‘Those who sail close to the shore never discover new lands’. How true. The French writer, Andre Gide, wrote this in1925. Like many writers of the time, Gide was breaking with the conventions and restrictions of society. It was the Jazz Age. Many Americans like Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald came to the French capital to be inspired and break with tradition. The other reason was that Prohibition was cramping their style in America. .
The 1920’s French Riviera was a magnet for writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway to while away their summers mingling with other writers and artists. They would laze on the beaches glorying in the idyllic Mediterranean climate, and drink cocktails at sunset in their hotel bars.
Somewhere in between they would pen a few words of their latest work in progress. To understand the frenetic jazz era, you must reflect on the horrors of WWI that wiped out a whole generation of young men. Then The Spanish Flu wiped out a heap more. Fifteen million people had been killed over the course of four years.
The crazy pace and vanity of the 1920’s was a reaction to these tragedies. A sort of ’Live like you never have before’ mentality. We may see our own version of The Jazz Age once Covid-19 is finally over.
Later in the decade, the Great Depression caused by the Wall street Crash of 1929 would lead to more suffering.
Who Was Francis Scott Fitzgerald?
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in Minnesota. He was named after cousin, Francis Scott Key who wrote the lyrics to the American national anthem. ‘Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light…’etc. Fitzgerald entered Princeton in 1913 and apart from study, he wrote musicals.
He dropped out in 1917 to enlist in the US Army and before going off to fight in WWI he submitted his first hastily finished manuscript, A Romantic Egoist, lest he die in the fighting. None of us writers have that sort of deadline!
Of course, he survived to write the novels This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. He and Hemingway stole all the best book titles! None of these masterpieces sold well in his time and he spiraled into alcoholism beside his mentally ill wife Zelda. He sadly died an untimely death at just 44, never achieving full recognition for his beautiful haunting prose.
Interesting Zelda Fitzgerald
Zelda seemed to have depression and spent many years in a mental institution. The glamorous times on the Riviera contrast with the dark times of their marriage. Scott Fitzgerald captures this dichotomy in his haunting novel Tender is the Night. moods and
I loved the imagery and depiction of the 1920’s idol rich in The Great Gatsby, so I read Tender is the Night, written post WWI. The writing style is very different to that in The Great Gatsby and difficult initially to become immersed in. But I persisted and found this tragic love story very haunting and beautiful.
This Jazz Age novel interested me for another reason. I set my novel, The Last Hotel in Beaulieu-sur-Mer which is where the opening chapter of Tender is the Night is also set but of course a century earlier. I was so surprised when I read the opening lines of the novel.
“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, almost halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel.’
How’s that for coincidence! A hotel! ( excuse my inner child excitement)
Except that my hotel is neither large nor pink. But it could be considered proud due the quality of its occupants, my lovely characters. lol.
Fitzgerald’s life rather parallels that of Ernest Hemingway, another American who went to Paris after WWI. Both men with accompanying women and alcohol issues liked to travel around while they wrote, often spending long periods in The Riviera.
Hemingway also frequented Spain and was fond of bull fights and hunting. I find his books rather shocking in their depiction of cruelty to animals especially bulls. Neither does he write with the beautiful flowing prose of Fitzgerald but instead in a blunt, terse way. Possibly a man’s writer.
He too stole all the best book titles. The Sun Also Rises, To Have and Have not, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Farewell to Arms. They sound wonderful but sadly though they sound inviting, his writing is not for me. But it is interesting to see the different styles of these writers of The Jazz Age. Now their works are classics.
What about the women?
Yes, what about the women writers of the Jazz Age. Did they get a chance to shine in this terribly masculine man’s world?
The vast social changes characteristic of the time lead people to question aspects of society – in this case literature. In 1920, women were for the first time in American history able to vote. Women were tasting freedom in all sorts of ways. Firstly, they shed the restrictive garments of the past.
The war had helped to escalate this trend. You can’t work in a munitions factory all corseted and bonneted. So, in the 1920s women became flappers and Ella Fitgerald and Billie Holliday sang in jazz clubs paving the way for female performers.
The Jazz age was one of great change
The new era led to lots of changes. The rise of Socialism made people question Capitalism. Fascism would soon be on the rise in Europe and lead to the Spanish Civil War of the mid 1930s.
Artists explored the abstract such as cubism. Paintings were less like real life and more like splashes of expression. They were lighter and less bogged down with capturing reality.
Writers experimented with new forms of narrative such as stream of consciousness focusing on the sub-conscious. Characters shared their thoughts and had challenging views and belief. It was a bold era for writing, art and music. Billie Holliday sang the blues in jazz clubs. It was a cultural revolution.
Simone de Beauvoir
Later from this era of change emerged writers such as Simone de Beauvoir. A writer, philosopher, feminist all rolled into one forceful woman. Simone was a contemporary of Hemingway. Imagine them together enjoying a drink and puffing on a Gitane in the seedy bar/cafes of dilettante Paris.
Simone had much to offer. She had a brilliant mind and could write and debate well. Her philosophical ideas about the world and women added to the feminist movement started decades before by the Suffragettes.
Her novels are mostly biographical and offer a fascinating escape into interwar Paris. They are like a cerebral version of the movie, Midnight in Paris, one of my favourites. Simone writes the longest chapters I have ever come across. Not good bedtime reading. You will be up to 2am.
So before I bore you too much, or offend you with my overuse of commas, I’ll leave with these glimpses of yesteryear. Hope you enjoy the nostalgia, the journey to a different shore.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.