F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Tender Is the Night”

Naturally after reading Calvin TomkinsLiving Well Is the Best Revenge I would turn to the battered Scribner Classic paperback of Tender Is the Night that’s been on my bookshelf apparently since 1972. (Juvenile marginalia — so difficult to live down!) What I remembered of the novel was the Riviera section, when Nicole and Dick Diver have first come to their sleepy little town near Cannes. Fitzgerald obviously made the setting unforgettably vivid, a careful self-conscious simplicity in that blazing maritime landscape. But there’s much more to Tender Is the Night than this portion: In fact there are probably three or four novels wrestling for supremacy between the covers, with Dick Diver at the center of each one.

I had forgotten that Diver was a psychiatrist. The initial section of the book, entitled “Case History,” lays out Dick’s background and his initial relationship with the rich and crazy Nicole Warren. Thus we’re introduced to the durable and fascinating conflict at the heart of Tender Is the Night: Dick’s relationship to Nicole as doctor and husband. Charm, passion, responsibility, loneliness, anger, boredom, protectiveness, indifference — there’s lots going on here and I especially admired Fitzgerald when at the end of the book he shifted the gravity in the relationship and gave the power  to a newly capable Nicole as Dick succumbs to melancholy and alcoholism. Oh, this is very, very sad.

So is the sense of the passage of time. The novel covers a mere thirteen years, between 1917 and 1930, but it’s a time of ferment and change in Europe. The charming Riviera town becomes developed, then it  becomes vulgar. Dick loses his idealism and his kindness. Everything, everyone disappoints.

Then there’s the question of Nicole’s money. Dick falls for the beautiful girl who happens to come from an enormously rich family. He is clever enough to see the net he’s falling into, but he falls anyway. Nicole’s money places an immense strain on his self-respect as, over the years, he becomes less a doctor than his wife’s keeper.

But finally Fitzgerald, without highlighting it, alludes to Dick Diver’s plight: his craving to be loved, his puzzlement about how to love. Having alighted instead on caretaking, he finally grasps his error: “It was awful that such a fine tower [Nicole’s personality] should not be erected, only suspended, suspended from him… Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not opposite and complementary; she was Dick, too, the drought in the marrow of his bones. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.”

A lot of this is a mess. There are too many characters, too many incidents, too many coincidences. But on most pages there are throwaway gleams of that beautiful prose of Fitzgerald’s: “‘I thought you’d be along any day now,’ Brady said, in a voice that was just a little too compelling for private life…”  And over all, a residue of corrosive regret.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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10 Responses to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Tender Is the Night”

  1. I have always really loved this book, flaws and all. When I walk into a room (if it is an important moment and I am nervous), I always think about how Dick Diver would enter a room without twitching, adjusting his collar, scratching his chin, fiddling with his tie. I don’t remember the specific passage, but when I read it as a college eighteen, decided that is how I wanted to always enter a room as well.

    I forgot he was a psychiatrist, too! Now I will have to read it again!

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes! I remember that very clearly! It’s a fascinating book because you can kind of sense Fitzgerald zooming in and out of some kind of authorial focus. Some of it is so solid, and some of it is so not — but the central premise of DIck and Nicole, as if on a see-saw of sanity… It’s something. And BTW does anybody even read Fitzgerald any more besides Gatsby? And if not, why not?

  2. Merel says:

    I read this book for the first time the summer before last, on a beach in Italy. Thanks for talking about it, and reminding me of the combination of that great summer combined with Fitzgerald’s lovely writing …

  3. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Merel, that’s one of those wonderful ideal reading situations, isn’t it? I keep thinking of the sun and sand and those beach umbrellas and Nicole with her pearls. You must have felt like one of them! (Good thing or bad thing? Not clear…)

  4. Annie says:

    I haven’t read any Fitzgerald in years, decades even, but your last couple of posts have made me realise I have to find time and go bak and re-read it as a more mature (I hope) person than I was the first time round, when I was simply swept away by the romance of it all. I don’t think I’ve even got any on my shelf. It’ll have to be the bookshops in the morning.

  5. carolwallace says:

    That’s it, Annie — this was one of those readings where you are dogged by the ghost of yourself at an impressionable age. And you’re so right to mention the “romance” of FSFitzgerald. So it was odd to read this as a lady of mature years. Rewarding, though!

  6. Katherine Fuller Mendez says:

    Dear Carol,
    TENDER IS THE NIGHT upset the Murphys a great deal. The incident in the novel regarding dirty bathwater and a contagious child was a slightly altered event which occured between Zelda and Sara Murphy. Remember, the two sons of Gerald and Sara died in their teens, one of TB and the other of a mastoid infection. The Murphys were very sensitive about illness as a result. The sorrow of losing two of his three children is why Gerald never painted again as opined by Amanda Vaill. Also the incident of the shooting in the train station came from Alice de Jonze shooting her lover at the Gare de Nord. Of course we know consorting with writers can be dangerous; who knows what vignette will be recounted? For me the problem with TENDER IS THE NIGHT is I read it at age thirteen and used it as a guide to life and glamour until very recently.


  7. carolwallace says:

    Yes, Katherine, I know what you mean about using TENDER as some kind of how-to. (Though I did cringe at Sara/Nicole wearing her pearls on the beach!) It all seemed a little self-conscious to me this time around, though Tomkins argues for the Murphys’ authenticity. I LOVE knowing that was Alice de Janze with the gun!

  8. Pingback: Paula McLain, “The Paris Wife” « Book Group of One

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