Fitzgerald's Ideas Were Solid. His Books Were a Little More...

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BOOKS MARCH 27, 2014

Fitzgerald's Ideas Were Solid. His Books Were a Little More Convoluted.

Breakdown
Malcolm Cowley
June 6, 1934

Today is the anniversary of Malcolm Cowley's death in 1989.

“Tender is the Night” is a good novel that puzzles you and ends by making you a little angry because it isn’t a great novel also. It doesn’t give the feeling of being complete in itself.

The theme of it is stated in a conversation among the three principal characters. “What did this to him?” Rosemary asks. They are talking about Abe North, an American composer who became prominent shortly after the War. He was shy and very talented; often he came to stay with Dick and Nicole Diver in their villa near the Cap d’Antibes and they scarcely knew he was there—“sometimes he’d he in the library with a muted piano, making love to it by the hour.” But for years now he hadn’t been working; his eyes had a hurt look; he got drunk every day as if trying to escape from nobody knew what. And Rosemary wondered, “Why does he have to drink?”

Nicole shook her head right and left, disclaiming responsibility for the matter: “So many smart men go to pieces nowadays.”

“And when haven’t they?” Dick asked. “Smart men play close to the line because they have to—some of them can’t stand it, so they quit.”

“It must lie deeper than that. . . . Artists like—well, like Fernand don’t seem to have to wallow in alcohol. Why is it just Americans who dissipate?”

There were so many answers to this question that Dick decided to leave it in the air, to buzz victoriously in Nicole’s ears.

The question remains victoriously buzzing in the reader’s ears long after the story has ended. Fitzgerald tries to answer it, but obliquely. He tells us why Dr. Richard Diver went to pieces—because he married a rich woman and became so dependent on her money that his own work seemed unimportant and he no longer had a purpose in living; that is the principal reason, although he is also shaken by his love for Rosemary and by Nicole’s recurrent fits of insanity, during one of which she came near killing not only her husband and herself but also their two children. Dick’s case seems clear enough—but what about Abe North, whose wife was poor and sane and devoted? What about the other nice people who ended as lunatics or drunkards? Fitzgerald is continually suggesting and reiterating these questions that he leaves in the air.

The Divers and their friends are, in reality, the characters he has always written about, and written well. They are the richer members of his own generation, the young women who learned to smoke and pet in 1917 and the Yale and Princeton men who attended their coming-out parties in new uniforms. In his early books, especially in “This Side of Paradise,” he celebrated the youth of these people in a tone of unmixed pride—“Here we are,” he seemed to be saying, “the children of the conquerors, the free and beautiful and very wicked youngsters who are setting the standards for a nation.” Later, when he described their business careers and their life in great country houses on the north shore of Long Island, his admiration began to be mixed with irony and disillusionment. In the present novel, which chronicles their years of exile, the admiration has almost completely vanished; the prevailing tone is one of disillusionment mixed with nostalgia. “We had good times together,” Fitzgerald seems to say, “but that was a long time ago.” Dick Diver is now an unsuccessful drunken country doctor, divorced and living somewhere in central New York State. Rosemary is an empty and selfish movie star; Abe North is dead, killed brawling in a speakeasy—all the kind and sensitive people of their circle have gone to pieces, and there remain only the “wooden and onanistic” women like Nicole’s sister, only the arrivistes like Albert McKisco and the cultivated savages like Tommy Barban. A whole class has flourished and decayed and suddenly broken into fragments.

Here is a magnificent subject for a novel. The trouble is that Fitzgerald has never completely decided what kind of novel he wanted to write—whether it should center round a single hero or deal with a whole group. Both types of approach are present, the individual and the collective, and they interfere with each other. We are conscious of a divided purpose that perhaps goes back to a division in the author himself.

Fitzgerald has always been the poet of the American upper bourgeoisie; he has been the only writer able to invest their lives with glamor. Yet he has never been sure that he owed his loyalty to the class about which he was writing. It is as if he had a double personality. Part of him is a guest at the ball given by the people in the big house; part of him has been a little boy peeping in through the window and being thrilled by the music and the beautifully dressed women—a romantic but hard-headed little boy who stops every once in a while to wonder how much it all cost and where the money came from. (Fitzgerald says, “There is a streak of vulgarity in me that I try to cultivate.”) In his early books, this divided personality was wholly an advantage: it enabled him to portray American society from the inside, and yet at the same time to surround it with an atmosphere of magic and romance that exists only in the eyes of people watching at the carriage entrance as the guests arrive in limousines. Since those days, however, the division has been emphasized and has become a liability. The little boy outside the window has grown mature and cold-eyed: from an enraptured spectator he has developed into a social historian. At the same time, part of Fitzgerald remains inside, among the dancers. And now that the ball is ending in tragedy, he doesn’t know how to describe it—whether as a guest, a participant, in which case he will be writing a purely psychological novel; or whether from the detached point of view of a social historian.

There is another reason, too, for the technical faults of “Tender Is the Night.” Fitzgerald has been working on it at intervals for the last nine years, ever since he published “The Great Gatsby” in 1925. During these years his attitude has inevitably changed, as has that of every other sensitive writer. Yet no matter how much he revised his early chapters, he could not make them wholly agree with those written later—for once a chapter has assumed what seems to be a final shape, it undergoes a process of crystallization; it can no longer be remolded. The result is that several of his characters are self-contradictory: they don’t merely change as living creatures change; they transform themselves into different people.

If I didn’t like the book so much, I shouldn’t have spoken at such length about its shortcomings. It has virtues that deserve more space than I can give them here. Especially it has a richness of meaning and emotion—one feels that every scene is selected among many possible scenes and that every event has pressure behind it. There is nothing false or borrowed in the book: everything is observed at first hand. Some of the minor figures—especially Gausse, the hotel keeper who was once a bus boy in London, and Lady Caroline Sibley-Biers, who carries her English bad manners to the point of viciousness—are more vivid than Rosemary or Dick; and the encounter between Gausse and Lady Caroline is one of those enormous episodes in which two social castes are depicted melodramatically, farcically and yet convincingly in a brief conversation and one gesture.

Fitzgerald says that this book is his farewell to the members of his own generation; I hope he changes his mind. He has in him at least one great novel about them, and it is a novel that I want to read.

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PHOTO BY Wikimedia Commons/Carl Van Vechten
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