F. Scott Fitzgerald remains one of the 20th century’s most popular writers, and not just for “The Great Gatsby”, the short, iconic novel for which he is best known. His short stories have remained in print, and occasionally have a new lease of life – the film of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – though it is for his novels that he is now best remembered; Gatsby in particular; but with only four completed, and one unfinished novel to his name, there are few writers who have quite so manageable an output. “This Side of Paradise” was his debut and the bestseller in his lifetime, but neither “The Great Gatsby” or the novel that belatedly followed it, “Tender is the Night,” sold sufficiently well in his lifetime for him to give up on more lucrative work: first magazine publication; then later writing for Hollywood.
Published in 1934 but set a decade earlier, in “Tender is the Night” Fitzgerald sees his self-proclaimed “jazz age” through a different perspective. If Gatsby is a novel that always seems to reconcile the dazzling follies of that age with a romantic fallibility, so that even in Gatsby’s tragedy, we can still (as no doubt Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming film adaption will do) be seduced by the trappings of fame; in “Tender is the Night” there are no such comforts.
I first read the novel at university, and although there have been two versions – it seems right now, as then, that it is not the chronological telling of Dick Diver’s life that best tells this story but the restored original text, beginning with Diver and his wife Nicole at the centre of a “moment” on the French Riviera.
Whereas we say Gatsby through the framing device of the amiable Nick Carraway, here it is Fitzgerald who is the observer; but for a brief moment in the first few pages, he chooses another lens, that of the beautiful and very young Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt. As new to the world that her fame has brought her into as she is new to the pristine sands of the newly fashionable summer beaches, she is an ingénue unlike many of Fitzgerald’s knowing flappers. Compared to Nicole, the heiress wife of Diver, she is as unspoiled as the private beach areas where the three of them meet. But in Fitzgerald it is not enough to be a hero or heroine, the tale is one of a wider set: where the gradations between class, style, wealth and inheritance are played out beautifully scene after scene. This is rich America in old Europe and making it anew. The novel is full of Americans behaving appallingly abroad and hoping somehow that their money, their American identity, and mostly, their indignation, can get them out of all kinds of scrapes. The beach where we first see Rosemary is a stage on which Fitzgerald’s sets and sets up all kinds of rivalries. Money isn’t enough; nor where that money has come from; its how you behave with money. Dick and Nicole Diver are a golden couple around which everything else hovers. Rosemary, an American starlet, is allowed instant access into their inner circle but others aren’t – though Dick and Nicole, always keen on not just the attractiveness of their friends, but the distraction they bring, aren’t immune to rubbing a few different groups together. We’ll later find out why, of course.
What Fitzgerald gives us in these opening scenes is a virtually 3D picture of a time and a place. The writing is never less than dazzling, and never more so than when he describes a particular place. He uses description in a way that few others do, to either slow down or speed up a scene. In their languid idleness these characters wile away the summer in an approximation of happiness that, indeed, may actually be the real thing. Yet, nothing lasts for long.
Rosemary has come there for relaxation after the completion of the promotional tour for her film, with her protective but supportive mother, and only on meeting Dick and Nicole does she consider staying any longer; yet the Divers are themselves ready to go. Place cannot hold them. With a coterie of friends, servants and even two children (who Fitzgerald admirably never quite forgets are there), the Riviera is one staging post on a regular journey.
This is a Europe that is reminiscent in many ways of the West Egg grandeur we see in Gatsby; but whereas Gatsby creates a Xanadu from scratch in order to entice Daisy back to him; the Divers’ move through old Europe like a monarchic entourage.
Fitzgerald was one of the first subscribers to “Ulysses”, and though he is not often thought of specifically as a modernist, for me “Tender is the Night” brings to bear as much of the new sensibility that Joyce and others have been torturously exploring, and attaches it to the societal brilliance of his earlier writing. For despite the glamour of the Divers’ world it holds it own tragedies. Diver is a graceful southern gentleman, transformed into such a dazzling figure through his own charm, but also by his wife’s wealth. Yet Nicole’s story – and how she met the young Doctor Diver – in a psychiatric institution – is in itself a tragedy that we encounter almost from the first, when the nosey Mrs. McKisco accidentally comes across Nicole with the mask down.
For “Tender is the Night” is not a novel about surfaces; it is about how those surfaces are simply that. For Nicole is as much a victim of corrupt familial relations as the most broken of Faulkners characters; and Dick Diver, the knight in shining armour who rescued is as much a tragic idealist as that other Doctor, Lydgate in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, a novel I’ve always seen to have certain aesthetic and emotional similarities to this one.
For though it would be easy in some ways to speak of “Tender is the Night” as a tragic love story it would be hard to know of which story we speak. Fitzgerald is a dangerous writer to read as a teenager, as he gives you both love’s fairy story, and its hidden despair. The only “happy” love in Fitzgerald is one that seems to be accepting of its peripheral nature. Carraway can happily have “his girl”; but Gatsby need that girl. And whatever he does is never quite enough. If Fitzgerald’s scathing comment on Tom and Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby – that they are “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness” – isn’t enough then the path of true love in “Tender is the Night” is, if anything worse. Diver, our great romantic hero, is also proven to be all kinds of betrayer; but most of all of himself.
