Problem: I loved The Great Gatsby.
No – that’s an understatement. I adored The Great Gatsby. There’s so much about Gatsby that’s utterly perfect – the novel’s structure is spot on. And that’s not even to begin to mention the way Fitzgerald so brilliantly brings Gatsby’s tragedy to life.
Another problem: I’ve become just a leeettle bit obsessed with Zelda Fitzgerald. I reviewed her only novel, Save Me The Waltz the week before last. Though I respect him as an author, the more I learn about F. Scott Fitzgerald as a person, the more I despise him. Though, as a writer, Fitzgerald has my complete respect.
Hmm. Conflicted much?
I can see that writing an objective review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night is going to be pretty much impossible…but, nonetheless, here it is anyway…
Tender is the Night
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1934
Tender is the Night was not the book I thought it’d be.
I was so sure F. Scott Fitzgerald would portray himself as the arrogant egomaniac I considered him before I started reading Tender is the Night. I was, of course, quite wrong. Tender is the Night shows us Fitzgerald at his most vulnerable. Of all his works, Tender is the novel that draws the most heavily on the author’s own life for inspiration – and it shows.
The novel opens when Rosemary Hoyt, a beautiful, eighteen year-old Hollywood starlet arrives on the French Riviera. On the beach, she meets Dick Diver; a much older, married man, and she falls for him instantly.
Dick and his wife, Nicole, form the very centre of the French Riviera scene of the Twenties. They’re young and attractive and rich – and fiercely in love. Their lavish parties are attended by everyone who’s anyone. Rosemary quickly becomes the latest member of their set.
Although Rosemary greatly admires Nicole, Dick’s graceful, ethereal wife, she’s not going to let her get in her way. Dick, at first, is faintly amused by Rosemary’s advances. She’s just a child, and he’s married. But gradually, Dick’s flattered ego takes over…
What Rosemary doesn’t realise is that the Divers’ marriage is built upon a dark secret. Nicole – perfect, beautiful Nicole is schizophrenic; a former mental patient. And Dick was – and still is – her psychiatrist.
After Dick’s infidelity, the Divers’ marriage will never be the same.
Much like The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night tells you the story to a certain point, then the novel backtracks to explain how things came to be the way they are.
But Tender isn’t Gatsby. Gatsby is tightly plotted and brilliantly executed. Reading Tender is the Night, you can’t help but notice that the novel’s structure is somewhat flawed. While the novel’s first third flows with near-perfect clarity, somewhere in the second part, the plot quickly loses all of its momentum, leaving the reader wondering where on earth Fitzgerald is going. There are so many subplots that just don’t seem to go anywhere – including an unsolved murder, office politics at Dick’s work, an entire section set in Rome…I was left wondering why Fitzgerald had included these episodes at all.
It took Fitzgerald nine years to write Tender is the Night. And amazingly, it still reads as if it could use work. A lot of work. Unfortunately, it’s a mess. It doesn’t help that, as the novel progresses, Dick spends more and more of his time in an alcoholic stupor, thus making things even more difficult to follow.
That’s not to say that Tender isn’t good writing. There are so many parts of Tender in which Fitzgerald’s writing is disarmingly lovely. And romantic! I’m a sucker for romance, and Tender is dotted with beautifully romantic passages:
“Walking in the garden later when it was quite dark he thought about [Nicole] with detachment, loving her for her best self. He remembered once when the grass was damp and she came to him on hurried feet, her thin slippers drenched with dew. She stood upon his shoes nestling close and held up her face, showing as a book open at a page.
‘Think how you love me,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember. Somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am to-night’.” (pages 219 and 220)
The problem with Tender is the Night is that all the great passages are wedged between great swathes of writing that, frustratingly, adds nothing to the story.
Although, at times, it might read like the product of a disorganised mind, Tender is still blisteringly intelligent. There’s a rich stream of symbolism that flows deep beneath the surface of Tender is the Night – it’s distant and difficult to follow, but I can see it there, sparkling and lovely – yet slightly, sadly out of my reach.
I hate to admit it, but Tender is the Night simply doesn’t work as a novel. How, for instance, are we meant to believe that Dick is a psychiatrist? Sure, Dick talks like a psychiatrist, he drops names like Freud and Jung. His study is full of books and papers and looks very impressive. But there’s more to creating a character who just happens to be a psychiatrist than just having him mention Freud every so often. For a psychiatrist, Dick sounds an awful lot like a frustrated writer…
Earlier in life, Dick wrote a psychiatry manual that was quite successful. Although he spends a lot of time trying to replicate this success, he’s somehow never able to recapture his past genius. A reference to Gatsby? Definitely.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I started reading Tender thinking of Fitzgerald as an egotist. And, at the opening of the novel, he didn’t disappoint. When we first meet Dick, he’s strong and virile and young. In contrast, once we learn Nicole’s secret, she’s portrayed as a dead weight; her illness is seen as something shameful.
But as the novel progresses, the balance of power within the relationship of our two protagonists changes, and inexorably, Dick is soon the one out of control. As Dick’s star falls, Nicole’s rises. By the end of the novel, Dick struggling against age, alcoholism and (metaphorical) impotence.
What kind of a man casts himself as a hero – then systematically tears himself down?
I wasn’t expecting to empathise with Dick, and by extension, Fitzgerald. But as the novel draws to a close, I can barely help it. Tender provides us an awful, almost awkward glimpse into Fitzgerald’s soul – the soul of a man who clearly couldn’t bear himself.
In a way Tender is the Night seems, at times, like Fitzgerald’s long, roundabout way of saying “I’ve wasted my life, and it’s all my crazy wife’s fault”. But even that’s oversimplifying things. Nicole levels the same accusation at Dick towards the end of the novel – and tellingly, Dick doesn’t offer a response. By the end of the novel, Fitzgerald has turned his alter ego into a monster.
As a novel, Tender is the Night is a mess. It’s too long, the writing is terribly confused and it’s built upon a structure that’s essentially flawed.
But as a tragedy, somehow, it’s effective. It operates at an emotional level. I wasn’t expecting to ever feel any sympathy for Dick Diver, but somehow, against the odds, I did. Even though I still think he’s a creep…
I can’t say I liked Tender is the Night, but I’m certainly not going to go forgetting it in a hurry. It’s a personal, desperately sad insight into a complicated man; a complicated relationship that quite possibly, I’ll never completely understand.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Hmm. Perhaps, if you liked Gatsby. But be warned – this isn’t simply more of the same.
In a word: