Bruce's Reviews > This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Jan 01, 11

Read in January, 2011

In this, his first published novel at age 24, Fitzgerald begins with a description of the birth and early childhood of Amory Blaine, including his parentage and a portrayal of his mother, Beatrice. The writing is witty and sardonic, and, as is often the case in the first novel of a young writer, somewhat self-conscious and precieux. It is interesting to consider and contrast the writings of young and older authors and to reflect on the responses of readers to them. Often, it would seem, the young are best read by the young, their experiences and concerns corresponding. Likewise, older writers and readers often share life experiences and perspectives that align their interests and tastes. Yet older readers can often appreciate the writing of young authors, if only to remember (and validate) the experiences they themselves recall from their relative youth. I wonder, however, to what extent a young reader can fully appreciate the writing of an old author; I suspect that often such writing cannot hold the interest of the younger reader who may be wise to defer such work until a later time. All this having been said, I do find that over time I have less interest in the works of younger writers except to assess them for clues to later potential. This is certainly not always so, but often enough I find myself becoming impatient and losing interest in work that simply once again travels territory I have trod many times, either personally or through the writings of other authors.

In this novel’s second chapter, Amory’s first year at Princeton is described, and a more delightfully posed existence is hard to imagine. Amory is all about impressions, and he struggles to impress others as he searches for a unique and idiosyncratic role to assume. Fitzgerald is so close himself to the Princeton years he describes as to hit the note and tone exactly, and the effect is perfect. He captures an environment and era with skill and conveys it with irony and accuracy. This is an ambiance and existence very dated but nonetheless amusing. Fitzgerald seems to be flaunting his skillful cleverness. Today these scenes seem socially anachronistic and the characters, particularly in the dating scenes, inhibited if not actually psychosexually retarded, and it requires willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader to slip into the mind, intent, and wry detachment that Fitzgerald seems to be bringing to his narrative. But the reward of moving back in time and accepting these conventions is worth the entertainment the story provides. The problem with this kind of writing, of course, is that if it at first entertains, it eventually can become tedious, a mere litany of somewhat puerile emotions and clichéd affectations. Fitzgerald pushes this limit and sometimes crosses it, and the result can then boarder on the insipid. Amory’s most prominent and enduring characteristic, one that he shares with many people his age (and, to be fair, with many people of any age), is his consuming self-absorption.

About a third of the way through the text, the tenor of the narrative changes with Amory’s experience of a strange apparition of a figure called “The Devil.” What does this mean? At any rate this episode - call it drunkenness, insight, hallucination, an awakening, whatever - begins a period of transformation for Amory, a time of deeper thinking during which he engages in (typical) collegiate bull sessions on a variety of philosophical issues, inclined to seek and expound the absolutism consistent with his age. Soon life turns more somber as the shadows of WWI fall across Princeton and the hermetic world of Amory and his companions. Book I (of two) ends as he and his classmates are leaving for the war with the knowledge that an old world is passing away forever. An interlude covering nearly two years separates the two books of this novel.

Amory’s time in the military is glossed over quickly. Back in the United States again and with a job in an advertising agency, he falls in love with Rosalind, but the affair ends because he has too little money to marry and support her as she wishes. Fitzgerald captures the mood and tone of all this skillfully, balancing the pathos, earnestness, yearning, and silliness of young love perfectly. As Amory’s life moves forward, Fitzgerald seems always to be able to match his prose to Amory’s age and understanding, no small accomplishment. The rest of the novel chronicles Amory’s struggles to find himself, to regain a sense of purpose and relationships of intimacy, to establish a direction for his life. The book ends with the line, “’I know myself,’ he cried, ‘but that is all.’”

Fitzgerald’s narrative is peppered with allusions to other authors that were important and influential during early 20th century America. And his prose shows many flashes of the sensitivity and lyricism characteristic of his later work. For example:

“It was a gray day, that least fleshly of all weathers; a day of dreams and far hopes and clear visions. It was a day easily associated with those abstract truths and purities that dissolve in the sunshine or fade out in mocking laughter by the light of the moon. The trees and clouds were carved in classical severity; the sounds of the countryside had harmonized to a monotone, metallic as a trumpet, breathless as the Grecian urn.”

This is an interesting and skillfully written early work, one notable for Fitzgerald’s insights into a young mind at a time when he had scarcely moved beyond the years it portrays, and it foreshadows his more mature writing.
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