Having met and loved Nicole, though she begins ostensibly as his patient, which in itself is perhaps the most terrible betrayal a medical man can make; he falls for Rosemary for reasons that are that of every middle aged man (though he is hardly thirty), because he can. Yet so believable is this ménage, with Rosemary almost in love with obth Nicole and Dick, that we wish it to be so: even though what must come from it is hard to envisage. This, after all, is an age of promise; pointedly, even after the action of the novel is over, we are given no word on the foreboding truth of the great crash of 1929. Nicole’s old money, we must assume, like that of our contemporary rich, is immune. For Diver, a promising psychologist, with a successful primer already to his name, has already seen the best of himself when he falls for Nicole. That he becomes a socialite, only ostensibly working on his practice is another layer of the many tragedies in here. Yet, whereas Gatsby can sometimes be seen as superior melodrama – where we know not how he made his money, or, what might have become of him, if tragedy hadn’t struck – in “Tender is the Night” there is an observational honesty that in literature seems to be almost twenty or so years too early. For Diver’s story fades; Nicole’s fate is to run from her Fitzgerald-like figure to a gruffer, Hemingway-type. Tempting as it is to map “Tender” onto Fitzgerald’s life, the bits that seem closest are to do with the sensibilities that make us fall in and out of love; and make us do the things that destroy that love. Alcohol is never an unbitter taste in “Tender is the Night”, its dark side is shown to us early on in the form of the spent-talent of Abe North; a warning, ignored, to Diver of what he might become. Even Rosemary, given to us as a near-Lolita-like coquette, is later shown to be a wooden talent, hanging on to a facile career in the movies, and the teen-love of Dick Diver having either spoilt her forever, or been a single moment of truth in an otherwise dishonest life.
Nicole is fascinating – for she is a victim, who becomes stronger; and love, which she had unambivalently for Dick, becomes as much a sign of her malady as anything else. That Fitzgerald is writing this story of adult lives, whilst touching on so many of the societal shifts of the day is a marvel in itself. Reading the novel again after so many years, I’m struck by its modernism. Not its debt, so much, to Lawrence (in particular), and Joyce, but how he has learnt from their willingness to go so much deeper into the souls of their characters, how he might probe a little further himself. But there is never any solipsism in Fitzgerald; for he has always been the most honest of writers; honest in a specific way – observing the world as it is rather than how he might want it to be. Thus, Nicole’s horrific sister Baby Warren becomes almost bearable as the novel progresses – Dick’s fall being what she had hoped for, but in seeing it happen, her own silliness is put into some perspective.
Throughout the novel Fitzgerald subtley, and in my view, magnificently manages as mix of the brilliantly written orchestrations that we know from Gatsby, with a deeper, more piercing sensibility, that renders the characters as alive as any in literature. Trying to shepherd the ever drunken Abe North away from Paris, they become embroiled in one of several dramas that pepper the book – yet seeing North and Nicole alone Fitzgerald has the presence of mind to add that “unlike lovers they possessed no past; unlike man and wife they possessed no future.”
Away from the Riviera, away from Paris, the novel has to find different colours. We come to the young Dick Diver meeting Nicole for the first time. His tragedy, beginning even then, is that he is not the brilliant man he had hoped to be; is his love – or pity, for it may well be that – for Nicole reason enough for this, or would Dick Diver always have been looking for a brighter future than the one that beckoned as a psychological scholar? Compared to the rest of the novel, Diver’s medical years are somewhat underwritten, and it’s perhaps easy to see why. Here is a world that Fitzgerald only knew second hand – through Zelda’s travails mostly – but was already fascinating the 20th century author. The “mind” not “God” is the new frontier of understanding and, to some extent, faith – yet Fitzgerald, a writer who, more than any other, always seems to believe in us – in men and women – despite our failings and frailties, is perhaps less suited to such a pursuit. Perhaps another lesson here from George Eliot; that Diver was to be no Casaubon forever trying to unlock the “Key to all Mythologies”, but someone dimly aware that the best he is to do, he has already done.
Re-reading “Tender is the Night” after a number of years – though I’ve frequently gone back to the glorious early chapters – I’m struck by what a modern novel it is; that it seems to absorb the modernist lesson, whilst only once or twice falling for its more clunky teachings. A writer as good as Fitzgerald struggled for years with “Tender is the Night” yet the writing within belies that. His own struggles, with an ailing wife and alcoholism, seem to find more than just echoes in the novel – yet it doesn’t feel like autobiography; for that we have “The Crack up”; more it feels like a mature work by a writer who has personally known both the worst than life can do, but also the best that it might offer.