Tender is the Night

Lured by its poetic title, and determined not to compare it to The Great Gatsby, I began reading Tender is the Night with a mix of high and low expectations.  Likewise, my thoughts upon completing it are somewhat mixed.  While it is not as refined or beautiful as Gatsby, it is still full of the things I love best about Fitzgerald’s prose.

I think I first fell in love at around page 22:

Unlike American trains that were absorbed in an intense destiny of their own, and scornful of people in another world less swift and breathless, this train was part of the country through which it passed. Its breath stirred the dust from the palm leaves, the cinders mingled with the dry dung in the gardens. Rosemary was sure she could lean from the window and pull flowers with her hand.

Fitzgerald is just so incredibly adept at capturing the fragility and disillusionment and reckless confidence of the post-war world, and he does it with such eloquence. Phrases such as “gray echoes of girlhood” and “their eyes met and brushed like birds’ wings” had me sighing. Not so much because they were particularly original, but because they were so poetic.

This is fitting, because Nicole Diver is a bit of a Keatsian nightingale. The title itself has been drawn from Ode to a Nightingale –

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays

I wish I had read this in conjunction with Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda (a collection of their letters) because I know so little about the Fitzgeralds. I’ve heard sketchy details of their troubled marriage, but that’s about all. In my head they are still a sort of fable; a transient but somehow lasting embodiment of that ethereal bygone era, the Jazz Age. There are shards of Zelda and Scott in the characters of Tender is the Night – particularly in alcoholic Abe North and golden child Rosemary Hoyt. And it isn’t at all difficult to draw comparisons between the charismatic Divers, who “discover” the French Riviera (particularly with Nicole’s mental fragility) and the Fitzgeralds, who defined the Roaring Twenties.

Despite its beauty, there is undeniably something broken about Tender is the Night – in terms of both writing and characterisation – but the imperfections in his portrayal of the Lost Generation are lovely.

[On Fitzgerald] His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway

I’m not sure why it took me such a long time to read this, except maybe because it meanders a bit and I wasn’t at all sympathetic towards the characters. But as I said before, there is a sort of natural perfection to its ‘brokenness’, and though this is probably unintentional on Fitzgerald’s part, it echoes the confusion of life. What kept me going onwards was its elegance – Tender is the Night is undeniably elegant, though it may be less so than The Great Gatsby. Most readers seem to be touched by the parallels between the Fitzgeralds and the Divers, but this certainly wasn’t the case for me. In fact, I became rather hardened towards Scott because of his unfavourable treatment of Nicole in this book. As another reader wisely says, Fitzgerald is no Dick Diver (at least, when sober), and his sacrifices do not merit martyrdom. “After all, Zelda burned to death in a mental hospital.”

» Tender is the Night was read as a part of the Decades project

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23 thoughts on “Tender is the Night

  1. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never read any Fitzgerald! Having a Canadian upbringing, the Great Gatsby just isn’t as integral to the public consciousness as it clearly is here in the States (and I realize you’re in Australia and have still read it, but I’m just trying to make myself feel better!). I intend to borrow a copy from the school library at some point, as there’s no reason not to read it, especially considering how short it is.

    I actually read a book blog once in which the owner claimed that Tender is the Night was her favorite Fitzgerald novel. I still think that I’ll give Gatsby a go first though…

    1. Steph – hahah, don’t worry! The first time I read Gatsby was for school. Our Board of Education likes to kiss-ass to American lit. There are hardly any Australian books in the syllabus.

  2. I think I may have mentioned before that I didn’t like this one when I read it many, many years ago. I remember it being depressing. Your review gives me and itch to try again. I do love his writing.

    1. Shelley – It is rather depressing. Then again, I find Gatsby rather depressing too. I think his books are heavy in theme, but not in tone, because the poeticism uplifts it :)

  3. Tuesday – you are truly a gifted reviewer.

    I particularly enjoyed this:
    “But as I said before, there is a sort of natural perfection to its ‘brokenness’, and though this is probably unintentional on Fitzgerald’s part, it echoes the confusion of life. What kept me going onwards was its elegance – Tender is the Night is undeniably elegant, though it may be less so than The Great Gatsby.”

    1. JaneGS – aw, thank you! By the way, sorry I havent been commenting more on your blog lately. I’ve found I can only leave comments on some blogger blogs from my laptop, and I’ve only been using my PC lately, so yes. I’m about to start North and South, though, and will be referring back to your posts on Gaskell a lot over this month! I’ve also been hunting around for a copy of her short stories, but to no avail.

