When I’m away on holiday, I read books set in the country where I’m staying. So I savoured this one in New York City, where it’s partly set. This is a passionately written, bittersweet novel, very much an American counterpart to Brideshead Revisited.
Our hero is Amory Blaine: handsome yet uncertain, desperate to explore life to the full. His life blossoms at Princeton: he loves the beauty of the place, the camaraderie, the magic of staying out all night, singing with “dreaming towers.” But the book plunges on beyond the dream.
The real richness and poignancy of this book is in the unravelling. Amory flunks exams, fails in love, and all his personal dreams turn to mist. Alongside this, we see the magic of Princeton evaporate into snobbery, cliques, and then the crunching impact of America joining the First World War.
A sign of this book’s quality is that it’s stuffed with great quotes. Here are a few examples:
“I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”
“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”
“Why don’t you tell me that ‘if the girl had been worth having she’d have waited for you’? No, sir, the girl really worth having won’t wait for anybody.”
“I hope something happens. I’m restless as the devil and have a horror of getting fat or falling in love and growing domestic.”
“The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”
This book is a valuable guide to the story of the American Dream: the intense magnetism of riches with style, and its repeated puncturing. The book leads us to the 1920’s, when the young generation had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken,” and the general response was to fight even harder for money and success.
If we relate this to American politics, the big support for both extremes, Trump and Sanders, shows us that most American’s feel bitterly excluded from the money and success that they’re still programmed to yearn for.