The Great and The Good

I’ve been reading F Scott Fitzgerald again, obviously. All that glitters is certainly not gold in the lap of luxury over in The Great Gatsby’s West Egg, but did being tawdry and broken and lost ever look so damn good?  And yes, the beautiful were damned, but hell they looked absolutely lovely while they did all their damning, and I’ll drink to that.  F Scott Fitzgerald drank to that every morning.   And afternoon.  And evening – because, like Hemingway, he understood that the great American writer also had to be a great American drunk.  The beauty of The Great Gatsby is that the lure of wealth and fragile opulence sweeps over you, grabs you by the throat, pulls you along and then flips the image over.   The georgeousness of it is magnificent.  For sheer glamour, you can’t do much better than read the first two pagesof Chapter III: “There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights.  In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…. The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher…” Fuck, that’s beautiful.   But, why did no one ever write this way about London?   Or, perhaps the Bluebird is mistaken, perhaps some of you know someone who has?  If so, pray tell.

I read the complete works of F Scott Fitzgerald in the summer of 1999, when a firm of Chartered Surveyors thought I was answering their phones for four weeks, the fools.  In the days when it was rare to find an office with internet connection, reception was a great place for reading books.  I drank up all of Fitzgerald and it changed my life:    “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past….”  “Hello, Foppington and Fappington, may we help you?”   That was basically my life when was 23.  And you wonder why I’m confused.

 Tender Is The Night affects me more with each reading, where the glamourous Americans holidaying graciously in the South of France turn out to have several uninvited guests in their transatlantic luggage; nervous breakdown, romantic desire and psychological instability.  Money can’t – and it never can in Fitzgerald’s world – offer a lifeboat.   The Beautiful and Damned is a chilling reminder of what happens to people who are swimming in a void, lost in misty drunkenness and that most sobering concern – a lack of purpose.  Money destroys as much as it gathers, provokes moral crises, depraves and exults, and the “Lost Generation” of Fitzgerald’s anti-heroes go around puncturing the fallacy of the American “dream”.  And Gatsby is probably the greatest American book ever written.  It’s not just the setting of Fitzgerald’s world, which at first seduces and then exposes, but the turn of phrase is indulgently glamorous too.   He has an errie way of describing character’s faces, and I’ve never read a writer who captures character and atmostphere as well as FSF does.

Of course, he taps into America at the time of its cultural zenith.  London’s high point of cultural and literary excellence was in the 1890s, New York’s in the 1920s.   Both these decades in these respective cities contained cultural works that were associated with anxiety, lethargy and degeneration.  But great books that are set in London are never that glamorous.  Mrs Dalloway, anyone?  Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, Dickens’s Little Dorrit and Bleak House all draw you down into the depths of a salubrious sub-culture with accent on grimness of social inequality, the shabby underside of London.  But glamour relating to our capital city? Hello?  Is that not very un-English?     You can’t imagine Gatsby motoring with his Rolls down Oxford Street really, can you?   The only one we can think of at Bluebird Towers is Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful Vile Bodies, a ruthless satire of 1930s upper class London sensibilities and social posing, containing so much hedonism and vicarious indulgence of “naughty salt” that it makes the drug-taking of our generation look tepid in comparison.   But it’s an ultimately hopeless book, unsympathetically pushing it’s characters towards oblivion.  Have there been any other truly glamorous book about rich Londoners? Not many.  Perhaps it is because that in England, being a classed society, the upper classes are not liked, indulged nor trusted, and it is a naughty indulgence to be seduced by them.    All that privilege is seen as slightly vile and in very poor taste.   Are the novels of Jilly Cooper the only ones written today in which money in England looks gorgeous?  And is it that which makes her a bit of a joke, not a “proper” writer-  that she focuses on fictional posh chaps called Rupert, the master of the hounds?  Is it that which makes her a “bad taste” writer?   English spy fiction offers the thrill and seduction of money, such as the books of Ian Fleming, but only set in exotic locations outside England.  And, tellingly, the magic of James Bond is that the glamour is intact.  Fitzgerald takes the glamour, stares at it full in the face, deconstructs it and tells you exactly what lurks beneath it.  He couldn’t have been a product of any other country than he was, nor a writer of his kind at any other time that when he was writing.  Despite the English inventing the class system, laughing at it, observing it and satirising it with our famous English sense of irony, why is it that this totally American writer was so much better at exposing the tawdry foul dust that lies below monied glamour in their novels than we are?

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