Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Source of book: I own this.


Okay, first, my controversial opinion:


Tender is the Night is a better book than The Great Gatsby.


There, I’ve said it. Agree or disagree as you wish. 


I have my theories about why Gatsby became the one Fitzgerald novel that everyone knows about (and usually reads in high school), while his other novels - this one in particular - seem to be only infrequently read. The first factor is that Gatsby was one of the wartime editions sent to soldiers during World War Two. (Want to read about that? I know a book…) The other factor, in my view, is that Gatsby has easy metaphors for the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age that the average high schooler can understand. Also, it is short. So, easy to teach, easy to understand, so thus easy to put on the curriculum. 


Tender is the Night, on the other hand, is longer, more personal, set in Europe, and involves a kind of icky relationship between an older man and an 18 year old girl. (Two, actually, come to think of it.) Actually, the last one is probably not the issue, but the other ones probably are. The book isn’t as simple or easy as Gatsby, and probably will appeal to more mature readers in any case. 


All of Fitzgerald’s novels have some degree of autobiography in them (although I agree with Salman Rushdie that the autobiographical connections are generally the least interesting parts of the book - it is what the author does with his or her experience that makes it art, whether or not ot could be considered autobiographical.) In this case, there are definite connections and similarities, but the differences are also quite significant. 

  Zelda and Scott in happier times...


In the book, Dick Diver is a successful and rising star of a psychologist, writing influential books and co-founding a clinic in Switzerland. He meets a teenaged patient, Nicole, who he successfully treats. She falls in love with him, and pursues him pretty hard, until they marry. (She is of age, so it is legal, but he is still a decade older.) Because of when the book was written, the psychology is definitely of its time and thus outdated. For example, Nicole’s illness - schizophrenia - is supposedly caused by her brief incestuous relationship with her father. In a later episode, a father tries to enlist Diver’s help in treating his homosexual son. Yeah, remember those days in the 1930s when homosexuality was suddenly treated like a horrific disease? 


So, years go by, they have kids, but Nicole starts relapsing more regularly, and they drift apart. They meet young actress Rosemary on the Riviera, and this initiates what will eventually mean the end of the marriage and Dick’s descent into alcoholism and failure. 


The story is told out of chronological order, with the first (of three) sections starting at the moment that Rosemary sees Dick and Nicole on the beach. It ends with Rosemary attempting (and failing) to seduce Dick on her 18th birthday. This section is told essentially from Rosemary’s point of view, although third person is used. The book then reverts to the true beginning of the story, with Dick’s history from his own point of view. At some point in this next section, the narrative jumps abruptly from the past to a point a few years after the meeting with Rosemary. (It isn’t really stated in the text, so you have to figure it out from the context.) By then, Dick and Nicole are growing apart, and Dick is increasingly obsessed with his memories of Rosemary (and his regret that he didn’t sleep with her when she wanted him.) The third part is essentially from Nicole’s point of view. (I say “essentially,” because each part gets into the heads of other characters too, but are mostly from the perspective of the one character.) 


Unsurprisingly, when Dick and Rosemary reconnect five years later, things are different. Even though the sex is good, they both know that their former glossy images of each other are not reality, and they part with Dick in despair. 


There is more, of course, as the course of events has to unfold, with Nicole also having an affair, and the two of them divorcing and going their own ways. It is a long, slow descent into catastrophe, primarily centered around Dick’s mental and spiritual disintegration. 


The story does have some parallels with Fitzgerald’s life. His marriage to Zelda was never particularly good, but it went even worse with time, due both to her increasingly unhinged mental state and his increasingly excessive drinking. While in Europe, both did have affairs more or less as the book states, although the identity of Zelda’s lover is changed quite a bit. I would say that the emotional landscape of the book matches that of Fitzgerald’s life pretty well, but the details do not. 


Interestingly, Zelda too wrote a book about the same period of their life, Save Me the Waltz, which was published after some string pulling by Fitzgerald, but it didn’t sell, and is generally considered to be poorly written compared to Fitzgerald’s account. 


There are some definite differences between real life and the book, though. To start with, Scott was not a psychologist, he and Zelda didn’t meet as patient and doctor, there is no evidence that Zelda had sex with her father, there was only a four year age gap between Scott and Zelda, and they met as adults. There are also other significant differences in family structure, the sequence of events, and definitely in the ending. I think it would be best to view the stories as essentially different, but with some characters and emotional frisson carried over from Fitzgerald’s life. 


