Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1998
What do you do when you do not have to work? What gives your life meaning? This question arises involuntarily when you read “The Beautiful and Damned”. When the American writer Francis Scott Fitzgerald published the novel in 1922, he was only 26 years of age, rich and famous thanks to his first work “This Side of Paradise” published two years earlier, and at least equally notorious for his excessive party life and his glamorous wife Zelda. The Fitzgeralds are iconic of the “Roaring Twenties” – the short era when a generation celebrated that it had survived the great war without knowing where their lives were supposed to head; the era when jazz constituted the ecstatic soundtrack; the era when the U.S. were shaped by opposites such as prohibition and speakeasies, by the Great Depression and flappers, by a “lost generation” that anesthetized itself with drugs and excesses.
Hardly any other writer has captured this “Jazz Age” generation’s attitude to life like F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wrote about something he knew very well, he wrote about himself. That was so evident that the book cover of the first edition of “The Beautiful and Damned” featured a couple whose traits resembled those of the Fitzgeralds at first glance. However, the two main characters of the novel were called Anthony and Gloria. Anyway, their history also revolves around carefree festivities. Anthony’s purpose in life is to wait for the inheritance of his rich grandfather while Gloria only thinks of consumption and luxury. They fall in love with each other and marry. She is the perfect arm candy for him; the egoism they have in common. He tries his best to finance his demanding wife, but then all this threatened to come to an end: Anthony’s Victorian grandfather catches him celebrating and cuts him out of his will. Anthony still gets a few million in the end. But he does not hit on the idea of founding a trust or helping the ones in need. The two of them fritter their money away – like the Fitzgeralds. This only accelerates the disintegration of the relationship, because nothing can prevent them from pursuing their meaningless pastimes anymore. It pushes them into alcoholism and a destructive love-hate relationship.
In this book, Fitzgerald wrote down many things that were to happen to him and his wife in the next ten years. Their glamorous life turned into a nightmare for both of them. Zelda ended up as a mentally ill wreck, the great writer as an alcoholic who had a true goal in life but seemed to have failed to achieve it: to be considered the greatest writer of his generation. Actually, Fitzgerald did not live long enough to witness his lasting success with critics and readers as a mercilessly acute observer of the upper class of his time – rarely as pessimistic as in “The Beautiful and Damned”.
At first glance, the life of the Fitzgeralds might be considered as superficial and consumption-oriented as that of the novel’s protagonists. There is one difference, though: Gloria and Anthony do not see meaning in their lives. They have no fundamental desires and values, no tasks and goals. The Fitzgeralds both aspired to literary fame. They lived their jet-set life to the full, but it served primarily as a vehicle to establish the two of them as the dream couple of their days and secure them permanent attention. When Scott and Zelda had ruined each other, the public lost interest in them. Their works lasted.
Translated by Annika Backe