Fresh from seeing the latest film version of 'The Great Gatsby' last month, I suddenly was filled with an anxious, eager curiosity to learn more about the "flapper era" of the 1920s and to read a book from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hence I bought this novel.
"Tender is the Night" is divided into 3 books. Book 1 came off as overwrought, mawkish, and disjointed. Most of it, I confess, was rather hard-going because the main characters (e.g., Dick & Nicole Diver, and Rosemary, who developed a instant, lovelorn attraction for Dick) seemed devoid of any real being. They struck me as awkward actors thrown together on a stage --- a beach on the Riviera in 1925 --- to play out their lives together. Their interactions struck me as contrived. Only the following words from Fitzgerald in Book 1 helped to put things more in perspective for me:
"... When the producer went to New York they went too. Thus Rosemary had passed her entrance examinations. With the ensuing success and the promise of comparative stability that followed, Mrs. Speers had felt free to tacitly imply tonight:
" 'You were brought up to work --- not especially to marry. Now you've found your first nut to crack and it's a good nut --- go ahead and put whatever happens down to experience. Wound yourself or him --- whatever happens it can't spoil you because economically you're a boy, not a girl.' "(p. 40)
"It was hard to know where to go. He glanced about the house that Nicole had made, that Nicole's grandfather had paid for. He owned only his work house and the ground on which it stood. Out of three thousand a year and what dribbled in from his publications he paid for his clothes and personal expenses, for cellar charges, and for Lanier's education, so far confined to a nurse's wage. Never had a move been contemplated without Dick's figuring his share. Living rather ascetically, travelling third-class when he was alone, with the cheapest wine, and good care of his clothes, and penalizing himself for any extravagances, he maintained a qualified financial independence..." p. 170
Books 2 & 3 provide the reader with some glimpses into Dick and Nicole's personal histories, how they met in Switzerland in the midst of the First World War (Dick was her psychiatrist, who later agreed to take on her case), and the subsequent disintegration of their marriage. Here Fitzgerald has developed more of a coherent novel, with a few eloquent, and pithy sentences, which he put to good effect:
“… for Nicole the years slipped away by clock and calendar and birthday, with the added poignance of her perishable beauty.”
“… The people she liked, rebels mostly, disturbed her and were bad for her --- she sought in them the vitality that had made them independent or creative or rugged, sought in vain --- for their secrets were buried deep in childhood struggles they had forgotten They were more interested in Nicole’s exterior harmony and charm, the other face of her illness…”
“… She led a lonely life owning Dick who did not want to be owned.” (p. 180)
Yet, notwithstanding all that, taken as a whole, this novel, while not one of the worst I've yet read, is a lightweight. Its value comes from the fact that Fitzgerald largely based it on his own troubled marriage with Zelda (who herself had spent about 15 months in a Swiss sanatorium for schizophrenia).