The affair with Rosemary had a rather fascinating genesis in Fitzgerald’s life. He had the story partly written, when he decided to rewrite the whole character - originally male - to better match Lois Moran. When they had the affair, Moran was all of 18. It appears that she broke it off, and went on to a nearly 40 year marriage which ended when she was widowed. She was apparently remarkably functional throughout her long life, despite being a teenage star. So, at least from what the evidence shows, her fling with Fitzgerald didn’t damage her. 


This is kind of interesting in light of the way the book reads. Rosemary was the aggressor, sex was consensual and mutually desired. Rosemary was arguably the more rich and famous person in the relationship, Diver has no power or authority over her, and she clearly knew that it was a fling, not a future. This was perhaps the case with Fitzgerald and Moran too - she was already famous, while his career was flagging. He wasn’t in a position of power, even if he was older. They had their fun, she moved on. This is obviously different from the more icky relationship between Dick and Nicole, where she was a minor when they met, he was the doctor, and so on. (Again, this is different than that between Scott and Zelda, which appears to have been consensual and not icky - just wildly dysfunctional.) 


Another thing that struck me about this book is that Fitzgerald seems astonishingly self-aware. He does not go easy on Dick Diver at all, dredging up all of the interior muck that leads him to destroy himself. To the degree that Diver is autobiographical, it is clear that Fitzgerald knows he is destroying himself with alcohol, that he is deceiving his wife and himself, that his relationships are unhealthy for him, and that he is acting irrationally. And that’s just a start. It is rare for an author to create a stand-in for him or herself and then psychoanalyze that character half to death. And then still be completely unable to change in any meaningful way. He can see the trainwreck, and cannot bring himself to change tracks. 


There are too many brilliant passages in this book to mention them all. I made notes about a few, so here goes. Let’s start with the opening scene, and this description. 


Three British nannies sat knitting the slow pattern of Victorian England, the pattern of the forties, the sixties, and the eighties, into sweaters and socks, to the tune of gossip as formalized as incantations…


I mean, you can just hear that gossip, can’t you? 


Later, Rosemary’s mother (who is traveling with her) encourages her to pursue a relationship with Dick, if she wants. Her reasoning is fascinating, and not exactly wrong. 


“You were brought up to work - not especially to marry. Now you’ve found your first nut to crack and it’s a good nut - go ahead and put whatever happens down to experience. Wound yourself or him - whatever happens it can’t spoil you because economically you’re a boy, not a girl.”


That’s both the double standard and the moral panic over feminism in a nutshell, isn’t it? Since Rosemary doesn’t need to marry well to avoid starvation, she doesn’t need to market her virginity. She is economically able to function as a male, not a female. And this is why feminism terrifies fundamentalist sorts: economic independence for females means that they no longer have to submit to ownership by a male. And if they want to fuck, they can go ahead and do it, without worrying about losing their ability to sell their bodies to husbands, or be unable to support a child. (Also, abortion was more available in Europe back then, so wealth there as well meant options for women.) I myself know plenty of women who, like Rosemary, did what they wanted, and found men for whom ownership (and thus virginity) wasn’t that important. 


I mentioned that the psychology was a bit outdated. I should also note that Fitzgerald is also occasionally sexist as hell. Although, for his era of male writers, definitely not the worst. Here is the one truly terrible line - and one that is essentially undermined by most of the rest of the book. 


Reading the inscription Rosemary burst into sudden tears. Like most women, she liked to be told how she should feel, and she liked Dick’s telling her which things were ludicrous and which things were sad. 


I have no idea if there is a generational thing going on here, but in my own experience, most women do not appreciate being told how they should feel. Just saying. Fortunately, the book as whole is much more respectful of women as strong characters. Another line in the same passage struck me as good. 


Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy - one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.


This is true - I can look back on a lot of times like this. There is a reason that “live in the moment” is often such good and necessary advice. You don’t always know which moments will, in retrospect, be those best of times. 


Speaking of pithy truths, here is one that comes from the mouth of Nicole, so maybe something Scott borrowed from Zelda? That would be interesting. 


“Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do - they think other people’s opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval.”


Fitzgerald also nails it when it comes to the first infatuation - and the contrast later is also well drawn. Here is the first one:


They were still in the happier stages of love. They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered. They both seemed to have arrived there with an extraordinary innocence as though as series of pure accidents had driven them together, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine. 


