When published in March 1920, this - Fitzgerald's first novel - was an immediate critical and popular success. It led to success for Fitzgerald in another way too, because when it was accepted for publication Zelda Sayre, who had ended her relationship with Fitzgerald the previous year, agreed to marry him. After the first print run sold out within three days of publication, Fitzgerald wired for Zelda to come to New York City to marry him that weekend. She agreed and they married a week after the novel was published. The pair then fell headlong into the life of celebrity which contributed so much to their ultimate downfall.
In some ways it's difficult to understand why this work was so well received. It has "first novel" stamped all over it. The writing is uneven in quality and patchy in tone, clearly cobbled together from pieces which don't always fit together harmoniously. Fitzgerald combines standard prose narrative, narrative in the form of a play, free verse and rather pedestrian poetry to tell the story of Amory Blaine, a young mid-Westerner who believes he will achieve extraordinary success in life. He goes to boarding school and then to university, falls in and out of love, drinks too much, tries to write, goes to war, works briefly in an advertising agency and endlessly philosophises alone and with his friends.
Amory is squarely based on Fitzgerald and much of the action is autobiographical. While what appealed to critics about the novel in 1920 was the exploration of young American manhood in the aftermath of World War I, it is the autobiographical flavour of the novel which is probably of most interest to modern readers. Fitzgerald's ego and his insecurities, his relationship with Zelda, his desire for success, the cynicism of the age are all there in the text. Amory Blaine's self-obsession is Fitzgerald's self-obsession, not the less real for being insightful. In a moment of introspection, Blaine reflects:
He knew tht he could sophisticate himself finally into saying that his own weakness was just the result of circumstance and environment; that often when he raged at himself as an egotist something would whisper ingratiatingly "No, Genius!". That was one manifestation of fear, that voice which whispered that he could be both great and good, that genius was the exact combination of those inexplicable grooves and twists in his mind, that any discipline would curb it to mediocrity. Probably more than any concrete vice or failing Amory despised his own personality - he loathed knowing that tomorrow and the thousand days after he would swell pompously at a compliment and sulk at an ill word like a third-rate musician or a first class actor. He was ashamed of the fact that simple and honest people usually distrusted him; that he had been cruel, often, to those who had sunk their personalities in him - several girls, and a man here and there through college, that he had been an evil influence on people who had followed him here and there into mental adventures from which he alone rebounded unscathed.Knowing that Fitzgerald did not continue to rebound unscathed from those mental adventures adds a certain poignancy to reading this novel. However, nothwithstanding the beautiful prose, the evocation of the age with which Fitzgerald has become synonymous, and the autobiographical insights, this is not a work I have any particular interest in reading again. Most of the problem with the novel is, I think, that clever young men are never quite as interesting as they think they are. Two stars for Amory's story and another one because of the insight it provides into the workings of the young Fitzgerald's mind.