The Beautiful and Damned

I really do think Scott Fitzgerald is an underrated writer; yes, I know how stupid that sounds because he has become so renowned, sadly this renown came after his untimely death. The vast majority of his renown came from The Great Gatsby, which I do completely adore, but in my opinion he has a vast array of work which is not given the consideration that it deserves. He wrote five novels (one of which is sadly incomplete), more than 150 short stories, 25 poems, one play, and numerous essays.

I can’t claim to have read all of these, but I am (slowly, due to uni and work commitments) making my way through them. Fitzgerald is memorable for his critiques, and they are often ruthless. You do not need to be Northrop Frye to realise that The Great Gatsby acts as a critique of the American Dream; this is not to say that I am limiting it solely to this particular interpretation, but it is by far the most obvious one. I want to talk about, what I believe, is his most scathing critique, which is overlooked by many critics and even those who are fans of Fitzgerald.

His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was released in 1922, it sold reasonably well but there were many critics who felt that it was too pessimistic. This is the novel that I am going to focus on, as being (of what I have read so far) one which people really should start to consider. The protagonist, Anthony Patch, is weak, of average intelligence- but he certainly believes himself to be of a much superior intellect- and generally quite intolerable. There is no point in the novel where I feel any sympathy for him, ever. While his wife Gloria sulks and simpers through the novel, only really breaking this cycle when she is considering her own beauty.

I will always be of the opinion that the protagonists do not need to be likable for a book to be good. The novel is so good, because Fitzgerald makes this morally ugly couple and their quest for inheritance, sound so beautiful. No one can write like Fitzgerald, there is something so much more real about the words on the page when he puts them there. He shows people exactly what they want to ignore, but because he is such a talented writer, this does not make for a bad reading experience.

Despite not being all that well known, the limited attention that The Beautiful and Damned has received, is because of one fact- that it draws upon the real lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The thing with that, the same with any book where the author draws heavily on their own experience, is that people try to force every aspect of the characters onto real life. Well, it doesn’t really work like that. Anthony and Gloria represent types of people just as much as they represent two people. Fitzgerald drew (a lot) on his marriage when writing this novel, but it is by no means an autobiography.

Fitzgerald, like Anthony, did descend into alcoholism, and it eventually killed him. Despite that, you have only to do your research on Fitzgerald to know that there are major differences. Anthony toys superficially with the idea of writing a book, Fitzgerald was different. I was always struck by how effortless he sounds, effortlessly beautiful. In reality Fitzgerald agonised over every word that he put on the page. He would draw up countless drafts, and despaired if it didn’t sound just right. His determination is something not a lot of people can hope to equal, least of all Anthony Patch. Plus, the Fitzgerald’s had more intelligence in their toenail clippings than the Patch’s could ever hope to have between them.

Many of Fitzgerald’s novels deal with disillusionment, The Beautiful and Damned deals with outright decay.  Perhaps the novel will receive more attention in the next few years; it has recently been announced that there will be an adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson. Along with this is the upcoming release of some of Fitzgerald’s unreleased short stories (April next year) in a collection titled I’d Die for You. I hope that these big events will help to bring other works by Fitzgerald into the limelight, because he is an author who still has a lot to offer, which is no mean feat for a man who has been dead more than 75 years. image

 

 

 

 

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The Satanic Verses

Strange as it may sound, I had never heard of this book until I came across the name on my University reading list. I was often looked at as if I was some sort of cave dweller for this, and after doing a tiny amount of research, I could see why. It was not difficult to learn of the controversy and outrage that surrounded the novel and Salman Rushdie. After finishing the book, I was also outraged. I was outraged that a man who had exercised his right to freedom of speech could be made to fear for his life.

It is not difficult to see why the Islamic State were offended, I won’t dispute that, it does not paint their religion in an especially favourable light. BUT, the parts which can be seen as a critique of Islam are minimal. This has a tendency to happen with controversial texts. Take American Psycho; violence does not make up the bulk of the material, but that it what it became infamous for. Controversial texts are very rarely examined for their artistic merit as a whole, most are only interested in the parts which cause a bit of drama. Even Fifty Shades of Grey, it is largely a terribly written love story; the erotic scenes are frequent but by no means make up the majority of the written material- but this is what everyone remembers. The Satanic Verses is by no means constantly trying to denounce Islam, but it is known for the minimal number of pages which do not portray the origins of the religion in a positive manner.

I am religious myself, a Catholic. I’ve read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Although I was by no means in agreement with the depiction of Christianity, I felt no outrage either. We cannot all have the same views on religion, we all have the right to an opinion and the right to express it; we do not have the right to persecute other people because they do not agree with us. There was, of course, outrage in the Christian faith, there were also many Christians who commended the books. No faith is immune to the dangers of corruption and dogmatism, critiques can point these things out to people, and religions could benefit from this (even if that was not the intention of an author).