For Dick, disillusionment comes first. Compare this line from much later in the book. 


The past drifted back and he wanted to hold her eloquent giving-of-herself in its precious shell, till he enclosed it, till it no longer existed outside him. He tried to collect all that might attract her - it was less than it had been four years ago. Eighteen might look at thirty-four through a rising mist of adolescence; but twenty-two would see thirty-eight with discerning clarity. Moreover, Dick had been at an emotional peak at the time of the previous encounter; since then there had been a lesion of enthusiasm. 


This is, of course, why mediocre white male predators love going after teen girls. The age brings naivety, and they are easy to impress. Not so much when they get older. The creepy Duck Dynasty guy was (for better or worse) speaking for patriarchy when he advised guys to marry 15-year-old girls - before they are too old to object to plucking your ducks. Fitzgerald is very self-aware here, and I think deliberately notes that Dick cannot hope to impress Rosemary the same way now that she is more experienced. Dick’s instinct to not sleep with her previously was correct, and likely better for Rosemary, even if it means Dick suffers in his own mind. 


I also should quote a little dig at Americans that Fitzgerald gets in. Dick’s partner, Franz, notes that Dick can write crap and have flings without a loss of reputation, at least in America. 


“You are an American. You can do this without professional harm. I do not like these generalities. Soon you will be writing little books called ‘Deep Thoughts for the Layman,’ so simplified that they are positively guaranteed not to cause thinking.”


I mean, Fitzgerald anticipated Deepak Chopra and the whole “inspiration lite” marketing machine, didn’t he? It’s as if he knew his countrymen all too well.


The second half of the book is pretty dark, but I have to say that the way Fitzgerald writes about the implosion of Dick and Nicole and their marriage is amazing. He knows dysfunction so well, even if he can’t cure it in himself. And along the way, there are so many perceptive lines. Like this one, from Dick, about why he hates Rome. 


“I like France, where everybody thinks he’s Napoleon - down here everybody thinks he’s Christ.” 


Later, Fitzgerald describes a cop as follows:


He had possessed the arrogance of a tall member of a short race, with no obligation, save to be tall. 


Actually, that applies to tall members of tall races too. We all know those tall guys who seem to genuinely expect that all they have to do in life is be tall, and everyone else will bow down. I’m a short guy, and this has always rankled. 


Another great - and devastating - description comes when Dick is sent to evaluate a potential patient. (From a rich family, of course.) 


These interviews were much of a type. Often the sheer hysteria of the family representative was as interesting psychologically as the condition of the patient. 


I’ll end with one that comes from Nicole’s thoughts, as she sees that her marriage is ending, that Dick knows of her affair with Tommy Barban, and that he is far ahead of her in planning. I think it applies to more than the situation, though - it is more of a universal truth. 


She had somehow given over the thinking to him, and in his absences her every action seemed automatically governed by what he would like, so that now she felt inadequate to match her intentions against his. Yet think she must; she knew at last the number on the dreadful door of fantasy, the threshold to the escape that was no escape; she knew that for her the greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herself. It had been a long lesson but she had learned it. Either you think - or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you. 


Damn. So many find it comforting not to have to think. Hence the attraction of Fundamentalism and Fascism. And hence the way that so many have surrendered their power and their own selves to ideology, or to a person, or perhaps a spouse or parent. The process of disillusionment is what is described here - losing one’s illusions, realizing that you can no longer allow someone else to think for you, to dictate unchallenged. For Nicole, she has never really been herself - she put off her own healthiness to be “cured” by Dick. Note how this quote really undermines the whole “women want to be told how to feel” claim near the beginning of the book.


Ironically, Nicole is seen to essentially thrive after she leaves Dick, at least as far as we know. In real life, after Scott and Zelda separated, she spent most of the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions, increasingly ill. It is kind of a sad postscript. One wonders if modern medication and treatment might have saved her from her fate. But it is fascinating that Fitzgerald gives the imaginary stand-in for Zelda a happy ending. Perhaps he wished better for her. 


I definitely enjoyed reading this book, and consider it the best of the Fitzgerald books I have read. No shade on the others, though. He was definitely one of the great American writers of the Twentieth Century. And Tender is the Night IS better than The Great Gatsby.  




I can’t resist linking a bit of Jackson Browne here. Enjoy. 



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