Naturally after reading Calvin Tomkins‘ Living 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.