Starting Five: “The Lost Generation”

gatsby

More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, genres, and writers that we love. Today we look at five essential books from the famed “Lost Generation”.

Starting Five: “The Lost Generation”

by Chad Jewett

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby (1925)

Take all of the many conceptual motifs linked to “the Lost Generation” – a group of American and European modernist writers living and working in Paris in the years following World War I – and you more or less have a working list of the concerns defining the oeuvre of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Post- War weariness; intrepid questioning of old beliefs, credos, and myths; a certain bittersweet relationship with both the past and the future – all were major literary properties for the former Midwesterner and Princeton student whose work, at its best, catalogued a certain modern ennui and its attendant doubts about the American dream. The Great Gatbsy, his masterpiece, and, along with Beloved, Invisible Man, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the most convincing contender for status as “The Great American Novel,” found Fitzgerald raising all of those themes and obsessions to a romantically operatic pitch. Essentially the story of a middle-class Midwesterner who reinvents himself as a dashing New York socialite in the hopes of winning the heart of a lost love, The Great Gatbsy manages to make a slight story (it barely breaks 150 pages) about a hopeless romantic trying to recapture a glorious, imagined past into a deeply poignant inquiry into the core of the American dream, complete with the rhythms and energy of the Jazz Age, modernism’s experiments with unreliable narrators and impressionism, and an uncanny ear for how people imagine, think, and talk about love. The Great Gatsby absolutely defined a certain kind of wistful, gently romantic American sadness that remains vivid to this day.


William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Like Fitzgerald and several other “Lost Generation” writers, William Faulkner was also an American of humble origins who just missed active duty in World War I before proceeding to spend formative years in bohemian Paris. But whereas Fitzgerald absorbed modernism’s energetic newness more than its formal experimentalism, Faulkner dove with gusto into the era’s most difficult, avant-garde stylistic flights. The result was The Sound and the Fury, the story of a once-prominent Mississippi family that slowly corrodes over the course of three decades. Split into four versions of the same story, and, most radically, delivered through the pure stream-of-consciousness of the mentally disabled Benjy and the almost kaleidoscopically untethered Quentin, The Sound and the Fury elevates the Compson family’s sad fate to something like the clashing, crashing ballets of Igor Stravinsky. Faulkner would so something similar a few years later with the mythic journey of As I Lay Dying and the grandiose historical mysteries of Absalom, Absalom!, but The Sound and the Fury, with its daring attempts to turn everyday stories into material for complex aesthetic marvels, would remain his central triumph.

 

Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast (1964, Posthumous)

Although not released in his lifetime, A Moveable Feast is Ernest Hemingway’s engaging memoir of life in Paris during the era of “The Lost Generation” and the rise of modernism. The text was assembled from manuscripts and notes after Hemingway’s death, and thus doesn’t entirely reflect the spartan prose and rugged fatalism of books like The Sun Also Rises (which is certainly the writer’s clear masterpiece of the era in question), but it does evoke the era nicely, giving a zoomed-in sense of detail to one of the most romanticized times and places in all of literary history, naming specific bars, hotels, restaurants, and the famous names who haunted them. The book also tells the story of Gertrude Stein, a literary mentor and inspiring figure for many of the scene’s best writers, coining the phrase “Lost Generation,” her way of describing the confusion, doubt, and shattered confidences that followed the shocking total war of World War I.

 

James Joyce – Ulysses (1922)

Released in 1922 – a red letter year for modernism that also saw the release of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales Of The Jazz Age – James Joyces’ Ulysses was a shatteringly avant-garde breakthrough, defiantly complex in its stream-of-conscious narrative, multi-layered textual codes (a working knowledge of Homer’s The Odyssey, which Joyce uses as an ironic frame for the “epic” story of a day in the life of the humble, middle class Leopold Bloom), and mystifying in-jokes and wordplay. Unlike the other texts listed here, Joyce actually wrote Ulysses in Paris, in the milieu of the Lost Generation, though this does little to dull the perfection of the novel’s map-like rendering of Dublin. One of few books frequently sold right next to an equally long book devoted simply to decoding its crazy-quilt of voices, allusions, riddles, and tricks, Ulysses is at once endlessly demanding and endlessly rewarding. The book is as beloved an entry into the canon of modern literature as the Lost Generation ever produced – indeed, there is even a yearly walking tour of the novel’s Dublin on the novel’s June 16th. At once wickedly funny and wholly moving, heroic and tragic, farcical and rueful, Ulysses was somehow able to collect all the various emotions, doubts, frustrations, and obsessions of his literary era into one massive faux-epic.

 

Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway (1925)

If Joyce’s novel insisted on the “epic” quality of a day in the life of an average man, then Woolf similarly insisted on the hidden depths of an upper-class woman, whose day-long preparations for a party string together several characters, stories, histories, and impressions of post-War London. In some ways a conceptual match for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatbsy (which was released the same year), Mrs Dalloway both plumbs the depths of a certain corner of high-society (in this case chic London as opposed to the bustling, nouveau riche New York) and operates as a cross-section of its chosen time and place. This means giving us not only the quietly tragic star-crossed romance of Clarissa Dalloway and her one-time lover Peter Walsh, but also the troubled mental state of traumatized World War I veteran Septimus Smith. For a novel about something as seemingly mundane as preparations for a party, Mrs Dalloway never stops moving, and invests its many characters’ thoughts with very real weight and consequence. While less aggressively stylized than the contemporary work of Faulkner and Joyce, Woolf’s novel is nevertheless an absolute tour de force in its stream-of-consciousness balancing of several unique characters, all brought together by one woman’s day in London.

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