  4. As I’m about to embark on reading Tender is the Night, I’ll keep Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda in mind. In fact, I’ll hit the bookstore and pick it up, and read both concurrently. I bet readers can’t help comparing Gatsy and Tender in terms of the writing style. But I have a gut feeling that the latter, although is less perfect, conveys more a romantic sense.

    1. Matt – Since I posted this, I’ve read that Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda is rather stilted (i.e. many of Zelda’s letters, and not many of Scott’s – b/c she didn’t keep many of his apparently), but it should make for interesting reading nevertheless. Hope you enjoy both books :)

  5. I didn’t know the title was from Keats, thanks for that. First time I read this (in my twenties) I wasn’t crazy about it. I’ve read it couple more times in later life and it resonates more with me each time. A beautiful piece of writing, but, as you say, it is also broken.

    1. Nicola – I didn’t know either until I read the Introduction of my copy. Come to think of it, I’m not all that crazy about it either.. I liked it overall, but there were little things here and there that got to me. I probably also need a couple of re-readings to settle comfortably into it.

  6. I’m due for a re-read of this book. For some reason I remember liking it better than Gatsby when I first read it, probably because I was aware it was Fitzgerald’s attempt to discuss/examine his marriage in some way. I like your calling it ‘broken’, that seems to be exactly the right word.

    1. verbivore, I suppose that’s why reading is such a subjective thing! I actually didn’t like this book because of the way Fitzgerald consciously discussed/examined his marriage. The first impression that I got was that he was portraying the relationship in a one-sided light, and it felt incredibly selfish.

  7. Like Steph, I haven’t read Fitzgerald either. I did want to read Tender is the Night, but you’ve convinced me to try Gatsby first. Yesterday I was at the bookstore and couldn’t find a Fitzgerald except Benjamin Button.. how disappointing.

  8. Note to Claire – Benjamin Button is included in Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories. It’s one of my favorite Fitzgerald stories.

  9. What a wonderful review! The only Fitzgerald I’ve read was The Great Gatsby–long ago in high school, and then again a few years ago. I think even that book reveals some of the “brokenness” you mention, although the characters are accessible, Nick especially.

    1. Priscilla – that does seem to be a recurring theme in Fitzgerald’s books. And yes, I found the characters in Gatsby much more accessible. Daisy and Tom, particularly – nasty, but likeable. To me at least…

  10. Hi Jane.. Yes, I do think Benjamin Button might be a good read :) , but I was disappointed at the bookstore because they didn’t carry it in the form of the entire book, the collection you just mentioned. I was disappointed they didn’t have Gatsby or Tender. I won’t buy Benjamin Button on its own, would rather get the entire collection.

    1. Claire – Ohh, I’ve seen lots of those around recently (because of the movie probably) but I actually haven’t read it yet. I think you’ll love Gatsby; it’s such a beautiful book.

  11. I’ve actually heard that Button is much better in movie format than the short story, but I’ve no experience with either, so I can’t comment about the veracity of that claim. I do know, however, that you can read the story on the internet through various sites if that kind of thing is, well, your thing.

  12. Steph – For some reason, I just can’t ‘connect’ with books if they’re in web format! And I haven’t seen the movie either. Usually my attitude towards movies are that they aren’t worth paying for at the cinema..with the exception of apocalyptic ones, of course. And Peter Jackson ones. And maybe Harry Potter.

  13. Tuesday, I hate reading books online too (it’s one of the reasons I don’t want a digital book reader like a Kindle), because for me, I need to experience of seeing words on a page and being able to turn those pages in my hands. I find it really hard to become absorbed in a book if I’m reading off a computer screen. BUT, I know some people aren’t weird like this, and so I thought I’d mention that Button is available online (for free!) if other people are ok with reading fiction on the net.

    Honestly, I like the occasional jaunt to the cinema, but Button is like 3 hours or something, and I don’t have the tolerance for movies that are that long. I’ll watch them at home so I can pause them and go to the bathroom, or take a several day break, but I get worried when I go out to a movie that is so long! I do love seeing the Harry Potter books on the big screen though (although this last one, Order of the Phoenix was pretty brutal, I think).

    1. Steph – I’ve actually heard that digital readers are exactly like books, except for the fact that they’re, well, digital. Hahah, but yes. I also see books as physical objects, and I need to be able to turn pages in my hands too.

      Wow, I wonder how they expanded a short story into a three hour movie.. The only three hour movies I can think of are Lord of the Rings, Gone with the Wind (possibly over three) and that recent disaster, Australia (truly money wasted).

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