Book Corner: ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand

“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.”

Ayn Rand- The Fountainhead

the-fountainheadReviewed by Matt Keleher

Integrity can be a difficult virtue to uphold; our elders may advise that life brings about scenarios where it is prudent to exercise a little pragmatism. Many people compromise for the expediency of the moment, whether to placate someone who’s making things difficult or to facilitate their ascent of the corporate or societal ladders.

The Fountainhead chronicles the respective careers of two very different architects; one being Howard Roark, a visionary and strident individualist whose work completes him (a character inspired by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright) ; who holds himself only to his own exacting standards and vision. The other, Peter Keating, is a man of scant ability in the field, who attains success by means of charm, etiquette, forging the right connections and undercutting colleagues of greater talent to get ahead.

As the novel opens, Roark is on the verge of expulsion from the Stanton Architectural School of Technology and is asked to come to the dean’s office to discuss his future. While Roark’s tutors agreed he promise in the field, many were left bemused his highly idiosyncratic designs. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when Roark was asked to submit a design in the historical style of a Tudor Chapel or a French opera hose:

“…and you turned in something that looked like a lot of boxes piled together without rhyme or reason- would you say it was an answer to an assignment or just plain insubordination?”

“It was insubordination,” said Roark.

The Dean quickly realises Roark will not relent:

“I see no purpose on doing Renaissance villas. Why learn to design them, when I’ll never build them?”

“My dear boy, the great style of the Renaissance is far from dead. Houses of that style are being erected every day.”

“They are. And they will be. But not by me.”

At this juncture, Roark is predictably expelled, although would likely have left of his own accord anyhow. Meanwhile, his foil Peter Keating is the most popular guy on the campus and graduates with honors, having followed the syllabus to the letter. He seems poised for greatness and after graduation, goes to work for Guy Francon a popular and successful architect.

Roark predictably struggles to get work, but eventually secures a placement with Henry Cameron a once prolific figure fallen on hard times after falling out of favour with the contemporary architecture scene. Everything seems to fall at Keating’s feet, while Roark struggles.

A particularly telling scene succinctly highlights the differences in Roark and Keating’s methodologies. Roark speaks to a client who asked him if he would like to play badminton sometime; Roark declined:

“Do you really think it would be a better building if I played badminton?”

Having watched the scenes from the sidelines, Keating approached Roark to impart some career advice once the client has left:

“That’s no way to go about it, Howard. You know what I would have done? I’d have sworn I’d played badminton since I was two years old and how it’s the game of kings and earls and it takes a soul of rare distinction to appreciate it and by the time he put me to the test, I’d have made it my business to play like an earl, too. What would it cost you?”

“I didn’t think of it.”

Imbibed by his early success, Keating resorts to skulduggery to usurp a fellow architect, leaving the poor sap jobless.  The book’s leitmotif is the struggle of the individualist against a collectivist, populist society; Roark being a true individualist and a prime mover, in a society filled with ‘second handers’ i.e. those whose sense of derives from others in some way, rather than emanating from within.

'The Fountainhead' has sold more than 6.5 million copies to date and was Rand's first commercial success.

‘The Fountainhead’ has sold more than 6.5 million copies to date and was Rand’s first commercial success.

In the pursuit of his goal, to become a great architect on his terms, Roark encounters opposition from the intellectually dishonest Ellsworth Toohey, a newspaper columnist and architectural critic possessing no innate talent other than to belittle those who hint at greatness and the yellow-press baron Gail Wynand,(a Nietzschean egoist and misanthrope who has the potential for greatness, but chooses to squander his ability on trampling simply because he can) editor-in-chief at The New York Banner a rag that revels in smut and scandal and all the while feigning moral indignation.

Society beauty Dominique Francon recognises greatness in Roark’s designs before meeting him; as she does she falls in love with him, but her outlook is tinged with pessimism; she feels that Roark’s greatness could not survive and in an act of mercy, sets out to destroy him…before society does…

Published in 1943, The Fountainhead remains a surprisingly prescient novel. Rand makes a number of piquant observations on the group-think mentality that shaped and continues to shape our society. If anybody accuses Rand’s work of being humourless- point them to this book; almost every page is saturated with sardonic wit.

I leave you with this final example:  Later in the novel we learn that the collectivist everyman, Ellsworth Toohey also moonlights as an arbiter of the arts and has assembled a coterie of ‘counterfeit individualists’ comprising of a writer who doesn’t use capital letters, a painter who didn’t use canvas, working instead with bird cages and metronomes and Lois Cook, (loosely based on Gertrude Stein) an author who self-consciously cultivates a dishevelled appearance; (while her age is around 35, she claims to be 65) her books, which have no discernible meaning have earned her plaudits as a literary genius!

On a related note, a film adaptation of The Fountainhead was released in 1949; Rand herself wrote the screenplay and closely supervised the project. This was not her first foray into the world of film, having cut her teeth working under the wing of legendary director Cecil B De Mille as a writer, shortly after arriving in America in the 1920s.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Fountainhead’ here:

 

Have you read this book? Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments box…