F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1934)

May 27th, 2013 § 0 comments

He went back into his house and Nicole saw that one of his most characteristic moods was upon him, the excitement that swept everyone up into it and was inevitably followed by his own form of melancholy, which he never displayed but at which she guessed.  This excitement about things reached an intensity out of proportion to their importance, generating a really extraordinary virtuosity with people.  Save among a few of the tough-minded and perennially suspicious, he had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love.  The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved.  He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience:  people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years.  He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.  Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.  So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done. (pp. 27-28).

For many, the 1920s is an age of carefree revels and rebellious hedonism before the sobering crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.  In literature, it saw the debuts of several talented American writers, from William Faulkner to Sinclair Lewis to Ernest Hemingway to the Midwestern-born but Princeton-educated F. Scott Fitzgerald, each of whom blazed their own path to fame while articulating elements of American society in their stories.  Yet there was a downside to their fame, as three of the four turned to drink to stave off depression and the mounting pressure from readerships that expected more from them.  But it was Fitzgerald who managed best to capture this inebriated-fueled dilemma in his fourth and last-completed novel, Tender is the Night (1934).  Nine years in the making, Tender is the Night has long been overshadowed by the posthumous success of his third novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), but a strong case could be made for Tender is the Night being Fitzgerald’s deepest, most accomplished work of fiction.

Set mostly in the mid-1920s, Tender is the Night revolves around a set of American expatriates living on the French Riviera.  Among these are a young glamorous couple, Dick and Nicole Diver.  In the opening scenes of the book, we witness a key moment in the lives of the Divers.  A young American actress, Rosemary Hoyt, has come with her mother to live in the area and she is immediately attracted to Dick.  A young, talented, and ambitious psychoanalyst, Dick seems to have it all, as between Nicole’s wealth and his charm the two have succeeded in creating a glamor that bedazzles not just Rosemary but others in the Divers’ company.  Yet not all is what it seems.  After a horrific turn of events that involves an accidental death and a nervous breakdown by Nicole, the carefully constructed world that they Divers have created begins to unravel.

Fitzgerald uses extended flashback sequences to show how Dick and Nicole came to be together.  Nicole’s fear of men, the apparent result of a likely incestuous relationship with her father, is a challenge to the young Dr. Diver and despite the opposition from Nicole’s sister, the wealthy heiress Baby Warren, the two marry about five years before the opening events of Tender is the Night.  The narration of Nicole’s initial neuroses and her subsequent breakdown after the death on the Riviera contains some of Fitzgerald’s finest writings.  Although it is easy to see within the text some rather strong and direct autobiographical details (Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and her battles with mental illness and Fitzgerald’s own battles with alcoholism), Tender is the Night succeeds as a portrait of decline/recovery on its own merits, although a cursory knowledge of the Fitzgeralds’ situation in the early 1930s certainly adds to the power of these scenes.

In the third part of the novel, after Book II’s flashbacks to the early 1920s, there is a role reversal that can be seen.  As Nicole recovers from her relapse, she becomes stronger and less dependent upon Dick.  Dick, on the other hand, has become to drink heavily and he finds himself alienating his partner and clients with his erratic behavior.  Into this maelstrom Rosemary re-enters Dick’s life and the aborted romance of Book I is resumed.  This, however, serves to hasten Dick’s decline and he succumbs to his personal demons, becoming weaker and less respected with each passing scene until finally Nicole leaves him for another man, Tommy.

Such a summary does little justice toward describing Tender is the Night‘s true power.  In passages such as the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Fitzgerald eloquently captures a sense of person and place.  It is easy to view the younger Dick Diver as a metaphor for the then-recently-passed 1920s:  full of vim and vigor, with a ringing headache and horrific hangover to follow.  But this is a simplistic interpretation, as fraught with potential misunderstanding as the view of Dick being an avatar for Fitzgerald himself.  No, Dick Diver is a memorable character for those two reasons and others beyond them.  He embodies not just the author or his age, but also a more universal conundrum that men who succeed early in life often experience:  what to do next?  Dick fails to remain relevant in his wife’s eyes and in those of the community he once served because he has given up on the dreams that he once had and has now settled for a dissipated life that is hollow of meaning and purpose.  His decline, mirrored in certain facets by the ex-pats, particularly Abe North, around him, resonates with those of us who have ever felt that it is “hopeless” to try to push back the obstacles that face us.  For Dick, his constant tending to Nicole during her relapses has drained him of his vitality.  He turns to drink and (briefly) Rosemary in order to forget for a spell the wasted promise of his youth and the dreary future that seems to lie ahead.  His end is small, diminishing in front of us, an appropriate denouement for such a squander of talent.  Yet this conclusion speaks to those of us who have not experienced the particulars of Dick’s recent life:  we may not experience a leisurely life, but many of us can certainly relate to the pressures of caring for another and the energy sapping that this entails.

Tender as the Night succeeds because it is raw, visceral, emotion-laden.  It takes no prisoners and gives no quarter when it comes to characterizations.  No one is spared here and the changes, minute and grand alike, that we witness in not just the lives of the Divers and Rosemary, but also in the other ex-pats who interact with them, are moving because they possess a dark, unsettling truth to them.  This, combined with some of Fitzgerald’s best descriptive writing and deft characterizations makes Tender is the Night a poignant, elegantly-crafted tale that speaks just as clearly to us in the early 21st century as it did when it was first published in 1934.

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