Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Classics Circuit - Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have to admit to total ignorance of what the Lost Generation actually was, until I started to do some research as background to reading Tender is the Night . I’ve read a fair amount of English literature over the years, but not so much American. Pretty much the only author I’d read from this generation is Eliot, because he’s also classed as English Literature. Following on from this tour, many of the Lost Generation will join the ever-expanding TBR list. People who have participated in, or been keeping up with the tour (or who are just more educated about American literature than I am, which is not hard. English literature, I’m great at. American, not so much...) will know all about it, so I won’t reiterate, but just say thanks to  Rebecca for giving me the chance to learn about it, as well as to finally read a book that’s been sat on the shelf for literally years!
The idea that stuck with me as I read the novel , was that many of the writers of this generation had left America, in pursuit of artistic freedom and new experiences. To me, the word ‘lost’ in particular implies something in transmission, waiting to be found, to define itself. The generation who fought in the war were often either physically lost, through death or injury, or else lost in the new structure of society. Tender is the Night  felt like it was lost, drifting, trying to find its way home... There is a lot of power in the fragmented style of the novel, and, for the first time in almost three years, I finished the book and immediately wanted to go back and read it again, as I know that there was a lot that I missed. It also immediately threw me back to an excruciating course on Modernism that I took at university - just to give you an idea, Ulysses and The Waste Land were required reading. I don’t know too much about American literature, and because of this Modernism, primarily a European movement, with its emphasis on finding new forms of expression, and discussion of the change and breakdown of society and social structures, was the thing that immediately leapt to mind when thinking about the post – war years. Despite being part of this specific American generation of writers, Tender is the Night fits well into the Modernist tradition, particularly for it’s’ denial of previously accepted absolute truths such as love and marriage, and emphasis on the temporary nature of everything, from money, to love, to sanity itself.
Previous to reading this, my only experience of Fitzgerald was of falling in love with The Great Gatsby while at college. When I first started Tender is the Night , I was worried that the Gatsby love was just a fling, brought on by my first experiences of a proper academic library, combined with my first forays into the world of literature proper, but after a while I realised that, no, I actually just love Fitzgerald’s style.
Tender is the Night was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, and it reads as if it were a goodbye. It is, as many people have noted, basically an autobiography of the Fitzgerald marriage – Zelda Fitzgerald was hospitalised with schizophrenia, just as Nicole Diver is in the book, and Fitzgerald himself had problems with alcohol, as does Dick Diver.
It focuses on Dick Diver, a psychiatrist, and his wife Nicole, whom he first meets as a schizophrenia patient at a clinic in Zurich. Their relationship is the crux of the novel, and is expanded through the people that they surround themselves with. It shows very clearly, the almost bipolar extremities of the Divers’ relationship. In the beginning, Dick feels that he can protect Nicole; from the world, her past, herself. She needs holding together, and he is the one to do that. However, throughout the novel the dynamic of the relationship changes. Dick has affairs, most especially with Rosemary Hoyt, an actress, and Nicole, to some extent, allows this, but as the story progresses, and Nicole regains her sanity and strength, the dynamic changes, as she becomes the one to leave him. A lot happens during the course of the novel, but at the same time, not much: a duel, a murder, incest, affairs, marital breakdown, police brutality, and mental illness, are all part of its makeup, but still the story remains down to earth, rather than sensational, detached from reality, while all the time having a feeling of truth and relatibility about it.
I personally loved the way that the fragmented structure and style related to the cycles of sanity and insanity in the story. It begins in a coherent manner,  told through the eyes of Rosemary Hoyt, an actress, whom the Divers take into their ‘set’, and it is her impression of them that we’re first given. The second part of the novel jumps back in time to tell the story of Dick and Nicole, and Nicole’s breakdown becomes apparent in the breaking down of sentences and though patterns towards the end of the second part. As the book begins, Nicole is fragile, and unable to differentiate the real from the false , but as she manages to find her sanity, and break free from Dick, he descends increasingly into alcoholism and depression. One of the things that I really enjoyed, was that despite the central character being male, I really felt like the women won out in the end. Tender is the Night  seemed to me to be a book which showed the strength of women. One of my favourite passages was fairly early on in the book:
“Their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world – they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them” p45
At this point in history, where a woman’s role was fairly much still defined by men, especially if she was married, Fitzgerald is granting his women the privilege of existing within a male dominated world, but as individuals, rather than just as ‘wives’. The central story of the novel is Nicole’s regaining of her identity, and independence. At the end of the novel, Nicole is the strong, victorious one, and Dick, whose brilliance as a doctor is gone on and on about, throughout the story, fades into obscurity. The last lines of the novel are:
"in any case, he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another”p274
A few things I disliked, just to even it up, were how shallow most of the characters were, although I do appreciate that this is part of the society Fitzgerald is trying to represent. I also was annoyed by the fact that Nicole only left Dick in the end, because there was another man around who she knew loved her, and not because she had actually gained any real independence or ability to be her own person. That may just be the slightly ranty feminist in me coming out, though.
I often feel that many other bloggers think and process what they are reading much more than I do. Like, my brain got me through 3 years of university, and then just gave up and died. Reading Tender is the Night made me feel like it had come alive again. I actually immersed myself in it, I read slowly, trying to take in every single word (I’m usually a terrible skimmer!), I revelled in all the natural scenery; the sea, the mountains, the vivid imagery, and I loved every single second, from about page 40 onwards.
Having read Booksploring’s  review of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me The Waltz, I think that this will have to be my next read!

7 comments:

  1. Tender Is The Night is one of my favorite melancholic novels. Great review. I think you should try The Professor's House by Willa Cather. It has a similar vibe of lost innocence.

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  2. Thanks for the reccomendation, it looks intreresting! I'll definitely try to get my hands on a copy :-)

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  3. I love this book. I read it in high school, and now I'm thinking I need to go back to it. Great review!

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  4. What a fascinating review - your reading of the story was so different than mine! I felt a bit of a disconnect from it because I felt that Nicole's recovery, though central to the story, was presented on a negative light, has some sort of harm that had been done to Dick. Perhaps I was feeling grumpy - I have to say I much prefer your reading.

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  5. Nymeth - I see how you could read it that way. It's interesting how your mood can affect the way you read things

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  6. I am glad you enjoyed Fitzgerald. He does write a lot of shallow characters, but i like to look at them as flawed. We are all flawed. To me it is how he finds the moments that we can relate to in the flawed characters that keeps me going back. That and his writing style.
    -Laurie
    http://fitzgeraldmusings.blogspot.com/

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  7. "for the first time in almost three years, I finished the book and immediately wanted to go back and read it again, as I know that there was a lot that I missed."

    I love books that do this to me! I really need to read Fitz sometime soon!!

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