January 18, 2013

100 Best Novels: Tender is the Night

F. Scott Fitzgerald is hereby declared the master of the romantic tragedy. Is this a grand, sweeping statement? Absolutely. For sure, there are many other writers who hold their own in this category, but after finishing Tender is the Night, I was reminded why Fitzgerald makes me swoon, seriously swoon. It's not just that he writes against the backdrop of the Jazz Age, though that certainly helps. It's not even because Jay Gatsby is so tragically flawed and makes me want to run along the beaches of Long Island's North Shore reaching out to green lights across the bay. Fitzgerald had the gift of spinning characters who captivate you and make you wish that they could come to life and glance your way so that you could experience the warm thrill of being known by them. These characters are an enigma in so many ways, but as you get to know them, you learn their terrible secrets, and you are a bit shocked and repulsed at first, but ultimately your heart aches at their demise because deep down, you loved them. They were terrible and lovely, and you loved them despite that, or perhaps because of that. It's not always clear.

It's maybe not surprising that I've always loved tragedies more than comedies. Happy endings are great, and I certainly hope that my own life has more laughter than sadness, but when it comes to literature, I am hooked by a plot that punches you in the gut and leaves you wanting more. There's a beauty to flawed characters that is just so captivating to me. Tender is the Night was no exception in this regard. The story of the glamorous, desirable Nicole and Dick Diver is at first reminiscent of Nick Carraway entering the world of Jay Gatsby. We have the young 18-year-old Rosemary who discovers the Divers' world while vacationing on the French Riviera and falls in love with Dick. Soon, however, as the narrative shifts from Rosemary's lovestruck perspective, we learn that the Divers' world is not all glamour.

(Some spoilers below!)

As the story unfolds, it grows darker. More and more we see that the power differentials between various couples (Dick and Nicole, Dick and Rosemary, Mary and Abe, just to name a few) are slowly shifting, with sad, pathetic Dick growing more and more destructive as Rosemary thrives in her acting career and Nicole recovers from her schizophrenia relapse. There are a few moments where, in the face of Dick's shattering of the illusion of him as all-powerful, it is suggested that perhaps it was all a fantasy to begin with. Perhaps, Dick's business partner muses, he never thought highly of Dick at all.

I think what made me so sad about Dick's ending is that it was just so pathetic. He fizzled out. There was no dramatic flourish before he exited the world. Instead, he faded into obscurity. Even his attempt to grasp at the shadow of his charming self with Mary North before leaving the Riviera ends flatly. He seems to give up on it with a laugh, as though he realizes that to resume that persona would be a joke. Why bother? Nicole moves on without him, and Dick becomes nothing more than a fuzzy rumor. Part of me wants to believe that Dick, freed from his obligation to Nicole, was able to live more simply and find happiness. Maybe once he no longer had to play the role of husband doctor, he could let go of the magnificent facade he used to live behind and choose a different life, rather than having it yanked away from him. His final scene with Mary makes me think that at least part of him made the choice to walk away. If he really wanted to stay, he could have put on a marvelous show.

While Dick certainly charmed me, even at his lowest moments, I felt quite differently about Nicole. I started off feeling lukewarm about her and then was very angry with her at the end. It was upsetting to me that she left Dick after all he had done for her. How could she have an affair with Tommy when Dick so clearly needed help of his own? Then I thought about how they had both changed so much and how in reality, nobody should stay in a relationship out of a sense of obligation alone. Ultimately, Nicole couldn't stay with Dick, not after what they had both become. In some ways, she was stronger than him by the end, yet still unable (or maybe unwilling) to be his caretaker as he had been for her. Still, as a I realized when I reread the last couple of pages, I don't think her fate was as rosy as she might have wished. As she goes to rise to see Dick on the beach, she is pulled down by Tommy, suggesting that just as Dick had started as her guardian and caretaker, Tommy would also retain the power in their new relationship. Even recovered, Nicole doesn't get to control her actions, or maybe even her fate.

It's impossible to read this book without thinking of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's personal lives. It made me think that Scott was committed to Zelda and didn't want to leave her side, even when her illness must have put considerable strain on their relationship. Even so, both of them had affairs, and Scott turned to alcohol-- they were both fairly destructive. It's sad to think that he may have viewed himself as a Dick Diver of sorts, doomed to pathetic failure, unable to produce anything of worth. I hope that at the end of his life he was able to view himself as stronger than that.

There are so many other things to say about the themes in this book. Destruction, war, wasted potential, youth... there are multiple threads that reinforce the structure and progression of this novel. Overall, I thought it all made for a lovely read. Tender is the Night is gripping, and even when I didn't particularly care for some of the characters, I still felt invested in their stories. Fitzgerald is one of those writers who invokes a flutter of excitement within me, and this book didn't let me down. Well done, Mr. Fitzgerald.

