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ClassicsOnline Home » FITZGERALD, F.S.: Tender is the Night (Unabridged)
It is 1925, and Richard Diver is the high priest of the good life on the white sands of the French Riviera. The Beautiful People—film stars, socialites, aristocrats—gather eagerly and bitchily around him and his wife Nicole. Beneath the breathtaking glamour, however, is a world of pain, and there is at the core of their lives a brittle hollowness.
Beautiful, powerful and tragic, Tender is the Night is one of the great works of American fiction.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
Tender is the Night
It is commonplace for artists to be described—or to describe themselves—as outsiders, uncomfortable with the world they inhabit, able therefore to view it objectively and with the heightened perception that a sense of slighted injustice gives to anyone who is excluded. With F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, the genius of his insight was rather the opposite. He lived completely within the world he chronicled, embodied it, even named it—he coined the phrase ‘the Jazz Age’—and has been an analogue of it ever since. He charted the lives of gilded young people who were rich, wild, gifted and beautiful but who had deep-set and eventually destructive flaws at their core. He did this with such precision because it was his world, his life and his marriage (especially his marriage) from which he drew not just inspiration but material. His novels charting the generation that flourished in America immediately after the First World War (the Lost Generation) are almost as much diaries as works of art. But they are indeed works of art, and among the finest of the century.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St Paul, Minnesota, to a Catholic furniture-maker and an immigrant Irish heiress. They were a patriotic family, naming their son after their ancestor Francis Scott Key who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner (an arguably more significant political forebear was, Mary Surratt, who was hanged as a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination). The family moved house on several occasions during Fitzgerald’s childhood as his father’s businesses either failed or made him redundant, but great hardship seems to have been avoided. Certainly for Francis (who was known as Scottie), trade was never a great attraction. In 1909 he had had a short story published, and by the time he went to Princeton in 1913 he had written three plays, a habit he was to maintain while at university, despite his failing grades. Indeed, he was forbidden from appearing in several university productions because of his poor academic record (Princeton must deeply regret that it never got to see the young F. Scott Fitzgerald in his own production, Fie! Fie! Fi-fi!). But theatre and literature were already his life, and after a brief spell in the army (peace was declared before he saw action) he began trying to make a living as an author.
This determination was not just artistic. He had met and fallen in love with Zelda Sayre, but she broke off the engagement, thinking that he would never be able to make enough money as a writer. He proved her wrong, first with the short stories that appeared in major magazines, and then by revising and reworking his first novel This Side of Paradise (originally called The Romantic Egotist) until it was accepted and published. It turned him into an overnight success. He and Zelda married one week after it came out, and the life he had already started to capture in his fiction became the reality he would live and draw from until his death.
Theirs was a terrible and beautiful union in itself. Riotous, competitive, jealous, drunk, despairing, passionate, they inspired each other as much as they were surely destroying each other. To maintain a lifestyle they could barely afford Fitzgerald wrote brilliant commercial short stories while trying to write the novels that he hoped would earn him a serious reputation. He and Zelda were the centre of a young set that epitomised the new America. Immediately after the First World War, the USA was rich beyond the world’s imagining—powerful, vital, expanding and confident. Europe was a shell, in desperate need of the money the Americans could spend. But, as Fitzgerald seemed to recognise, there was about this desperate hedonism an in-built self-destructiveness, an unconscious knowledge that it was founded on a myth of indestructibility that no one believed; that it was profoundly shallow, deeply brittle.
Tender is the Night captures all this more completely that any other of his works. It not only chronicles—deftly, unobtrusively, without prurience—the lifestyle of the beautiful people, it monitors their decline philosophically as well as empathetically. Fitzgerald was reputed to be a quick or even careless writer, but in fact he was meticulous, always reworking, rewriting and reshaping as needed. Part of his reputation as a lazy writer came from his drug and drink excesses (alcoholic from his early 20s, he wrote when sober, which might explain the layer of bitter self-hate that underlies some of the more poignant episodes), but Tender is the Night took him years of careful effort and something like 17 drafts. Although begun after The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, it did not itself see publication until 1934. Quite apart from the effort that work over this length of time entailed, it meant that the book lost some of its focus; and in the intervening period, significantly, America suffered its worst depression for decades.
The central theme remained, however—that of the notion of the degenerative power of money, or at least of money without moral intent; the capacity for talent and goodness to seep away from someone, leaving a hollow aimlessness instead. Into this, Fitzgerald as usual added significant elements of his own life, not least the schizophrenic wife, the implication and suspicion of affairs, the wealthy set of Americans in Europe and the disintegration of happiness under the influence of drink and mental breakdown. Zelda was admitted into a psychiatric institution in Switzerland in 1930 and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fitzgerald—in the apparently endless effort of re-imagining what he knew to be a major novel, but struggling with the form—reflected these new realities by, for example, changing the central character’s profession to that of a psychoanalyst as part of his fiction. But it remains fiction. Tender is the Night balances some of Fitzgerald’s most evocative writing with such devices as shifts in narrative view, flashbacks, deliberately Modernist storytelling techniques, internal references and external allusions—all of which are allied to a novel with literary and moral depth.
Fitzgerald died in 1940 after a brief and unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, leaving unfinished his last novel The Love of the Last Tycoon (now the preferred title over The Last Tycoon). Zelda died eight years later.
Fitzgerald turned the hedonistic lives of his contemporaries into works of sharp humanity; and for all that the roots of Tender is the Night lay in his own too-short and turbulent life, it is not the diarist that is at the heart of the novel’s greatness, it is the artist.
Notes by Roy McMillan
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FITZGERALD, F.S.: Tender is the Night (Unabridged)