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