Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Tender is the night by F.Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes reading a book by a supposed 'great' author for the first time, especially a classic author, can be risky. Firstly there's the risk that the prose in the book is written in such a way that makes my modern brain unable to understand it. To a 21st century reader subtle hints and gestures can easily become lost in flowery prose. Then finally there's always a chance I won't be able to understand what all the fuss is about. I can have trouble understanding why a book is a beloved classic or why the author is considered a great?
I have great pleasure (and no small measure of relief) in saying that not only can I understand why Tender Is the Night is considered a great book but also the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact I now know what to go and read; Fitzgerald's other novels. perhaps I shouldn't have started with Tender Is the Night and can now only be disappointed?
The book is first told from Rosemary Hoyt's point of view. Rosemary, a young movie star, comes across Dick and Nicole Diver who live a rather lavish life in the French Rivera and she immediately falls in love with this golden couple. Rosemary follows Dick and Nicole firstly around the French Rivera and then around Paris. She sees first hand how this couple seem to captivate everyone around them, the parties and the close circle of friends all pivoting around Dick Diver. Dick the object of Rosemary's affections seems to have a unique seductive charm which seems to enthral everyone who meets him, heck even I wanted to run off and marry the guy while reading the first part of the book!
The second part is then told from Dick's point of view and takes place a few years on after Rosemary has left. We learn that Dick married Nicole after meeting her in a clinic where she was being treated for schizophrenia brought on by an incestuous relationship with her father. Years have gone by and Dick who used to be an aspiring psychiatrist now no longer has any drive in him and is living off his rich wife's money. This along with the stress of acting as doctor to his wife's illness over the years has taken it toll. The façade that we read about in the first part of the book is beginning to rapidly slip.
A lot is said about the prose in this book and words such as 'beautiful' and 'lyrical' are thrown about when describing it. For me though the pull of this book are the portrayals of the characters and the themes. Perhaps this is testament to the prose which, although beautiful, is also subtle and did not hinder the story or message in anyway.
The real skill in Fitzgerald's writing is the way I felt while reading this. As mentioned previously I wanted to run off and marry Dick Diver in the same way that Rosemary did in the first part, then later when I read the story from Nicole's perspective I felt just as irritated and as tired towards Dick as she did. I did not feel I was being manipulated into feeling these things by Fitzgerald rather that the characters were so well developed I could not help but feel connected to them.
There is an ultimate sadness running through this book. Sadness that these two people are no longer able to communicate, that Dick can no longer help his wife and that they spend their time travelling around Europe in a futile existence. The contempt that Dick and Nicole start to feel for each other is brilliantly written and you can almost feel the hatred sometimes radiating from the page.
'She spoke with such force that in his shocked state Dick wondered if he had been frightened for himself-but the shocked faces of the children, looking from parent to parent, made him want to grind her grinning mask into jelly.'
There is no right or wrong in this marriage. Dick feels he has 'failed' in both his professional life and in his inability to help Nicole. It's very easy to understand how he can become disillusioned and resentful after trying to hold everything together for so many years. Nicole has had a hard start with her father and now has a mental illness which threatens her constantly and she is also, in her own words 'planet to Dick's sun'. With all these factors in place you can see how although it is not their fault this marriage can be destructive. There are other factors but ultimately what almost destroys them is the loss of starry-eyed optimism that comes with youth and leaves with age while regret and disillusionment creep in.
Adding to the feel of the book were also an array of other characters and some observations regarding Europe after the First World War and the superpower that America had become as a result. It's impossible not to regard this book without looking at Fitzgerald's own life, his wife Zelda was hospitalised for schizophrenia and there were affairs on both sides. There was also intense drinking on Fitzgerald's part as there was on Dick's and other similarity's to their marriage and the locations used all feature in the book.
The overall impression that I got was that Fitzgerald really did pour everything he had into this novel with a stunning result. This is not a happy, feel-good book by any means but I did not find it 'depressing' Instead I found it insightful, thought provoking and meaningful.
Posted by Jess
This also qualified for the 1930s mini challenge hosted over at Things mean alot.