Bro Jackson is declaring it Gatsby Week. Monday we draw parallels; Tuesday we pass out the suggested reading syllabus; Thursday we do drinks; Friday we plan parties, send a true Bro into an area theater sans context, and then render a verdict.
In “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway paints F. Scott Fitzgerald as a neurotic who couldn’t hold his drink. In modern parlance, he all but calls Fitzgerald a pansy-ass hack. Hemingway admitted that he didn’t really take Fitzgerald seriously as a writer. Mostly, I believe, Hemingway had to do this for to keep his persona afloat — badass alcoholic who killed stuff and beat the shit out of people — it was vital to paint those around him as a weaker breed.
I’ll only say this once and then you can stop reading me forever if you so choose: “The Great Gatsby” alone proves that Fitzgerald was a superior writer to Hemingway. Now, with that said, the body of work Hemingway compiled is certainly larger than Fitzgerald’s, but larger isn’t always better. 1
I revisited both “Feast” and “Gatsby” this week and reread some of my favorite passages. The release of Baz Luhrmann‘s movie adaptation of the latter prompted me to do so. 2 My infatuation with Fitzgerald and Hemingway led me to discover many other writers from this era. One of the reasons I loved “Midnight in Paris” is the suggestion that Paris from the turn of the 20th century leading up to World War II was the greatest era in the arts since the Greeks were hopped up on wine and chasing each other around naked.
It wasn’t just Paris spawning great authors at the time. Examining my bookshelves I realize that books published in this chunk of time — from about 1900 to 1940 — dominate the shelf. Narrowing the scope, it’s the 1920s where I find some of my favorites.
It would be easy to focus primarily on D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, James Joyce, and Fitzgerald, all titans from this era. But we’d be missing out on some fantastic reads — and the incipient greatness of William Faulkner, as we’ll examine below — if we decided to do so. I wanted to choose some of the “B-sides” of authors from the 1920s; that is, I’ve chosen some of my favorite authors and given you the books that might not be their most popular, but are great reads. 3
“Soldiers’ Pay” by William Faulkner, pub. 1926
“The Sound and the Fury” was published in 1929 and Faulkner’s legend was born. But the author’s first novel was “Soldier’s Pay.” I read it a long time ago after I had read about three other of his more polished novels. My personal favorite is “As I Lay Dying,” which reads like a dark comedy and for my money nothing is better than dark comedy. “Soldier’s Pay” is about a disabled vet as he returns to Georgia after the war. I’ve always thought it was necessary to read the first novel of an author. In the case of Faulkner, it’s not his best work but in it we get a glimpse of the genius to follow.
“No More Parades” by Ford Madox Ford, pub. 1925
Ford’s “The Good Soldier” is one of my top-20 reads of all time. The story arc is truly original and I loved the protagonist. “Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.” Ford’s “No More Parades” is part of a four novel series collectively called “Parade’s End.” I’ve only read this one, the second in the series. I meant to read the first but the library at the time didn’t have it and it’s generally good sense to take what’s given and make the best of it. 4 His writing can be a bit complex and almost bulky for my tastes, but the stories in these two books are page-turners. 5 If this exercise has taught me anything, it’s to get back into Ford Madox Ford.
“Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis, pub. 1927
When I wrote about which books I’d matchup with “Mad Men” characters, one of the commenters on Reddit said “Elmer Gantry” would’ve made the perfect book for Don Draper. Someone countered that Lewis’s most renowned book, “Babbitt,” would have also been a great fit. “Gantry” is about a minister (read: snake-oil charmer) who drinks lots of whiskey and bangs lots of women. Yeah, that would definitely fit Draper. I love all Lewis’s work and this book is no different. I actually thought about buying a tent and taking up the ministry myself after this one. I can already hear my boom-boom voice curing cancer and turning women back into virgins. Oh, wait, ministers don’t do that?
“To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, pub. 1927
This novel, alongside “Mrs. Dalloway,” proves that a book can be complex without being a doorstop. I read somewhere that “Dalloway” was Woolf’s answer to Joyce’s “Ulysses” and yet it was taut — about a fourth of the size — and infinitely easier to read. I love all her work, excluding “Orlando,” which I didn’t really enjoy. 6 This novel is probably not really a “B-side” since Woolf herself consider it her “best novel.” But this is my list and I’m making the rules. One of my all-time favorite themes is the idea of transience and how none of the trivial shit around us matters because we’re here for such a short time. This novel tackles this and the idea of how transient art truly is. It’s pretty much expounding on Percy Shelley‘s ideas in “Ozymandias.” As for whether Woolf, like Shelley, was into laudanum, I can’t be sure.
“Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse, pub. 1922
So this is using some creative license as this book wasn’t published in the United States until 1951. But I was having trouble finding a fifth that fit my category. So, yeah, eat it. You remember your 20s when you were smoking lots of grass and trying to sleep with hot people? Those were the days. If you didn’t read Hesse’s novel it preaches exactly those same things — in so many words. Life is about experience. Experience everything, which I guess includes smoking grass and sex. The book examines this theme on a much deeper and spiritual level, but the concept is simple: get out and do stuff. It’s a beautiful message. One not nearly enough people seem to apply to their lives. But what the hell do I know? I’m still smoking lots of grass, though I gave up that other ghost long ago.
- I’m passing on this layup. ↩
- I’ll see the movie if for no reason that I believe the soundtrack is amazing, old sport. Also, the Tobey Maguire casting as Nick Carraway is the best thing to happen in any adaptation ever. Honesty oozes from that guy’s eyes. ↩
- If you’re looking for a B-side from Fitzgerald, I suggest “This Side of Paradise.” Autobiographical in scope, the protagonist, Dick Diver, has some incredible thoughts. My favorite of which was this: “‘God, am I like the rest after all?’—So he used to think starting awake at night—’Am I like the rest?’ This was poor material for a socialist but good material for those who do much of the world’s rarest work.” And Diver’s wife is a spitting image of Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. If you have time, check out her short stories. She was a fantastic writer, too. ↩
- For two years I was unemployed and practically lived at the local South Bend, Ind., library. It was a glorious time. ↩
- Maybe the writing isn’t “bulky” at all and it could be I’m just not very smart. I’m gonna assume this is the case. ↩
- I have arguments all the time that it’s alright to dislike something even if you don’t have a reason for it. Isn’t it comforting to hate something for no reason? ↩