On ‘Tender is the Night’; F. Scott Fitzgerald.

‘Monaco, Monte-Carlo’, by Alfonse Mucha 1897. Art nouveau tribute to the French Riviera, & one of my favourite paintings. (To think that they made advertisements this beautiful back in the fin de siècle!)

The last few days have been a sad, depressing blur: I don’t know if I’ve so much lived my own life as that of Dick and Nicole Diver; I don’t know if I’ve been in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or in the French Riviera. Because this book, which I finished last night, has driven me insane with sadness — it’s the first thing I think about depressedly when I wake up in the morning, and the last thing before bed. I suppose in some twisted way this is a tribute to just how powerful and moving — powerfully moving, in fact (hendiadys?) — this book is. (My monomania is nothing to worry about, though; it’ll pass, as always!)

Like any good and mildly-susceptible reader, I get sucked in (if the book is good enough!) – I usually identify the appropriate villains, the characters I’m meant to like, feel sad at the right moments, and rejoice wholeheartedly at happy endings. So far so good: I am an ideal reader, satisfactorily moved and engaged! But — there are a couple of books out there which have sent me into spirals of despair, rendered me nigh-mad, with their irrevocability. In these cases I feel a bit like a Miltonian God, all-seeing and omniscient, but absolutely unable (though Milton’s God is unwilling) to intervene or affect the outcome in any way. Nothing makes me more fatalistic or unhappy than such books – though I love them, too.

One of these was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or more accurately (if one really wants to distinguish between the books in the series!), Good Wives, where Jo rejects Laurie (!!!!!!!!) and Laurie marries that cretin Amy instead (!!!!!!). This disgusted me and upset me so much I was never able to continue with the series, or indeed, read Good Wives ever again. Even Little Women was somewhat tainted with foreknowledge. Another one was Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in an age-old favourite series of mine (the Anne of Green Gables one!). So depressing and awful was this ending that I actually used the little space between the end of the page and the final paragraph to re-write the ending, which had some character that had died mysteriously springing back to life and knocking on the door. (In my defence: I was 13…) It’s been a long time since I found a book that awful and despair-worthy, even though I routinely shed a drop or two at some of Woolf’s more dreary works. But a few days ago, it arrived, in the guise of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Woe is the word of the day….

Tender is the Night is the story of a love, a consequent relationship, and its ultimate dissolution. Apologies to those who are sensitive to spoilers – but the book is almost a hundred years old, so I feel I can’t be too delicate about these things. Dick and Nicole Diver are first encountered as the shining stars of the French Riviera 1920s expat scene – the suns that everybody else plays merely satellite to. Beautiful, absurdly wealthy, charming, polite, throwing parties that could give Mrs. Dalloway a run for her money – they’ve got it all. (Indeed, I do suspect that Fitzgerald was strongly inspired by certain scenes and sentiments in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both of which preceded Tender is the Night.) They seem perfect, enviably so. Now, you can tell where this is going….

Cue Rosemary Hoyt, Hollywood blooming starlet, through whose eyes we’ve been seeing this glamorous couple. Rosemary falls in love with Dick at first sight, and proceeds to declare her love for him with no qualms whatsoever about the fact that he’s married (and seemingly happily so). Rosemary is the sort of Fitzgerald character people familiar (and most are!) with The Great Gatsby would recognise; sort of selfish, sort of naïve, sort of self-centered. Her mother Mrs. Speers blithely encourages her to proceed with this ‘love’, and Dick realises (maybe too late, and certainly to no effect) that “no provision had been made for him, or Nicole, in Mrs. Speers’ plans…She had not even allowed for possibility of Rosemary’s being damaged – or was she certain that she couldn’t be?” — Rosemary and Mrs. Speers are slightly Daisy & Tom Buchanan in their inability to consider, or care for, the consequences of their actions. But for reasons unfathomable to me, Dick Diver eventually reciprocates this cretin’s love and their time in Paris ends with a few kisses and some rather stranger events.

Whereupon we move onto Book 2, which tells the even stranger story of how Dick and Nicole met, fell in love, and got married – Nicole was actually a patient diagnosed with schizophrenia, developed an attachment to Dick, etc etc. (Lots of people say that Dick ‘married his patient to save her’ – now from what I understand this isn’t strictly true; she was neither his patient, nor did he really intend to marry her to save her from her illness, although save her he does!). I’ve read somewhere that some versions of the novel actually have it differently – instead of a Book 2 with historical flashbacks, the history of the Divers actually comes at the start; this version was actually arranged by Malcolm Cowley and published posthumously in 1951, because the critical reception of the book as originally published (non-chronologically) had not been great. This is a great shame, and I’m so glad my version used the 1934 text as it is, because the flashback adds a whole lot of gumption to the story; you see the Divers seem perfect, realise that actually it’s not all perfect given their history, and then actually see that history take its toll on their relationship in the present (Book 3).

