Wednesday, November 16, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is The Night (1934)

Where do you go after Gatsby?  I went where Fitzgerald went, and frankly part of me wishes I hadn't;  Tender is the Night is such a different book, so much sadder.  More than anything it made me want to rush back and read his earlier, lighter things.  Flappers and Philosophers is next.

Other than that, I can't figure out how I feel about it.  Conventionally, probably.  I mean, I expect most everybody feels that the opening chapters, when we see the Gausse's crowd through Rosemary's eyes, gradually leading up to her/our encounters with Dick and Nicole Diver, are the most memorable. And it's no coincidence that those are the most Gatsby-like chapters, full of rich and beautiful people doing things that only rich and beautiful people can.

Once we start to see life from Dick and Nicole's perspective, they lose a lot of their appeal.  Which is, of course, part of Fitzgerald's brilliance in this book:  he's destroying their glamor for us, by showing us the insecurities and instabilities that lie behind it.

But that's not quite right, because if he had effectively destroyed their glamor for me, wouldn't I remember the opening scenes a little less fondly?  And yet a passage like this one floors me still (p. 21 of the Scribner paperback):
Simultaneously the whole party moved toward the water, supper-ready from the long, forced inaction, passing from the heat to the cool with the gourmandise of a tingling curry eaten with chilled white wine.  The Divers' day was spaced like the day of the older civilizations to yield the utmost from the materials at hand, and to give all the transitions their full value...
I mean, no matter how much skepticism Fitzgerald turns toward this kind of luxurious living, it's still what he's best at describing.  Maybe he's good at it because he's skeptical of it, but as Greil Marcus once wrote about somebody else in a different context, I think Fitzgerald's attitude toward it is a loud yes and a quiet no, rather than the other way around...

In that passage I love, by the way, how he translates all of the Divers' pleasure-taking into foodie terms.  They consume their days with the discernment and deliberation of a gourmet.

There's another metaphor he uses for it, at least twice, that of curating.  On p. 258, describing the Divers moving back to the Riviera and the obscene number of possessions they take with them, he notes that "Nicole was capable of being curator of it all."  And then he proceeds to list them all.

You see this term popping up these days, too.  I don't know if Fitzgerald invented this usage, but it's a brilliant one in his book, because it perfectly captures the self-absorption of the hedonist who in his/her mind gives his/her material indulgences the dignity of scholarly or aesthetic pursuits.  That is, there are certain objects, and certain collections of objects, and certain settings for those collections, that require and deserve the kind of discernment and care that justify the term "curator" - but your luggage ain't it.  Your iTunes playlist ain't it.  Your spice rack ain't it. 

My blog ain't it.


Cat said...

I love this post--thank you! It's been a surprisingly long time since I've read *Tender Is the Night*, surprisingly long given that I teach *Gatsby* almost every year. Everything you say here rings true to me. *Tender Is the Night* frustrates me more than *Gatsby*, I think, because so much of Fitzgerald's critique of hedonism and the modern generation's directionlessness centers on the figure of the sexualized and object-obsessed woman. This is true in *Gatsby* as it is in *Tender Is the Night*, but somehow it bothers me more in the increasingly manipulative and dangerous Nicole than in the simpler femme fatale Daisy (though obviously the two are incarnations of each other). Also, Dick's fantasy of returning to a simpler girl is chastened by the sense that all women are somehow commercial and manufactured in the modern period, as Rosemary is the little-girl-lost movie star. These themes are present in *Gatsby* undoubtedly (Jordan the cheating golf celebrity, the would-be starlets at Gatsby's party), and yet they frustrate me more in *Tender Is the Night* because Dick's mournful lostness is so much the psychological center of the novel. Somehow Nick is more cynical and Jay is more idealistic in a way that doesn't ask me to feel terrible on behalf of men who don't know what to be when the option of being the traditional patriarch is taken away...Anyhow, those are somewhat rambling thoughts about the novel, but your remarks about Nicole's curating sparked them because it seems like women hold this crucial relationship to objects in the book...because they threaten to become objects themselves, both in a way that seems passive (Nicole as patient or lover to be exchanged) and in a way that seems dangerously active (Nicole as implacable barrier to Dick's desires). Her narcissism, invested in objects, turns her self into an object too.

Tanuki said...

Thanks for the comment, Cat! God, I'd love to be in your Gatsby class. I haven't discussed Fitzgerald in a classroom situation since my junior year in high school.

All of what you say about his treatment of the female characters, and Dick's yearning for patriarchal authority, is true, and something that I had been aware of without being aware of it, so to speak. I'm so glad you mention it.

It helps me realize that, for a book that's all about beauty, there's something really ugly at the heart of it. And I don't mean something as simplistic as "F. Scott is sexist." I mean, the book is so full of self-pity.

Like, if we take Dick as Fitzgerald's self-portrait, and Nicole as his portrait of Zelda, then it's F. Scott bellyaching that this woman ruined him. If that's too simplistic - if we're meant to assume that there's more fictionalization going on - then, what, it's saying that the psychologist, the artist, the only one who Truly Understands, is doomed to be used up and discarded by those he helps with his precious insights? Martyr complex much?

I don't think that by saying that I'm trying to say that it's a lousy book - the writing hasn't lost a step, and some of the scenes have great power. But, hmm...