Friday, 25 December 2015

Book Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand a globalising world that urges the individual to adapt to ever more uniform standards, those who are different in any way are almost necessarily pushed into the role of the outsider, not to say the unwanted freak. Just as much as the different, the new and innovative is perceived as a potential danger. Therefore creators often have a difficult standing. Society favours thoughtless – brainless – “selfless” pawns who want whatever they get and like whatever is in fashion. The long novel The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand portrays a man whose creative force spurs him on against the current of the mediocre and praised mainstream. He knows who he is and what he wants. He doesn’t care what others think or do, even when he becomes the target of power-hungry begrudging schemers. He is simply indestructible, invulnerable, unstoppable.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum (Алиса Зиновьевна Розенбаум) in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire (today: Russia), in February 1905. In 1926, after graduation from State University and a year at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Saint Petersburg, she seized the opportunity to visit relatives in the USA with the intention to stay. Before long she obtained a job as junior screenwriter in Hollywood, married and became an American citizen. Ayn Rand continued to write plays for the screen and the stage of which a few were a success. Only in 1936 she made her debut as a novelist, but the semi-autobiographical work titled We the Living didn’t get much attention in the USA at the time. Also her novella Anthem (1938) wasn’t particularly popular with American readers until her great novels, namely The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), established her as a writer. In the following decades, however, the author focused on philosophy writing non-fiction and lecturing. Ayn Rand died in New York City, New York, USA, in March 1982.

Like The Fountainhead spouts water the mind of Howard Roark gushes out designs for buildings. However, his ideas are far ahead of his time and he is uncompromising to the point of offending his teachers at the famous (fictional) Architectural School of the Stanton Institute of Technology, Boston, Massachusetts. The novel thus begins with his expulsion because he turned in yet another project not meeting the architectural standards that he was taught. He is as old as the century, twenty-two years, and he knows what he wants:
“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards – and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” 
Howard Roark moves to New York. For three years he works for the only architect there whose work he admires and then for two renowned firms where he doesn’t last. Thanks to wealthy Austen Heller who loves his designs for a house, he can get started as an independent architect in 1926. Lacking further commissions, though, he soon sees himself compelled to work as a common labourer in a granite quarry for a living where he meets Dominique Francon. The two are at once strongly attracted to each other, but she hates the idea of belonging to him. When she finds out that he is an architect really, she uses her column on the New York Banner to punish him slandering his buildings. For reasons of his own the influential journalist Ellsworth M. Toohey joins into the crusade against modern architecture in general and Howard Roark in particular. Howard Roark, however, remains unimpressed by it and with the help of friends who are also admirers he begins to work his slow and steady way up. All the while his fate is closely connected with that of Dominique who loves him madly. Nonetheless, she continues to defame his buildings and she gets married first to Roark’s careerist school-friend Peter Keating and then to Gail Wynand who owns the Banner…

The novel surrounding Howard Roark whom the author clearly conceived as The Fountainhead of innovation is divided into four parts, each dedicated to a central figure of the story and the mindset characteristic of him. All of them are types portrayed in all their physical as well as psychological wealth, and yet, they feel somehow unreal because they are too “pure” and only capable of learning but not of changing. They are the shapeless careerist (Peter Keating), the manipulative preacher (Ellsworth M. Toohey), the ruthless publisher (Gail Wynand), and above all Howard Roark, the uncompromising creator and protagonist of the novel. All of them are successful in their own way, but only one, namely Howard Roark who remains always true to himself and keeps following his own way no matter what will be the consequences, is shown to have a chance for happiness because he doesn’t run after power and glory like the others. His sole goal in life is to do what he loves – to create, to build, to give the fruits of his mind to the world. No more, no less. Dominique Francon is his pessimistic and unaspiring counterpart. She is reluctant to love him because it would be too painful to watch him fail as she believes he must in a society that is blind to true excellence. He teaches her that she is wrong after all.

It is with due right that The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand has been praised by readers ever since it first appeared in 1943. It’s a multi-layered as well as philosophical critique of human society and in addition an entertaining, though neither quick nor easy read. It took me a while to get through the 681 pages of the novel itself, but I enjoyed every single one of them. And of course, I warmly recommend the novel to those who don't already know it!

* * * * * review is a contribution to the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2015,
namely to the category Very Long Classic.

»»» see my challenge post with my complete reading list.

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