Truth and Beauty: Tender Is the Night

While traveling in Spain I finally read Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. It seemed a nice “continental” choice for a trip to Europe.

I have a soft spot for Scott (whom I occasionally call by his first name). Raymond Chandler felt that Fitzgerald just missed being a great writer, and I can see his point: an awful lot of Fitzgerald’s work is either not quite formed (his first two novels, which honestly I have been so far unable to finish) or commercial and vaguely hacky (much of his short fiction, although many of his stories are beautiful and completely honest). Someone once said Fitzgerald is a writer best discovered when young, and as a no-longer-quite-young person, I think that’s true. He has a young person’s longing to be swept up and away, a young person’s ideals, a young person’s eagerness to admire — even to worship — and to mold himself in a beautiful and noble image.

Yet while I am no longer able to look at life quite as breathlessly as his characters do, I sympathize with, and even admire, their determination to live in a kind of refined and rarefied grace. I am nearly Fitzgerald’s age when he died, and I marvel at how strong his idealist streak remained through years that tried him severely. I can’t remember where I read it, but I recall he once described Tender Is the Night as a “testament of faith.” Partly it was simply faith in himself, in his ability to persevere while living with a mad wife, deepening debts and dwindling inspiration. And partly it was faith that the beautiful illusion was still worth cherishing, worth nurturing, worth bringing, however improbably, toward reality. Beauty is truth, as Keats said and Fitzgerald believed, and it’s no coincidence that a Keats verse inspired the novel’s title.

The beauty of Tender lies in its characterizations, both those of the human characters and the settings they inhabit. Fitzgerald shows us a French Riviera that is sun-baked, aloof and rather incomplete without the cosmopolitan visitors who give it life. He draws us into the action, as he did in The Great Gatsby, through an observer, the young film star Rosemary Hoyt. Like many Fitzgerald heroines, she inspires and expects admiration, but her vanity is excused by her youth, and we admire her seriousness, her sense of duty, and her devotion to her mother, even if it sometimes borders on idolatry. Through her we meet an array of colorful, briskly drawn characters: dissolute Abe North, the crass, volatile McKiscos, and Tommy Barban, a hotheaded brawler with a surprising gift for biding his time. At the heart of the novel lies the golden couple Dick and Nicole Diver, who appear to the naive Rosemary to have everything: looks, money, poise, discernment, and a knack for making everything around them seem charged with exclusivity and promise. The talented psychiatrist Dick, in particular, has a preternatural gift for social life. To be included in his company is to feel an elevated sense of privilege, to perceive oneself as an irreplaceable component of a fragile, evanescent moment in time. Dick Diver seems to have successfully elevated living itself to the realm of art, and it makes him irresistible.

The Divers, as every American lit student knows, are based on Gerald and Sara Murphy, a pair of expatriate socialites who counted among their circle of friends pretty much everyone you would have wanted to know if you were at all interested in the post-war arts scene: Hemingway, Picasso, Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, Dorothy Parker, and, to their eventual consternation, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Like the Divers, the Murphys were wealthy but not gauche, trendsetters rather than followers, and had a gift for la dolce vita (or whatever that would be in French) that made them seem even more brilliant than they undoubtedly were. Virtually everyone who came into the Murphys’ orbit rhapsodized about them, as the rootless expats in Tender rhapsodize about the Divers. But Fitzgerald had bigger things in mind than a fictionalized biography of two of his friends, and that ambition elevates the novel to near-greatness — and provides its fatal flaw.

The problem is that Dick and Nicole aren’t just based on Gerald and Sara Murphy; they’re based just as much on Scott and Zelda, and for all his ecstatic prose and pulpy plot twists (including a duel with pistols and a corpse found in Rosemary’s bedroom), Scott can’t fully hide the seams. As Rosemary moves deeper into the Divers’ world, she falls in love with Dick and also discovers the couple’s dark secret: Nicole is schizoid, and Dick fell in love with her when she was his patient. Their marriage uneasily combines romance and therapy, devotion and obligation, and as Dick comes to reciprocate Rosemary’s affections and Nicole grows increasingly restive in her role as patient and wife, it unravels and eventually falls apart.

