Rereading ‘Tender is the Night’

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For my fourth time reading of Tender is the Night I followed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s purported advice, duly observed by Malcolm Cowley in an out of print 1951 edition, and read the Dick Diver section first. A flashback in the original edition timed to a grim discovery by alleged protagonist Rosemary Hoyt, it makes better logistic if not much imaginative sense. What the novel gains in clarity it loses in suspense; this section plods. As a introduction to the carnival of grotesques studding this rather garish book it works, though. A father who raped his daughter, a schizophrenic who’s set up by her sister to marry her doctor — who said Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha grew monsters?

As central to the Fitzgerald mythos as the early success, flappers, Zelda, and the Saturday Evening Post, the failure of Tender is the Night presaged the final collapse of his methods and the vaporizing of illusions about his public image. Into this novel, which took seven years to write, he poured what he’d learned about life and fiction. The Great Gatsby remains the American novel’s best distillation of a type we all know: the self-made man who comes from nothing and nowhere and is essentially a gorgeous empty suit. What personality he has is assembled from the detritus of his will and stubbornness. Beginning as a chronicle of a matricide, Tender is the Night evolved over the course of several aborted drafts; each version managed to draw in bits from his collapsing life like a magnet attracting ball bearings. As published the novel tells the story of a self-made psychiatrist who comes from nothing and nowhere and is essentially a gorgeous empty suit. This explains some of the novel’s blurred effects and misplaced pathos. Still, it’s remarkable that Tender is the Night is so coherent.

Swollen in places with rhetoric but in its final movement precise and ruthless about degradation, Tender is the Night professes to be about the decline of a promising talent but is actually about a mediocrity who turns mean when alcohol erodes his manners. When Dick’s sister in law Baby Warren praises him for keeping “a party moving by just a little sentence or a saying here and there,” I’m puzzled, for I’m not sure whether to take her at her word and delight in this charming, trivial trick or if Fitzgerald is mocking the sort of person who takes this talent seriously (Warren, an American with a fetish for Englishness, is a spinster who shuns human contact). Bearing this in mind may palliate the vertigo induced by the switch in tone from the conventional realism of the Diver history and the lyricism of the Rosemary section; it’s as dazed and lustrous as the eighteen-year-old actress and ingenue. But the novel still moves uneasily, like a child walking barefoot on a sofa, between an omniscient narrator and the free indirect style.

Fitzgerald saves his best prose for the occasions when Rosemary’s offscreen, as it were. The slow decline of Diver forces the novelist to reconsider what John Updike called Fitzgerald’s excessively dewy writing, and Updike would know. Replacing it is an aphoristic firmness. About Diver’s harried colleague Franz Gregorovius:

He was forty. Upon his healthy maturity reposed a set of pleasant official manners, but he was most at home in a somewhat stuffy safety from which he could despise the broken rich whom he reeducated. His scientific heredity might have bequeathed him a wider world but he seemed to have deliberately chosen the standpoint of a humbler class, a choice typified by his selection of a wife.

On Nicole’s schizophrenia:

But the brilliance, the versatility of madness is akin to the resourcefulness of water seeping through, over, and around a dike. It requires the united front of many people to work against it.

And often the lyricism works anyway, never more so than when Fitzgerald dotes on Nicole’s sexual maturation:

In the fine spring morning the inhibitions of the male world disappeared and she reasoned as gaily as a flower, while the wind blew her hair until her head moved with it.

And: “If she need not, in her spirit, be forever one with Dick as he had appeared last night, she must be something in addition, not just an image on his mind, condemned to endless parades around the circumference of a medal.”

Would I love to be the college professor who has to answer for the spics and dagos and other slurs that Diver uses casually and endorsed by the narrator. Mary North, an amiable parasite, marries an “Asiatic” man with several last names after the death of her alcoholic husband and beloved Diver bro Abe; to be “Asiatic” means to leave dirty water for the Divers’ lily white children to bathe in, causing a scene that signals Dick’s imminent collapse. And all over Tender is the Night Fitzgerald, to quote Gore Vidal about the novelist’s notebooks, makes rather too many nervous references to fairies and pansies. Less than a decade after the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Fitzgerald’s psychiatrist is less fascinated than Proust’s Marcel, whose experience watching two men he knows buggering at least provides data for the exquisite taxonomy of the male invert that takes up the next thirty pages. The homosexuals in Tender is the Night shudder and weep like women, faint, and behave amorally; a group of lesbians who check out Rosemary are called “the three cobra women.” When a young Spaniard whose father had had him horsewhipped after a presumably fruitless week in a brothel dares to show some cheer, Diver puts him in his place. Although it’s clear Fitzgerald condemns the sadist as much as the homosexual, both typify the sickness of Europe to which Diver, the American abroad, succumbs. These were the dark days when a researcher like Diver can claim, with the entire psychiatric profession behind him, that alcoholism triggers the “abnormality,” not vice versa.

Alone among male American novelists of the early twentieth centuries Fitzgerald empathized with his female characters. Not once did he condescend to their caprices, lusts, choice of hair and makeup. Try imagining Faulkner, Hemingway, or Wilder writing the passage in which Fitzgerald lovingly describes Nicole after a bath getting ready to meet would-be lover Tommy Barban. When the point of view wobbles towards Nicole, I think of Fitzgerald smiling. I would love for him to have written the novel through the eyes of a female schizophrenic whose gradual control of her life eclipses her husband’s affection and causes little more than a piteous sigh. But the Tender is the Night we’ve got, flawed and ungainly as it often is, understands collapse better than the piecing back together.

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