Monday, 28 March 2011

Battered Penguins V

Tender is the Night, by F Scott Fitzgerald, is set mainly in the South of France, Paris and Switzerland, between about 1919 and 1930. It tells the story of Dick Diver and the group of rich Americans he lives amongst in those post- (or, as it turned out, between-) war years. The title is taken from Keats's Ode to a Nightingale and the book is dedicated to the author's Antibes-dwelling friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose picture you can see here.

Unusually, the novel has two published versions. The first - and the first I was ever exposed to -  opens in the summer of 1925 in the South of France. A young American film actress called Rosemary meets Dick and his wife Nicole. The couple have a house somewhere on the French Riviera. They spend their days on the 'bright tan prayer rug of a beach' beneath their house, surrounded by their friends. The account of what happens as Rosemary gets to know the Divers takes up the first part of the novel.  In the second part, we are taken back to a time before Dick and Nicole were married and we discover what lies behind certain puzzling incidents we have witnessed in the opening section.

The second version - which is that contained in the battered Penguin I have just read - reverts to a chronological framework, beginning at the actual beginning of the story - that is, with the second part of the original - and then proceeding to what was, in the original, the first part of the book, where we meet Rosemary and watch events unfold in the South of France. This second version is apparently the result of a revision made by Fitzgerald following the book's initial publication. He was disappointed by its reception and decided the lack of enthusiasm with which it was met might be due to the disordered arrangement of the episodes of the plot. 
I am not clear which is the currently accepted or authorised form of the novel, and I am not quite sure which I think is better. In the original version, the book's opening is almost cinematically visual. We are plunged into a bright, exciting world and, together with Rosemary, we are dazzled by the characters we meet. We see them only from the outside, getting to know them in the same way that we might if we encountered them in real life. We form impressions, as we do when we meet strangers, based on their behaviour. We are charmed by the personalities they choose to display to the social world. Only then are we allowed to find out what lies behind the brittle but glittering facade that they have shown us.

The later, chronologically ordered version dispenses with the mystery the original managed to build around the Divers. It does not give the reader the chance to be seduced by the versions of themselves the Divers permit others to see. Instead of presenting a wide, sparkling panorama, peopled with colourful players, Fitzgerald focuses immediately on Dick Diver. Rather than offering the temporary illusion that Dick leads an enchanted life, right from the very first paragraph it is made clear that Diver's fate is unlikely to be a happy one. 'Years later, Fitzgerald explains, "it seemed to him that even in this sanctuary he did not escape lightly". A note of melancholy is sounded from the opening page.

Perhaps in this respect the revised version is truer to the spirit of the novel than the original. After all, despite the at times fevered gaiety displayed by the characters, melancholy pervades Tender is the Night, whichever version you choose to read. It is partly the usual Fitzgerald melancholy, which derives from the mismatch between life and his characters' dream of how life should be, but it is also the melancholy of the post-war world - 'the broken universe of the war's ending', a place where even apparently beautiful things, like Nicole herself, are actually dreadfully damaged. It is the world that is left after, as Dick puts it during a visit to the Western Front, an 'empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs'. 
Besides melancholy, of course, the two versions share many other equally powerful elements. In both, the reader encounters an acutely observed chronicle of a relationship, which captures 'the vast irrationality' of infatuation and the poignance of being loved more than you love in return - 'It made him sad when she brought out her accomplishments for his approval' - and which recounts with great acuity the way that the tide of emotion between Nicole and Dick shifts and changes.

In both versions, the reader discovers a striking portrait of a talented man who uses 'somewhat conscious good manners', even though 'often he despised them because they were not a protest against how unpleasant selfishness was, but against how unpleasant it looked' and who is trapped by his own charm - his 'power of arousing a fascinating and uncritical love';a man who, despite thinking 'that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise', is defeated by his addiction to pleasing others, (an addiction in which always 'some element of loneliness [is] involved - so easy to be loved – so hard to love').

In both versions, Fitzgerald uses Rosemary - who, in her role as film star, is described as 'cutting a new cardboard paper doll to pass before its[the public's] empty harlot's mind'  and who, even when she is walking across a Western Front battlefield, feels she is 'in a thrilling dream' - to represent the shallow, bright unreality of the new world of film. In both, he displays a sharp eye for snobbery, describing, for instance, how one character, 'made a quick examination of [a man] and, failing to find any of the hallmarks she respected, the subtler virtues or courtesies by which the privileged classes recognised one another, treated him thereafter with her second manner', and presenting another's reaction to an acquaintance's death as entirely focused on his club membership – 'It wasn’t the Racquet Club he crawled to – it was the Harvard Club. I’m sure he didn’t belong to the Racquet'.

In both, he displays great perception about character - 'Her emotions had the truest existence in the telling of them' - and about the gulf that exists between us all - 'You never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives.' In both, his writing is so vivid that some passages read like eye-witness reports from the dawn of modernity - here, for example, is what I would lay bets must be one of the first descriptions in literature of motor-vehicle-induced smog: 'In the square as they came out, a suspended mass of gasoline exhaust cooked slowly in the July sun. It was a terrible thing - unlike pure heat, it held no promise of rural escape, but suggested only roads choked with the same foul asthma.'

In both, there are one or two slightly squirmy sub-Lawrence moments and in both, I'm sorry to say, there are far too many incidences of homophobia and racism ( and this last is not confined to skin colour; indeed Fitzgerald seems to have reserved his greatest loathing for the English, about whom he has Dick Diver make many observations, of which my favourite is this: 'he had long ago concluded that certain classes of English people lived upon a concentrated essence of the anti-social' [I should add that, although Australians only appear once in the novel, they do not appear in a flattering light either]).

Most importantly though, in both versions the reader will find a moving and beautiful novel, tracing the path through life of a man full of promise whose failure may result from his exemption from war service (he was deemed 'too valuable, too much of a capital investment to be shot off in a gun'), or from his decision to marry someone with 'too much money ... Dick can't beat that', or from his overwhelming desire 'to be loved', or from the tension between being 'dignified in his fine clothes, with their fine accessories,' and the fact that ' he was yet swayed and driven as an animal,' or simply from his fondness for drink. In addition, as he did in The Great Gatsby (which I regard as a lesser work, because a) it is more schematic and less ambiguous and b) it has, like Brideshead Revisited, a static and, to my mind, annoyingly directing point of view and voice, that of an elegiac narrator), Fitzgerald not only displays his talent for exceptionally poignant final lines but also litters every page of the path to that final line with a wealth of wonderful minor details, including the glorious information that an incidental character is 'a manufacturer of dolls' voices from Newark'.

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