What are your thoughts on Tender is the Night?
Who else could compete for the title of master of romantic tragedy?

100 Best Novels

1. "Ulysses," James Joyce
2. "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," James Joyce
4. "Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov
5. "Brave New World," Aldous Huxley
6. "The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner
7. "Catch-22," Joseph Heller
8. "Darkness at Noon," Arthur Koestler
9. "Sons and Lovers," D. H. Lawrence
10. "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck
11. "Under the Volcano," Malcolm Lowry
12. "The Way of All Flesh," Samuel Butler
13. "1984," George Orwell
14. "I, Claudius," Robert Graves
15. "To the Lighthouse," Virginia Woolf
16. "An American Tragedy," Theodore Dreiser
17. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," Carson McCullers
18. "Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut
19. "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison
20. "Native Son," Richard Wright
21. "Henderson the Rain King," Saul Bellow
22. "Appointment in Samarra," John O' Hara
23. "U.S.A." (trilogy), John Dos Passos
24. "Winesburg, Ohio," Sherwood Anderson
25. "A Passage to India," E. M. Forster
26. "The Wings of the Dove," Henry James
27. "The Ambassadors," Henry James
28. "Tender Is the Night," F. Scott Fitzgerald
29. "The Studs Lonigan Trilogy," James T. Farrell
30. "The Good Soldier," Ford Madox Ford
31. "Animal Farm," George Orwell
32. "The Golden Bowl," Henry James
33. "Sister Carrie," Theodore Dreiser
34. "A Handful of Dust," Evelyn Waugh
35. "As I Lay Dying," William Faulkner
36. "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren
37. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," Thornton Wilder
38. "Howards End," E. M. Forster
39. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," James Baldwin
40. "The Heart of the Matter," Graham Greene
41. "Lord of the Flies," William Golding
42. "Deliverance," James Dickey
43. "A Dance to the Music of Time" (series), Anthony Powell
44. "Point Counter Point," Aldous Huxley
45. "The Sun Also Rises," Ernest Hemingway
46. "The Secret Agent," Joseph Conrad
47. "Nostromo," Joseph Conrad
48. "The Rainbow," D. H. Lawrence
49. "Women in Love," D. H. Lawrence
50. "Tropic of Cancer," Henry Miller
51. "The Naked and the Dead," Norman Mailer
52. "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth
53. "Pale Fire," Vladimir Nabokov
54. "Light in August," William Faulkner
55. "On the Road," Jack Kerouac
56. "The Maltese Falcon," Dashiell Hammett
57. "Parade's End," Ford Madox Ford
58. "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton
59. "Zuleika Dobson," Max Beerbohm
60. "The Moviegoer," Walker Percy
61. "Death Comes to the Archbishop," Willa Cather
62. "From Here to Eternity," James Jones
63. "The Wapshot Chronicles," John Cheever
64. "The Catcher in the Rye," J. D. Salinger
65. "A Clockwork Orange," Anthony Burgess
66. "Of Human Bondage," W. Somerset Maugham
67. "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad
68. "Main Street," Sinclair Lewis
69. "The House of Mirth," Edith Wharton
70. "The Alexandria Quartet," Lawrence Durrell
71. "A High Wind in Jamaica," Richard Hughes
72. "A House for Ms. Biswas," V. S. Naipaul
73. "The Day of the Locust," Nathaniel West
74. "A Farewell to Arms," Ernest Hemingway
75. "Scoop," Evelyn Waugh
76. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," Muriel Spark
77. "Finnegans Wake," James Joyce
78. "Kim," Rudyard Kipling
79. "A Room With a View," E. M. Forster
80. "Brideshead Revisited," Evelyn Waugh
81. "The Adventures of Augie March," Saul Bellow
82. "Angle of Repose," Wallace Stegner
83. "A Bend in the River," V. S. Naipaul
84. "The Death of the Heart," Elizabeth Bowen
85. "Lord Jim," Joseph Conrad
86. "Ragtime," E. L. Doctorow
87. "The Old Wives' Tale," Arnold Bennett
88. "The Call of the Wild," Jack London
89. "Loving," Henry Green
90. "Midnight's Children," Salman Rushdie
91. "Tobacco Road," Erskine Caldwell
92. "Ironweed," William Kennedy
93. "The Magus," John Fowles
94. "Wide Sargasso Sea," Jean Rhys
95. "Under the Net," Iris Murdoch
96. "Sophie's Choice," William Styron
97. "The Sheltering Sky," Paul Bowles
98. "The Postman Always Rings Twice," James M. Cain
99. "The Ginger Man," J. P. Donleavy
100. "The Magnificent Ambersons," Booth Tarkington