Reading “Tender Is the Night” is like watching clips of Babe Ruth’s last season: his body decrepit, his spirit broken, Babe was just trying to force greatness where there wasn’t any left in the tank. He kept falling down. He kept striking out. Anyone can fall down and strike out.
Similarly, I feel terrible for F. Scott Fitzgerald. He threw everything he had left into this book–bits from short stories, aborted novel ideas, essays, anything–and nothing worked. He had one idea he developed shortly after “Gatsby,” then he scrapped that. By the time he started writing again, his wife Zelda’s schizophrenia had really manifested, so that was tearing him up. He’d been forced to whore his talents to writing Hollywood screenplays, and he had to pay the bills by selling short stories.
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had ruled the Jazz Age. Now, like Babe Ruth, he just wanted to hit another one out of the park. It didn’t happen.
Supposedly, Fitzgerald thought of this novel as his masterpiece. Maybe it was to him. He was already suffering from advanced alcoholism, and his personal and professional lives were hellish, so maybe it did mean something to him. Maybe he knows things about the characters and their stories that didn’t make it into the book. It’s hard to say.
As sad as all the characters are–and there is a gray cloud of misery over everyone (except Rosemary, the young film starlet)–I think I was sadder still as a reader.
The problems start with the time period. Where “Gatsby” and “The Beautiful and Damned” celebrated the Jazz Age, deifying wealthy sybarites; “Tender Is the Night” was released while the world was still largely paralyzed by the Great Depression. When your bank failed, and you’ve lost your life savings, it’s hard to sympathize with a bunch of rich expatriated Americans.
Worse, nothing happens. The only character who changes at all is Rosemary. She was a virginal ingenue when she first met Dr. Dick Diver at a Mediterranean beach resort, and she fell for him. He was married to the lovely Nicole Diver, and thus he didn’t acquiesce and take the girl’s virginity. A few years later, they meet up in a hotel, and consummate their passion. But it feels sad and pathetic.
Seriously, even a 38 year-old man schtupping a 23 year-old movie star feels sad and pathetic from Dick’s point-of-view, and Dick is Fitzgerald’s proxy in “Tender Is the Night.”
Nicole Driver is the Zelda proxy. She has some mental issues, and has the odd wig-out, but she’s really not that bad most of the time. She’s just sad.
Other characters come and go like so much flotsam and jetsam, and we can’t get a good read on them.
Worst of all, Fitzgerald’s writing is passionless. To be fair, the bar for prose style is so high for him, that even his lamest book will still feature some beautiful descriptions, but the whole thing feels just gray.
“Gatsby” had focus, lovely prose, and well-shaded characters. “Tender Is the Night” doesn’t. Things happen in “Gatsby.” “Tender Is the Night” is basically, <spoiler>A married couple (a shrink and his former patient) stays together, despite being unhappy, then they don’t stay together anymore.</spoiler> Period.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers. I don’t always like his stories, but I love the way the guy writes. “The Great Gatsby” had some lush, gorgeous prose, then he got to the end, and pulls out this gem: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
What’s saddest about “Tender Is the Night” is that the whole thing feels like it’s going against the current, futilely reaching for a past where Babe Ruth launched home-runs by the truckload, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the sharpest writers alive.
2 stars out of 5