The introduction to my Collins Classics version and Wikipedia say, rather simplistically and in essence, that the novel represents a sort of transference of states of being – she starts off as weak and dependent, while he’s strong, and by the end of the novel they have swapped places – she is strong and able to move on, while he becomes increasingly dependent on drink and consequently erratic. This view makes Nicole seem sort of parasitic, and I’m not sure that she is — or rather, I’m sure I see the book being as critical of the way Dick’s life has tapered down to social façades as anything else. (And then there’s that poor, poor choice of Rosemary, who really provides the catalyst to Dick’s downturn: what on earth can justify that?!).

It’s well known that Tender is the Night provides one version of the F. Scott-Zelda Fitzgerald relationship, a troubled one (the other version is provided by Zelda’s Save the Last Waltz). Like Dick, F. Scott became a raging alcoholic (and unfortunately died prematurely from it at the age of just 44); like Nicole, Zelda constantly felt like she was ‘playing planet’ to F. Scott’s ‘sun’ (a phrase Nicole uses), and became schizophrenic towards the end of her life. She died in a fire at the mental institution wherein she was housed. It’s a sad story, and reminds me that even the glamour of the Jazz Age had its darker underbelly… I’ve heard that F. Scott was very much in the habit of plagiarising his wife’s diaries and letters for material, and I wonder how much of this is present in Tender is the Night (Nicole’s letters, and that strange time-compression in the middle).

It’s easy to read this novel in a very, very biographical light, and I did – but what was most interesting to me was the way in which Fitzgerald managed to maintain a consistently critical distance from all his characters. (The artist, however much he might draw on personal experiences, obviously must – otherwise it stops being craft!) It seems to me like a lot of people read this to see if Fitzgerald apportions blame on Zelda for the destruction of his life, but I don’t think he does (at least, not straightforwardly). Again – there is no easy ‘villain’ or ‘hero’, no easy determination of exactly whose fault it is that the Divers’ marriage breaks down. Maybe Nicole and Dick bear equal responsibility. Perhaps Rosemary bears some. So — well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, although many critical assumptions made about the book are done in light of the author’s biography, one has to be careful, because these assumptions clearly have their limits.

What is it about the book that has made me so sad? I’m not quite sure. Partly perhaps it is just the hopeless romantic in me: Dick and Nicole are finely-crafted characters, and finely crafted for each other, so (à la the Jo-Laurie debacle) it’s upsetting to see their relationship dissolve so tragically. There is the fact of their love, as contrasted with the fling with Rosemary – Dick’s love for Nicole has been “a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colours into an obscuring dye” – but even that ain’t strong enough? It’s tragic to see Dick, who is bright and lovely and charming and beautiful and clever, devolve into something less brilliant than he ought to have been. But above all, and perhaps this is why I find the original structure of the novel so important, it’s because the other characters in the novel aren’t the only ones who initially see ‘the Divers’ as something indestructible and necessary – we do, too.

“…it’s a mutual thing, and the fact of The Divers together is more important to their friends than many of them realize. Of course it’s done at a certain sacrifice – sometimes they seem just rather charming figures in a ballet, and worth just the attention you give a ballet, but it’s more than that – you’d have to know the story.”

This sacrifice proves too much for Dick, ultimately, of course — but for me, the fact of The Divers was necessary and beautiful, just as much as it had been to Rosemary or Abe North or anybody else at the start of that book. Maybe I am going crazy or something, but the dissolution of this entity is deeply, deeply upsetting. I found this book so much more upsetting and tragic than The Great Gatsby, though I realise I am in the minority here. I’m not sure why – I don’t think it’s as ‘tight’ or as precisely-constructed a novel as Gatsby is, and yet it has infinite amounts of pathos.

The book’s name is a bit of a clue as to the world Fitzgerald is representing – it isn’t all blithe and beautiful under the sun; it’s rather about the night, and about a sort of fundamental loneliness I can’t possibly describe here. The book’s name comes from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which has its speaking voice bemoan the mortal world and its woes; the poet then ‘flies away’ on poetry’s escapist wings. It’s a sad poem, about a place which the lights of heaven (and perhaps even the smile of any benevolent god) don’t reach and where time’s effects (as Fitzgerald shows all too well) are destructive and tragic — perhaps where Dick and Nicole both find themselves at the end of it all.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
    What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 
        Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
                And leaden-eyed despairs, 
    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
        Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee, 
    Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, 
But on the viewless wings of Poesy, 
    Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: 
Already with thee! tender is the night, 
    And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, 
        Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; 
                But here there is no light, 
    Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
        Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

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