Let’s get it out of the way: I was sucked in by the Gatsby PR vortex. Who was I, poor little consumer, to stand up against the onslaught of Baz Luhrmann and his multi-million marketing budget? Wherever you turned online or on the street, there was Leo, there was Carey. But Luhrmann reckoned without the other truths of urban living: while beguiling, sequined film PR may be ever present, nobody has any time or money. Waterstones HAD reckoned for that, placing a beguiling table of beautifully covered, half-the-price-of-a-cinema-ticket Fitzgerald novels near the door, and having ready Gatsby, I was pocketing a copy of The Beautiful and Damned (TBAD) before I knew I’d picked it up (nb – didn’t shoplift it. That sounded suspicious).
But wait – is this glitzy, glamorous, after-dark, camp pair of Luhrmann Heart Fitzgerald really such a heavenly match as we’re asked to believe? Perhaps in Gatsby, a book with a twinkle and a quickstep to match the raging fire beneath the surface. But not in TBAD. For although its author may have invented the term ‘Jazz Age’, the heart of TBAD is a profoundly human and domestic story, which excels not in its portrayal of rowdy nightlife (though there is plenty of that) but in the emotional perspicacity of its portrayal of the 2 lead characters. I was unsurprised that TBAD is understood to be heavily autobiographical; the keenness of the portrayal of a love affair turned into a souring marriage seems too sharp, too perfectly observed to be pure imagination. The shock and surprise of discovery different habits in your partner, the way that things insignificant to one are vexing beyond understanding to the other – and the stubborness and trouble that kicks in when one partner asks the other to do something they disagree with or don’t want to do. For me, one of the keenest scenes was an episode on the protagonists’ honeymoon, where Anthony is deeply distressed by Gloria’s inability/refusal to put things into the hotel laundry. He feels it is right, proper, and her place – besides, he’s done it up until now. Gloria barely sees the issue, doesn’t care about it, and seems vaguely to feel that by asking Anthony is attempting to restrict her to a subservient wifely servant role which she refuses to countenance. It’s so familiar an argument, it feels like Fitzgerald is writing in the 21st century – and simultaneously shows the timelessness of his writing.
Another theme which seems particularly pertinent to these times is that of vocation. Anthony is plagued by the expectation, desire and increasing necessity to find a role in life, and his failure to do so forms as sure a part in his ruin as his weakness with women (which Anthony, and sometimes Fitzgerald, seems to blame his downfall on.) At a time when people yearn to find a role which completes them as a person while also meeting monetary and practical requirements, Anthony’s fated quest has more relevance today than Fitzgerald might have expected 91 years ago.
Occasionally the quality of writing lapses, particularly around the portrayal of Gloria. While Fitzgerald is often deeply understanding of her motivation, at times she is glossed away as simply selfish and shallow. It’s hard not to interpret this as a result of the character being based on his own wife Zelda with whom he had a famously tumultuous relationship.
Big, brash, jazzy opulence? Sometimes, but how about intimate, searching and personal? It’s almost too personal at times, as if you’re intruding and should look away. I can’t see Luhrmann directing this.