Over dinner on offer at Cafe Rouge a few weeks ago, I was talking to my poet friend John Mills about the book I had just finished at the time. Re-reading Tender is the night, first time in English, I decided it still is my favourite of Fitzgerald‘s work. Also, more importantly, neither I, nor my friend remembered much about The Great Gatsby, the author’s most famous novel.
A former English teacher and a poet, John mentioned how the beginning of The Great Gatsby is meant to be equally famous as the novel itself. And no, I’m not saying that being both writers and former teachers gives us ultimate authority. But when two people forever passionate with literature react in a similar way to one very acclaimed book, it might mean something. At least, it stands for the fact that Fitzgerald didn’t only portray one American dream.
How many American dreams are there anyway? You might just find out now. Either that, or congratulations: you can join our reading club to soon be founded.
From the age of decadence to the need for redemption
Our book club first virtual meeting will start by laughing at ourselves for how little we remember of The Great Gatsby. Also, we might share into appreciation of Fitzgerald finest lyricism.
While I found myself resounding again with it in Tender is the night, I discovered something new too. Just like Gatsby, Dick Diver embodies a vision. Another decade into the 20th century, the mirage no longer resides with wealth earned from dodgy business. The age of decadence turns into the charm joie de vivre hiding trauma and need for redemption.
Two American dreams, two sides of the same coin
Also, to put things simply, both Gatsby and Diver rely on a very masculine charisma to enchant, to entertain, and to build walls. They preserve their mystery like a necessary cloak. This little I remember of the big male character of the 20’s. And the details of Fitzgerald’s last written book, the one I just read again, live vividly in my head.
Dick always puts a show up for his friends whom he guides and always plays doctor with subtly. Despite not professing as a psychiatrist any longer, he carries around with him the Messiah complex which makes him feel superior to others. Yet, nobody around him knows the reality of how he met his wife, first a patient, then lover. Also, behind the scenes he suffers with the frustration of relying on Nicole’s money.
Here we see how little, or even how much Gatsby and Diver share. I know it sounds paradoxical, but they do represent the two faces of the same coin. If Jay’s charisma is that of a self-made incredibly wealthy man, Dick sports the same features, on the intellectual level. He build his career in psychiatry coming from a modest background. Diver embodies thus the brainy side of the American dream.
Also, the two share one major fault: they seem to lack consistency and substance. The doctor could have progressed in medical research and retired a respected psychiatrist. However, his frustration, typical when poor, intelligent boy marries rich, beautiful woman, drags him down. And that’s all there is about this side of the American dream…
On my second read of the Dick Diver’s story I kept thinking he is actually the author’s alter ego. Was I surprised to finally discover the reality about Fitzgerald’s marriage with Zelda Sayre?
Yes, this last novel is autobiographical, and maybe that’s why the author could have never been 100% satisfied with it.
Why Fitzgerald’s last book did not reach the same success
I read Fitzgerald Tender is the night for the first time during my first year at University, in late 90’s. Back then, I didn’t realise its importance in the author’s work. nor did I know of its chronology. All I knew was how much I enjoyed its lyricism and beauty, doubled by the tension. Maybe I was too young to notice the height from which Dick Diver fell when he finally did. Maybe I was just too fascinated to notice the mediocrity his American dream ended in. Or maybe I just found it incredibly romantic.
On my second read, I went first through the introductory notes of the edition I hold. Thus I discovered the author’s disappointment at how the book was received. To improve it, he rearranged the chapters. While I understand his concerns, I don’t share into his worries. I attribute the limited success of Tender is the night to where its core lies.
Fitzgerald sent the hero to live in the dust of the suburbs after knowing wealth and extravagance. Diver purely embodies the fall of the middle aged man. Back in the time between the two world wars, audiences might have struggled to accept the flimsiness of the American dream. Back then, America still played the global hero.
However, as my suppositions about what broke the hoped success for this novel, to me it will remain one of my favourite books by an American writer. Maybe I appreciate that vulnerable nature of success more than a certain type of Hollywood certainty.
Favourite quote from the book
“…. and, for Dick, charm always had an independent existence, whether it was the mad gallantry of the wretch who had died in the clinic this morning, or the courageous grace of this lost young man brought to a drab old story. Dick tried to dissect it into pieces small enough to store away – realising that the totality of a life may be different in quality from its segments, and also that life during the forties seemed capable of being observed only in segments.”
With this, also, I link my book reviews here on the website with my Instagram Reading is attractive campaign/series. I first published the photos in this post on my Instagram account. Follow if you like what I do there.