I’m going to follow my own advice now, and consider The Satanic Verses as a novel, not for the issues which surround it and the author. The opening 50/60 pages were hard to get through, the narrative is disjointed and often veers into tangents. If I did not have to read the book for university, I can’t say for certain that I would have ever finished it. The protagonists (Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha) I felt were slightly hollow, this also added to my initial lack of interest. After having read it I still don’t feel that I like or dislike Farishta or Chamcha, there was nothing about them that jumped out.

As I progressed further into the book, I began to like it a lot more. The characters did not need to be  believable, because they act as mediums by which Rushdie depicts much more important themes. One that stuck out was the manner in which a Western lifestyle can corrupt immigrants. Farishta and Chamcha, despite taking on opposite personalities (devil and angel) are startlingly similar. Both men seem thoroughly ashamed of their Indian nationality. Nationality is something most people (I assume) are proud of, but the two men wish to eradicate theirs. Farishta and Chamcha’s dramatic external changes are something which I view as relating not only to their personalities, but to the contrasting forces of English and Indian national identities.

Nationality is a theme of continuing importance, so reading about it from the perspective of two men who wish so desperately that they can become more English was interesting, but also a shame. Nationalities are not cars; something which we can trade in when it no longer meets a certain criteria. They stay with us throughout our lives.

The Satanic Verses has a wide variety of settings, I found the most interesting ones to be those in Farishta’s dream sequences. These sections made up a fascinating sub plot, and were significantly more exciting to read than the opening pages. The story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant, who claims to receive messages from the Archangel Gibreel. She leads a pilgrimage across the Arabian Sea, and the exact result of this is contested in the closing pages of the novel. I found her story interesting, because it is very heavily implied that Gibreel is not giving her any messages, while it is implied that Mahound takes the messages from the angel which he wishes to hear. The voice of the author often shines through at various stages in the text; having an author who is so involved with the characters he has created adds another layer to the novel. He often comments on the actions of Farishta and Chamcha, and will at times question the truth of the events.

Overall I think that The Satanic Verses is a book which deserves much more credit than it gets. The controversy surrounding it has, unfortunately, eclipsed what is a very good book. I would certainly recommend it to determined readers, the opening section is boring and the style can often detract from the point- but I think that it is a rewarding read once finished. I only think it is beyond shameful that the author of this book has been given a reputation of infamy, he deserves much better.

 

 

 

 

 

The Line of Beauty book review

Today I finished reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty; I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by it, as I had already read The Stranger’s Child and found it to be rather dull reading. However, this really exceeded my expectations and I finished it within 48 hours.

I found the context of the novel to be particularly interesting. Set in the 1980’s with the ever present figure of Thatcher, she does not dominate the text- even on the occasion where she appears in it- but she is always present. The novel (to me) offers a critique of Thatcherism from a different perspective. As The Line of Beauty takes place mainly in the wealthy parts of London (with the occasional manor house and French holiday home), it offers a critique of Thatcherism from the perspective of the wealthy. The characters become more corrupt and selfish as the years progress; even the middle class protagonist Nick has gone from being jealous to outright grasping and envious.

It offers an ugly portrait of neoliberal ideals, from the very people who benefited from them. There is, of course, literature which shows the perspectives of the poor who were most affected by the Thatcher regime, but I think Hollinghurst does well to show another viewpoint. He often shows snapshots of conversation between Conservatives, discussing policy and their opinions on Thatcher; although this is not to say that the novel is dominated with right-wing views, there are plenty of people who are shown to disagree.

Thatcherism is not the only controversial theme which Hollinghurst writes of, the third part of the novel is set against the onset of AIDS. It sees one character die of the virus and another deteriorating from it before the novel draws to a close. Hollinghurst offers a honest depiction of the onset of a disease which we still have a reason to fear, without being tactless.

Hollinghurst seems to portray love as not having a chance in 1980’s England. The protagonist begins as a naive, but ends up partaking in drug fueled threesomes before long. Catherine, the manic depressant MP’s daughter, attracts men from all walks of life and manages success with none of them. There are failed engagements, affairs, and plenty more but no actual successful relationship. Even Nick’s parents, living outside of London, are revealed to sleep in separate beds. Indeed, the only content character seems to be the bachelor, Lord Kessler.

By showing love to be universally a failure, in the world of the novel, Hollinghurst really sheds a damning light on the hypocrisy of heterosexual relationships. The heterosexual people do not fully accept Nick’s homosexuality, and often he is viewed as being inferior for it, yet they are incapable of keeping corruption from seeping into their own lives.

After being so impressed with The Line of Beauty I think I will give some of his other novels a try; his style of writing is not necessarily what I always  go for in modern writers, but on this occasion I was impressed.