If you’re in love it ought to make you happy.

I read Tender is the Night some fifteen years ago, but, to be honest, I could remember very little about it, other than that I had thought highly of it at the time. So, I decided recently that I would dust off my old copy and re-read this Fitzgerald classic.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As with Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, this is a book peopled by rich, glamorous, successful Americans, enjoying all the thrills that the Jazz Age had to offer them. Fitzgerald also explores some similar themes in this novel, such as the hollowness and lack of meaning that exist beneath all the glamour of the lives of the idle rich.

In other ways, however, this is a very different book to Gatsby. For a start, it is about twice as long, and offers a much more detailed study of the lives of its central characters over a long period of time. In Gatsby, most of the action takes place within a few months; here we observe the life of Dick Diver over a dozen or so years.

The prose style is also somewhat different. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald famously produced extraordinarily beautiful, finely crafted, and memorable prose; here the effect of the narrative is much more subtle. The text is undeniably powerful, but its force is built up slowly over time, scene by scene. In this sense, it is not until you have finished the novel that its full impact hits you.

The novel focuses on the lives of Dick and Nicole Diver – a celebrated couple amongst the fast set living on the French Riviera between the wars. In fact, when we first meet Dick, he is a talented young psychiatrist, just starting out in life, with everything going for him. He has intelligence, a talent for his chosen profession, good looks, impeccable manners, and a lot of charm. On top of this, he is also a good man: kind, generous and friendly.

Dick first meets Nicole as a patient in a Zürich clinic. Nicole has been brought to the clinic by her rich American family in the hope that the doctors can help her overcome her schizophrenia-like symptoms (brought on as a result of abuse from her father). Nicole does indeed improve, and against his better judgement, the young doctor allows himself to fall in love with his beautiful young patient.

In the next part of the novel, we observe the happy couple living in the south of France. The Divers seem to have everything, spending their time in glamorous surroundings, enjoying the high life with plenty of friends around them. In fact, the couple act as a kind of nucleus around which other rich and successful people gather. There are countless parties hosted by the Divers, with fine food and wine, music, and dancing. Their guests are treated like royalty and everyone seems to be living the dream.

…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.

However, even from fairly early on in the tale, there are also quiet, niggling hints that all if not quite right in this apparent paradise.

One day, the Divers and their friends meet a beautiful young American actress called Rosemary Hoyt on the beach. Characteristically, they immediately invite Rosemary and her mother to join them all for dinner that evening. The beauty and glamour and charm of the Divers powerfully impacts young Rosemary, and she becomes somewhat awestruck of the couple. This later develops into an infatuation for Dick, something which he initially tries to brush off.

However, as the summer days roll on, further cracks start to appear in the structure of this seemingly perfect Mediterranean bubble. Over a period of time, friendships dissolve, Nicole suffers further breakdowns, Dick starts drinking too much, the two drift further apart. Then, after a chance meeting back in America, Dick and Rosemary start a doomed love affair.

They were both restless in the night. In a day or two Dick would try to banish the ghost of Rosemary before it became walled up with them, but for the moment he had no force to do it. Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure, and the memory so possessed him that for the moment there was nothing to do but to pretend.

There are many parallels here with Fitzgerald’s own life. His wife Zelda was also glamorous and rich; she too was hospitalised with schizophrenia and then drifted in and out of health over the years; the pair lived a decadent life with other American ex-pats in the south of France; and Fitzgerald drank too much. Clearly this is a tale that draws heavily on its author’s own life.

There are many moving scenes in the novel, including several that chart Dick’s slow descent into drink and dissipation, as he struggles to find meaning in his relationships and in his broader life. There is real poignancy in certain scenes as Dick and others come to realise that he has now lost much of the vitality and purpose that he possessed so abundantly in his youth. In fact, by the end, Dick is a mere shell of his former self, and yet we do not despise him; rather we recognise in his story many truths about our own world.

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.

For me, this is the real genius of the novel: Fitzgerald presents us with a charismatic yet flawed human life, and skilfully and perceptively shows us the beauty but also the tragedy within. This is indeed a brilliant piece of literature.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

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