leopold’s Ghost to examining Conrad’s 1890 trip to the Congo Free State. Conrad was a sea captain then, and not yet a novelist. This 1890 journey up the Congo River would inspire one of Conrad’s most famous works, the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. Hochschild does an excellent job detailing Conrad’s experiences in the Congo Free State, and he profiles several colonial officials who may have been the models for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. 

Joseph Conrad had a very interesting backstory. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in Berdychiv, in what is now the Ukraine. English was his third language, after Polish and French, and he didn’t start to learn English until he was in his twenties. Pretty impressive, as he is now considered one of the greatest novelists of the English language. After a career at sea, Conrad published his first novel Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River in 1895, when he was thirty-seven years old. Conrad devoted himself to writing for the rest of his life, and he produced a substantial body of work. 

The Signet Classic edition that I read pairs Heart of Darkness with the short story The Secret Sharer. The Secret Sharer was first published in 1910. It’s the tale of a young man who is making his first voyage as a captain. He is insecure as he takes command, as he thinks: “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful of that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” (p.5) He has the opportunity to face a moral test right away, as while he is on watch, he finds a young man clinging to the ship’s ladder. The young man’s name is Leggatt, and he has escaped from his ship after killing a fellow crew member. The captain makes the dangerous decision to shield Leggatt from danger. 

The captain and Leggatt resemble each other physically, and this is remarked on many times during the story. It may be the reason why the captain decided to hide Leggatt in the first place. It seemed to me that there was a fair amount of sexual tension between the captain and Leggatt. I have no idea if that was intentional on Conrad’s part, of it that’s simply me reading too much into it. However, the captain and Leggatt are always in close quarters, as Leggatt must be hidden at all times in the captain’s cabin. Just after he has discovered Leggatt, the captain narrates, “I was extremely tired, in a peculiarly intimate way, by the strain of stealthiness, by the effort of whispering and the general secrecy of this excitement.” (p.21) There are other times when the two men are very close together: “…we took up our position side by side, leaning over my bed place.” (p.32) “I conveyed that sincere assurance into his ear.” (p.33) “At night I would smuggle him into my bed place, and we would whisper together, with the regular footfalls of the officer of the watch passing and repassing over our heads. It was an infinitely miserable time.” (p.35) Infinitely miserable? The captain doth protest too much, methinks.

One of my favorite quotes from The Secret Sharer is from the beginning of the story, as the captain is conversing with Leggatt for the first time. After hearing Leggatt say that he had two choices: keep swimming until he drowned, or come on board the ship, the captain narrates, “I should have gathered from this that he was young; indeed, it is only the young who are ever confronted by such clear issues.” (p.10) So very true. 

Heart of Darkness isn’t very long, just about 100 pages in the Signet Classics edition, but it’s a dense book that packs a powerful punch. It’s a strong indictment of imperialism and colonialism, specifically as practiced in the Congo Free State. (Although the colony Marlow travels to is never identified by name in the text, it’s obviously meant to be the Congo Free State.)

Marlow has a brilliant quote at the beginning of the story: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” (p.58) Marlow then relates what he has seen.

Heart of Darkness is a very impressionistic piece of writing. We don’t learn specifics, like other character’s names. All we get is Marlow’s vision as we listen to him tell his story. The only other name in the text that matters is Kurtz. Kurtz is in charge of one of trading stations in the colony. He is mentioned many times by many different characters, and he becomes a figure of mythic importance. Fortunately, I knew from watching Apocalypse Now that Kurtz’s appearance in the narrative would inevitably be anticlimactic. Thanks, late-period Marlon Brando. 

I wonder if Samuel Beckett was influenced by Joseph Conrad? There were definitely characters in Heart of Darkness, like the brick-maker and the Russian disciple of Kurtz, who could easily crop up in Beckett’s barren landscapes, waiting for a Godot who will never come, occupied by nonsensical rituals that hold meaning only for them.

Heart of Darkness is full of Conrad’s beautiful prose. One of the sentences that stood out to me was Marlow’s description of one of the trading stations: “And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.” (p.80) 

Marlow’s view of life is beautifully, if harshly, summarized: “Droll thing life is-that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself-that comes too late-a crop of unextinguishable regrets.” (p.144-5) 

Heart of Darkness has become one of Joseph Conrad’s most famous works, and I found that it lived up to its reputation as a brilliant and important book.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Book Review: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir (2009)

Paperback cover of The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir, 2009. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

One of the only authenticated paintings of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England from 1533-1536.

British author and historian Alison Weir.
British author and historian Alison Weir has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Tudor period. Her 2009 non-fiction book, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn examines the rapid descent of Anne Boleyn in 1536 from Queen of England to convicted traitor.
In May of 1536, Anne was accused of adultery, incest, and plotting to kill Henry. She was found guilty of these charges and was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Five men accused of committing adultery with Anne, including her brother, Lord Rochford, were beheaded two days earlier. Was Anne Boleyn really guilty of these charges? Or was she framed as the victim of a palace coup?

The simple answer is that we will probably never know for certain, owing to many gaps in the historical record. It all depends on how you interpret the sketchy existing evidence. Weir advocates for Anne’s innocence, blaming the plotting for her downfall on Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s main advisor. I thought Weir makes a compelling argument. She makes the point that it seems rather unlikely that Anne would commit adultery with multiple men, which would have obviously jeopardized her future as Queen. She had a good thing going, why would she be so irrational and mess it all up? Of course, people do not always act rationally. Weir also pokes holes in the surviving documents that accused Anne, showing that the times and places she’s accused of committing adultery don’t correspond with the known historical record of where the royal court actually was.

Weir does a good job of describing the complicated politics of Henry VIII’s reign. I don’t know much about the Tudor period, and I’ll admit it was a challenge to keep track of all the different people. It was also hard to get a sense of the personalities of the main players, as we really don’t have very much direct evidence about what they were thinking or feeling. Perhaps that’s why they are so many fictional depictions of the Tudor period-in fiction you can delve into the possible motivations and psychology behind the actions of the main players. Weir does a good job of sticking to the known facts and tries to debunk historical theories about Anne that don’t have much evidence to back them up.

If you’re interested in this period of English history, you should pick up The Lady in the Tower, a book that details a fascinating and turbulent time.