Like Scott Fitzgerald, Dick Diver started his career with a meteoric publishing success but has latterly found himself treading water, fiddling with a vast follow-up volume he can’t make any progress on. (The theme of squandered potential recurs again and again in Tender, from Abe North, a once-promising composer who hasn’t written in years, to young Rosemary Hoyt, who cannot find a success to match that of her first breakout role, in a film called, with suitable Freudian resonance, Daddy’s Girl. The title is doubly gruesome, referring not only to Rosemary’s child-like worship of Dick but to Nicole’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father which drove her to madness.) Like Scott, Dick’s mentally ill wife drains him of his creativity and ambitions. And like Scott, Dick drowns his frustration in drink, and drink makes him an asshole and eventually a pariah. In real life, the temperate Murphys cast the sodden Fitzgerald out of their circle after Scott lobbed a garbage can over their garden wall; in the novel, Dick has to carry both the worst of Scott Fitzgerald and the best of Gerald Murphy in his own person, and the combination never fully convinces. For all of Tender’s focus on psychology, Fitzgerald was not a psychological writer in the way someone like Henry James was. What inspired him was personality: that “unbroken series of successful gestures” (as Nick Carraway calls it in The Great Gatsby) by which a person makes himself, like a self-creating deity from mythology, into an object of fascination, grace and beauty. This dynamic, simultaneously noble and absurd, helps to make Gatsby (and its title character) so sympathetic and enduring. Gatsby may be an empty suit, but his emptiness has an integrity: it is all of a piece, the honest core of a man who has chosen to be a surface and to treat the rest of the world as if it were just as artificial, and ripe for reinvention, as himself.

The reason why Dick Diver fails to come convincingly to life is that his creator didn’t fully understand the man who inspired him. An admirer of successful surfaces, Fitzgerald could not see beneath the gestures of Gerald Murphy’s life to the traits that motivated them. The result is a character who, for the love of a starlet half his age, throws away everyone and everything he cares about. One feels neither sympathy for a weak man unable to resist his appetites, nor justified indignation at the callow machinations of a cad. Dick’s fall is not tragic but phlegmatic — he does not have Gatsby’s absurd, touching faith in the rightness of his own destiny. Dick’s desire for a younger woman, and for a renewal of the sense of purpose he felt as a young man, are banal, and Fitzgerald doesn’t do banal — banality is the very thing his characters long to escape.

Fitzgerald imagines the Divers’ marriage as something like a donkey elevator, in which one car could not rise without the other, opposing car falling. As Dick starts to lose himself in his love for Rosemary, Nicole grows more capable and confident. By the novel’s end, Nicole is embarking on a new life with Tommy Barban, her troubles seemingly behind her, while Dick, friendless and on the downward slope of his career, fades into obscurity. As psychology, this is absurd: marriages don’t function on Newtonian principles, certainly not one in which one partner is schizophrenic and the other a hopeless alcoholic. Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda took its toll on him, but Zelda did no better in the bargain. Nicole and Dick’s doomed marriage feels like something between redemptive fantasy and painful settling of accounts: Scott lays the blame for his stalled career firmly on Zelda while imagining that his sacrifice was at least worthwhile — that Zelda might have taken his strength and been healed by it. But Scott doesn’t seem to know why this would have happened, and Nicole’s redemption (from a disturbed socialite to a woman redeemed by the love of Tommy Barban) is even more opaque and baffling than Dick’s disgrace.

What I found most rewarding in Tender Is the Night was the myriad ways in which Scott explored, analyzed and obsessed over his own dissolution. Dick Diver is just the most obvious of the novel’s Fitzgerald stand-ins. Abe North carries out the same kind of drunken antics for which Fitzgerald himself became notorious; I am convinced that a prank referred to in the early sections, in which Abe was thrown out of a restaurant for attempting to saw a waiter in half (“Wouldn’t you like to know what was inside a waiter?”), came directly from Fitzgerald’s own life. Dick Diver eventually washes his hands of North, exactly as Gerald Murphy finally had had enough of Scott. Albert McKisco doesn’t find success as a writer until he takes to dumbing down others’ ideas for mass consumption, becoming the hack crowd-pleaser Fitzgerald felt he had become. (“They pay the old whore $4,000 a screw now,” he wrote to Hemingway, referring to the then-astronomical fees his short stories earned.) As a chronicler of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald never shied away from showing what happened after the party ended, and the characters in Tender Is the Night seem trapped in an endless, Dantean hangover. Everyone’s best days are behind them (even, it seems, young Rosemary Hoyt’s), and no one save for Nicole and Tommy seem to have any idea what to make of the days that remain. Perhaps only a writer as enthralled with youth as Fitzgerald could feel the disappointments of middle age so acutely. Gatsby never lived to see his beautiful surface pit and scar with age, while Nicole Diver must ruefully watch the mirror for signs of sagging and stiffening flesh, and Dick ponders a professional legacy that seems to diminish before his eyes. Not a beautiful vision of life — but a true one.