F Scott Fitzgerald´s stories are usually fantastic and evocative of the wealth and optimism of the Jazz Age (indeed some say he created the term) and the economic depression of the 1930s. For me, his Babylon Revisted is one of the greatest short stories ever reflecting this parallel. Tender is the Night was chosen as our latest book club read, I had read this before and was looking forward to re-reading it but I seemed to find it a disappointment the second time round.
Dick Diver, in my opinion, the best named man in fiction, is holidaying with his wife Nicole whom he met whilst treating her as his mental patient. They are a wealthy fashionable couple who seem to have it all and their friends are devoted to them. The young film star Rosemary meets them and is instantly enamoured, especially with Dick. Slowly as the novel unfolds, their lives begin to unravel and their relationship changes. The underlying theme is how one person has become strong by destroying another— Dick has been bought and used by the Warren family, a point emphasized cynically by Nicole’s sister, who remarks that “That was what he was educated for.”
The book was one of his least successful; most of the book is set in the 20s, which apparently led critics in the 1930s who wanted to forget the excesses of the prior decade to criticise it. One problem with the book is the chronology; apparently Fitzgerald redrafted this repeatedly over nine years and at one point the manuscript was over a foot tall. This led to some confusion for me re-reading the novel as my version of the book was strictly chronological, whereas other editions begin with Rosemary meeting the Divers on the French Rivieria. Some critics have argued the chronological approach makes it a better book but you do lose the interesting hook at the beginning.
The best aspect of the book is that it is semi-autobiographical, in fact reading the biographies of Scott and Zelda are fascinating. Fitzgerald was apparently haunted by his inability to progress on the novel, like Dick who is unable to write his own medical text. Fitzgerald decided what he was going to write his novel about a man of almost limitless potential who makes the fatal decision to marry a beautiful but mentally ill woman, and who ultimately sinks into despair and alcoholism when their doomed marriage fails (like Fitzgerald himself). Fitzgerald reflects his feelings about his own wasted talent and (self-perceived) professional failure and stagnation; his feelings about his parents (who provided much of the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver); about his marriage, and Zelda’s nervous breakdown, and psychiatry; about his affair with Lois Moran a beautiful teenage actress (who inspired the character of Rosemary), with whom he had a relationship, and Zelda’s with the French aviator Edouard Jozan.
So the book was maybe not quite as good the second time around and nowhere near as great as some of his short stories, but can anyone top the name Dick Diver?