I still remember the first time I heard the word hedonist.
It was late, I was drunk.
It was explained to me by my thirty-one year old friend, right before he leaned in and kissed me. I was nineteen, he was in the middle of a seven year relationship.
What followed can only be described as two people embracing that wonderful word, adopting it and making it a firm lifestyle choice. For two tumultuous years we lived together as hedonists, before I slowly realised that it is not a state that is good for the soul.
I live differently now, dropping the idiosyncrasies of my hedonistic days behind me as I slowly age. No more cigarettes, no more party pills. No more staying up to watch the sunrise, instead I get up to watch the sunrise. No more searching for the answer in a bottle of gin: my unwavering friend through those Byzantine days. She has been replaced by her refined cousin, wine; one glass a night with a book and an open fire. No more angst, no more heartache, no more tears and fits of rage. Have I joined the adult world?
Is this what has become of me?
I borrow from the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, as she is far more eloquent and concise than I could ever hope to be:
Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?
But, every now and again, I watch a movie or read a book and it all comes rushing back to me. I dream of those days, where everything and nothing mattered. Where tomorrow was but a distant fog on the horizon, and now was the focus of all my attention. When I was young, and dumb, invincible and unbreakable. When I pick up Fitzgerald, I momentarily yearn for this life again.
Yes, I am jumping on the Fitzgerald bandwagon. The wagon is quite full right now, I know; it seems everyone who has ever read the book is currently espousing the merits of The Great Gatsby, in breathless anticipation of the movie premier. For my part, last week I went and watched Iron Man III with my partner, just so I could use it as leverage to get him to come to The Great Gatsby with me.
I am not here today to sell you on The Great Gatsby. My guess is, you love that book already. No, I am here to wax lyrical about Gatsby’s older, slightly more dangerous, not quite as handsome, oft-neglected brother. My friends, I speak of The Beautiful and Damned.
I adore this book. It is a hedonistic trip down memory lane into the New York jazz age, allegedly loosely based on Fitzgerald’s own life with his enchanting wife, Zelda. We follow the story of Anthony Patch, a debonair young gentleman who constantly clashes with his imposing and intimidating millionaire grandfather, Adam J. Patch. Anthony lives off an allowance given to him each year by this grandfather, so consequently he has no desire or interest in pursuing employment, and his life revolves around idleness and the pursuit of pleasure. There is a lovely quote that I highly relate to:
Anthony was glad he wasn’t going to work on his book. The notion of sitting down and conjuring up, not only words in which to clothe thoughts but thoughts worthy of being clothed – the whole thing was absurdly beyond his desires.
I am sure this exact sentiment has flitted through the minds of all of us at one point or another, probably right before we throw down the pen, close the laptop and toddle off to the drinks cabinet.
Into Anthony’s pleasant and indulgent life comes Gloria, embodying many of the same alluring traits as Gatsby’s Daisy. Despite Anthony and Gloria’s aversion to marriage, settling down or growing up, they swiftly fall in love. They abandon their preconceptions and decide to marry, overwhelmed by the intensity of their desire for one another.
Much as two young children might play at ‘house’, Anthony and Gloria play at love, life and marriage. As Gloria says:
‘We talk and talk and never get anywhere, and we ask all our friends and they just answer the way we want ’em to. I wish somebody’d take care of us.’
In this manner Anthony and Gloria muddle through the beginning of their marriage, dividing their time between New York and their country house, in Marietta. They often allude to their hazy belief that great things will happen to them, just over the horizon:
It was vaguely understood between them that on some misty day [Anthony] would enter a sort of glorified diplomatic service and be envied by princes and prime ministers for his beautiful wife.
In reality they are awaiting the inheritance which they are sure will come when Anthony’s grandfather finally dies. Their lifestyle becomes increasingly hedonistic and decadent, as they strive to amuse themselves once the gleam of excitement has faded from their new marriage. Enter brilliant scenes of alcohol and excess, culminating in a wild party at their country house. From this point, we watch the couple begin to slide into the dark side of decadence, their life together becoming increasingly brittle and inconsequential.
Things had been slipping perceptibly. There was the money question, increasingly annoying, increasingly ominous; there was the realisation that liquor had become a practical necessity to their amusement – not an uncommon phenomenon in the British aristocracy of a hundred years ago, but a somewhat alarming one in a civilisation steadily becoming more temperate and more circumspect.
You can imagine the thread that the story follows from here, as we move through the years of this frivolous marriage. I am not, however, going to describe it for you, for if there is one thing I dislike it is a book review that reveals the ending. Suffice to say that this is an enthralling book, written in Fitzgerald’s singular style that isn’t so much a description of the 1920’s jazz era as an embodiment of them. The familiarity with which he writes of this period and the turbulent nature of Anthony and Gloria’s relationship goes a long way to supporting the notion that it is in part autobiographical.
Fitzgerald and Zelda
I for one can imagine Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda living the lives of Anthony and Gloria, desperately clinging to the illusion of a perfect life as it slowly slips away from them. I will finish here with a glimpse of the ending, an ending both heart wrenching and self-evident:
He had been exposed to ruthless misery, his very craving for romance had been punished, his friends had deserted him – even Gloria had turned against him. He had been alone, alone – facing it all.
The poetic musings of a fictional character or the authentic expressions of a tortured writer?