Saturday 11 February 2006

Review: Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

Fitzgerald takes us into the story with no preamble, no prelude, no imprecision. Immediately submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean, stretched out under the hot sun, surrounded by the bodies of Rosemary's interlocutors, the only mystery is the obvious one: what will happen to this young girl and her mother in a novel entitled Tender is the Night?

The rush of the prose is similar to that which appears in Marquez. A trilling of ideas around a single theme, a building-up of intangibles that solidifies into a sensation just at the end of the paragraph. The pace is mesmerising and rapid, swift but sure-footed, like an adolescent skateboarder or a good tennis rally:

But to be included in Dick Diver's world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world. So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done.

Fitzgerald can be scathing and unforgiving when roused:

There she was — the schoolgirl of a year ago, hair down her back and rippling out stiffly like the solid hair of a Tanagra figure; there she was — so young and innocent — the produce of her mother's loving care; there she was — embodying all the immaturity of the race, cutting a new cardboard paper doll to pass before its empty harlot's mind.

That "empty harlot's mind" of the race (Americans) comes at the end of a complex sentence like the promise of a secret fulfilled.

This is an ambitous novel, one suffused with the mysteries of modernism without sacrificing all to it. Occasionally, Fitzgerald tries out a system of speech that doesn't quite work. At one stage he repeats a snippet of conversation at various times throughout a single chapter, the trope becoming indecipherable out of the context in which it was first used. It's not clear what he wants us to think when he repeats "— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?" but it is clearly a refrain that relates to Dick's predicament while, in Paris, he negotiates his feelings. But this unsuccessful ploy underlines, as much as the historical references that are opaque now, the period of the book's inception. A conspicuious effort on the part of the author to elicit modernity.

But this is an ambitous novel. The narrative focalisation transfers from Rosemary to Dick. But the narrator keeps us at a distance that is as broad as the author's ambition.

As he sat on the side of his bed, he felt the room, the house and the night as empty. In the next room Nicole muttered something desolate and he felt sorry for whatever loneliness she was feeling in her sleep. For him time stood still and then every few years accelerated in a rush, like the quick re-wind of a film, but for Nicole the years slipped away by clock and calendar and birthday, with the added poignance of her perishable beauty.

The chronology is sometimes confusing, and the shifts in narrative time are not signposted adequately. Suddenly there's talk of death, and the significance of the title is not yet apparent. It soon becomes clear that four years have passed. Who knew? The story doesn't easily sustain such powerful shifts. But the mere fact of four years having passed enables one to catch a glimpse, again, of Fitzgerald's ambition — a need to span time as well as the truth about people, their wills and ability to judge correctly the paths they are taking. It is significant that the truth of the shift is revealed just after a boat trip.

But Dick had come away for his soul's sake, and he began thinking about that. He had lost himself — he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year. Once he had cut through things, solving the most complicated equations as the simplest problems of his simplest patients. Between the time that he had found Nicole flowering under a stone on the Zurichsee and the moment of his meeting with Rosemary the spear had been blunted.

So, the novel is really about Dick, but to tell his story (as the saying goes) Fitzgerald has to tell the stories of the others, at least insofar as they touch his:

The chauffeur who brought the message was gone; the concierge hailed another one and told him the location of the jail. As they rode, the darkness lifted and thinned outside and Baby's nerves, scarcely awake, cringed faintly at the unstable balance between night and day. She began to race against the day; sometimes on the broad avenues she gained but whenever the thing that was pushing up paused for a moment, gusts of wind blew here and there impatiently and the slow creep of light began once more.

Fitzgerald always tries to bring matters to a close in a single paragraph. This tendency makes the narrative whip along, as there is always a void to be filled, the next paragraph to write:

The sisters sat in silence; Nicole wondering in a tired way about things; baby considering whether or not to marry the latest candidate for her hand and money, an authentic Hapsburg. She was not quite thinking about it. Her affairs had long shared such a sameness, that, as she dried out, they were more important for their conversational value than for themselves. Her emotions had their truest existence in the telling of them.

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