Sunday, July 06, 2014

Tender Is the Night (1934)

Tender Is the Night seems to come up a lot as the novel to read next by F. Scott Fitzgerald if you like The Great Gatsby. People genuinely seem to go for it. The 1998 Modern Library list of greatest 20th-century novels, for example—which has Gatsby at #2 (behind the inevitable Ulysses)—puts Tender Is the Night at no less than #28. It's ahead of, among others, All the King's Men, The Call of the Wild, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Maltese Falcon, Pale Fire, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sister Carrie, and many others that seem plainly much better to me. I will echo the sentiment that if you like Gatsby you might as well try Tender, but in my experience it's a sad pile of fragments by comparison. This may be partly a reflection of how much I like The Great Gatsby—a favorite of mine for its brilliant structuring, its perfect vantage from which to observe the '20s high life on Long Island, the way it subtly expands to encompass something as universal and persistent as the American Dream itself, and of course for the beauty of the language. The language in Tender Is the Night is about as beautiful as ever, I can confirm that. That was Fitzgerald's enduring gift, and it's there at least in flashes in practically everything he did. I can also throw in the personal caveat that the whole Zelda / Paris-in-the-'20s thing (see the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris for a primer on the basic cliches) has never much impressed me. I recall a time when it seemed like everyone I knew was reading Nancy Milford's Zelda biography and mooning over the romance. Maybe I missed an opportunity. Maybe reading it would help me understand Tender Is the Night better. But I do think fiction has to stand on its own, without the necessity of "understanding" factual underpinnings. And honestly, the ignorance on display in Tender Is the Night about mental illness should be enough to put anyone off nowadays. It's certainly something anyone reading it should bear in mind. Fitzgerald's fictionalized retelling of his and Zelda's trials and tribulations, while affecting in moments, feels constantly labored and overworked to me. A miasma of all too understandable depression hangs over it—understandable, but not a winning formula. It's often unpleasant too; there is something between the principals but it doesn't feel like love. It's not much surprise to learn the novel can also be taken as one more artifact from perhaps the most painful case of writer's block in literary history. Approach with caution.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Hey, Jeff, Richard Riegel again, we seem to be on the same page currently, as for the past few weeks, I've been reading "The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald," a 1989 collection edited by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli, and enjoying it immensely. Interestingly, in his intros to the individual stories, Bruccoli describes certain ones as coming from "the Gatsby cluster" or "the Tender Is the Night cluster," as Fitzgerald was trying out ideas and situations he then used in those respective novels, and I think some of the Tender cluster stories especially, work better than the novel itself, at least per my long-ago reading of it. So far, Gatsby is the only Fitzgerald novel I've read more than once, but I've gone back to the short stories repeatedly. His writing is just SO good, even if you don't quite share his sexual fetish for class consciousness.

    When you mention Fitzgerald's "all too understandable depression" in dealing with his marital and other personal troubles while writing "Tender Is the Night", you can add the big-D Depression to that, as he was absolutely flummoxed by the stock market crash and what that did to his vision of America. All along, he'd portrayed the basic sold-American fantasy that if you got the right amount of money, you got the right girl, and even though his own Gatsby denied the truth of that outlook, it never quite departed from Fitzgerald's own intense romanticism. But when the Depression put so many American writers into a We're-all-proletarians-now! mood, Fitzgerald had no idea how to deal with that revolutionary world, and clung to his tattered romanticism throughout the Thirties; it definitely informed "Tender Is the Night".

    I'd just been thinking that the Fitzgerald novel I DO want to re-read now is "This Side of Paradise", his first, published in 1920 when he was only 23. When I graduated from college in June 1968, that was the very first book I read that tumultuous draftbait summer. I thought that since Fitzgerald had accomplished it so precociously, it might give me some ideas about getting connected as a young writer. By now, I recall nothing about it, and I don't think it figured into my eventual screeds for CREEM. Could be time for another look, though.

  2. Thanks Richard! Great point about the Great Depression and the Fitzgerald depression -- being so in step with the '20s inevitably left him way out of step for the decade that followed, and by all indications (especially the memoir fragments in The Crack-Up) he never knew what hit him. It's what makes him suspect to this day. The 1%er wannabe from St. Paul. But I also sympathize in a way because I know what it feels like to go out of step with your country in your 20s and 30s. Let me know what you think of This Side of Paradise if you get back to it. I remember being unimpressed with it in my main Fitzgerald phase. And thanks for reminding me about the stories -- haven't really looked at any for a long time and I should remedy that.

  3. Long-in-coming followup to my comment above: I've just finished reading "Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald", by Kendall Taylor (Ballantine: 2001), which I found on the shelf at my branch library. In regard to Fitzgerald's apparent "writer's block" after Gatsby, I'd known all along that he was bedeviled by Zelda's mental illness and his own alcoholism during that period, but I didn't realize how severe both afflictions were until I read Taylor's biography of their relationship. It's a wonder Fitzgerald got anything written in the '30s.

    The other surprise for me is how amazing a writer Zelda Sayre F. was in her own right. I've never gotten around to reading her novel "Save Me the Waltz", but now I want to, after seeing all the quotes from her letters and other sources in Taylor's book. Zelda had an unbelievable vocabulary and facility in putting words together in striking expressions. Some of the things she wrote after her schizophrenia was more advanced seem almost avant-garde, as though from an era much later than when she was writing them.

    And Scott was among the fans of Zelda's writing, using verbatim excerpts from her letters and diaries in his own books, especially "The Beautiful and Damned". Zelda was a willing model for Daisy in Gatsby, among other of Scott's characters, but he didn't return the favor, as her "Save Me the Waltz" originally had a long section based on the protagonist living with an alcoholic like Scott, but he forced her to cut that out before he would allow their mutual publisher Scribner's to issue her book. And then he compounded that stab in the back by describing a mental illness like Zelda's in a character in his own "Tender Is the Night".

    Zelda had real talents in dance and art as well as writing, but each time she wanted to start her own career in any of these fields, Scott would discourage her, causing unhappiness that exacerbated her mental problems. While I don't appreciate Scott's same-old-male double standard, at the same time, I believe that ironically Zelda brought on some of that, as when they were first dating in 1918-19, she wouldn't agree to marry him until he could prove that he could support her, which he finally did when he got the Scribner's contract for "This Side of Paradise". But for somebody like Scott, with his lifelong, consuming anxieties about making enough money, he may have been secretly afraid Zelda would leave him if he ever failed her youthful insistence on being supported. She eventually outgrew that psychic need, but Scott never lost his economic paranoia.

    Ah, just two such beautiful writers married to each other, with both dying sick and much too young. But I want to read more and more of their prose, especially Zelda's, now that I know how special it was.

    Madder but wiser, Richard Riegel

  4. Thanks Richard. That's great information. I've heard good things about Zelda's writing myself but haven't sampled yet. Sad about FScott suppressing things that were unflattering to him. Boo!