The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

672_largeIt’s not a good sign if you haven’t even read to the end of the first chapter of a book and you’re already thinking “the more time I spend reading this book the faster it will be over.”

This fictionalized account of Fitzgerald’s married life explores the Jazz Age and the decadence and dangers that being born into beauty and money can bring. The message Fitzgerald is painstakingly illustrating is that you need more than money to live a worthwhile life. It’s a good idea and his writing is poetic enough (although it didn’t blow me away) but I didn’t care about the characters and the plot (if you can call it a plot) meanders so drearily that I almost fell asleep reading it.

The protagonist Anthony Patch is too self absorbed to love another person or even make an interesting narrator so I found the whirlwind romance between him and Gloria the most pitiful example of its kind. I can see what affect Fitzgerald was aiming for but the characters are so unlikeable even before their troubles start with their antisemitism, racism against their Japanese butler and utter lack of interest in the world around them that I didn’t really care what happened to them at all. Worse than being dislikeable characters they weren’t interesting ones.

The style is definitely what I found most remarkable about the novel. The poetic interludes, the lines of dialogue and crisp subheadings. I found the way Fitzgerald inserted passages of plain dialogue very odd. It’s not that I didn’t like it. I found the technique appealing. But that attitude I had sums up my feelings for the whole book. Detached, vaguely interested in the technical style but overall emotionally and intellectually unmoved.

The dialogue between Beauty and The Voice is the very thin highlight of the book for me, It wasn’t groundbreaking but it had a lovely archaic poetry to it and joined the few brief moments I respected the authors writing. Also was the smart insight into the Patch’s marriage:

They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretense created the actuality. Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression- yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony. He felt often like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving.

Overall this would have been better as a novella.  I became distantly interested near the end when they constantly argued about mundane day to day living in the same way I’d be half heartedly interested in watching an episode of EastEnders. As this is the first Fitzgerald I’ve ever read, however, it doesn’t compel me to read any more.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

patbarkerRegeneration, Pat Barker 1991, Penguin 2008

Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers’s job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front…

Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.

This book could so easily have been awful. By writing fictional accounts of Robert graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen Pat Barker has taken on an extremely challenging subject and yet it works. Fictionalising people from WW1 would be difficult enough but if those people are writers or poets it becomes a challenge only a very confident and talented writer would dare take on. I reviewed Goodbye to All That a while ago and am a fan of Owen and Sassoon so I admit I went into this with critical attitude.

I didn’t fully realise before reading this book the difference of class between Sassoon and Owen and what that would have meant. I technically knew that they were from different backgrounds but the impact this had on their daily lives and how people saw them didn’t really occur to me. Barker illustrates these issues brilliantly and them goes one step further by creating a Billy Prior, a working class patient. By using Prior she explores a whole facet of the war that is often overlooked.

A horse’s bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. An instrument of control. Obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had—however unconsciously—rejected. He found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work.

The slow dawning horror that overcomes Rivers as he reassesses his role as a doctor and the point of the Great War itself is buried in the heart of the book and his dreams sequences were awful and thought provoking to read. The de-romanticisation of mental illness and heroism in the trenches mirrors the poems by Owen and Sassoon and as soon as I finished this book I went back to read them in a fresh light.

I liked this book and I went into it with  higher expectations and readier to be negative than I normally would have because of my love for poetry from the Great War.

Review: Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’s account of his life during the WWI is a book I’ve owned for a while and heard so much about that I never got round to actually reading it.

I nearly gave up a quarter of the way through the book because the writing style was so dry and seemingly detached. I found it slow reading, especially during descriptions of Graves’s school days which I felt dragged on, and I am the kind of reader who races through a book and not emerging sometimes until I have finished it.

When I picked the book up again and reached Graves’s life in the war I was hooked. The dry and stoic writing was layered with black humour, anger and admiration as we saw corpses, heads blown to pieces, idiotic arrogance of military command and day-to-day life in the trenches.

The shells went hissing away eastward; we saw the red flash and heard the hollow bang where they landed in German territory. The men picked up their step again and began chaffing. A lance-corporal dictated a letter home: “Dear auntie, this leaves me in the pink. We are at present wading in blood up to our necks. Send me fags and a life-belt. This war is a booger. Love and kisses.”

Halfway through the book I began to love Graves’s style of writing (although never managed to love the writer himself). I certainly respected him and enjoyed savouring the book slowly and occasionally going back to read a scene again. The book is filled with anecdotes and stories that Graves heard of people he met and a detailed account of his friendship with Siegfried Sassoon which I found fascinating to read.

It is rare that I find a book where I enjoy reading it slowly and carefully. I’m not sure how often I will re-read it but there are definitely scenes that I have page folded to look at later.