Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Tender Is the Night has some good writing - Fitzgerald's Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel about the decline and fall of a talented psychiatrist, is full of fine writing, beginning with the bit of “Ode to a Nightingale” that supplies the title.  Maybe Keats should not count.  “O for a beaker full of the warm South…,” Keats demands, a wine “[t]asting of Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!”  Fitzgerald gives me plenty of that.  This is, I hope it is obvious, not the bit of “Ode” that supplies the title, but a different, relevant bit.

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel.  Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach.

I take “deferential” and “flushed” as the nice touches here, adjectives I would not expect.  The beach is new, not fashionable, so some old villas “rotted like water lilies.”

“The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one.”  That is nice, right, a postcard view but who would see that rug?  The narrator lingers.  A man appears, “floundered a minute in the sea,” and disappears.  “When he had gone, beach and bay were quiet for an hour.”  Iambs in front of the comma, trochaic pentameter after.  The effect of watching the empty beach for two hours, while “bus boys shouted in the hotel court; the dew dried upon the pines,” while actually spending a couple of minutes reading the paragraph, is sharp.  This is 1923 or so, and the rich Americans have only barely started to descend on France.

Here are two, a young actress, fresh with her first taste of celebrity , and her duenna mother, “[the actress’s] cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening…  she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”  I have made it to the second page of my copy of the novel.

The two uses of “dew,” are they too close together?  In writing like this, made up of hundreds of arresting little effects, and by “arresting” I mean that I stop and enjoy them, I often ask if Fitzgerald went too far.  What is overwritten?  What is beautiful and what is kitsch?  It is a dance.  His first novel and bestseller, This Side of Paradise (1920), I remember as a mishmash of undergraduate jokiness and overwritten kitsch.  The first-person narrator of The Great Gatsby puts a brake on the purple prose.  Now, the more mature Fitzgerald can show off:

… the hot light clipped close her shadow… a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive… Three British nannies sat knitting the slow pattern of Victorian England, the pattern of the forties, the sixties, and the eighties, into sweaters and socks, to the tune of gossip as formalized as incantation. (still on the second page)

Maybe something in one of every three sentences where I think “Oh, that’s good.”  When the story gets moving, maybe more like one in ten.  I think this is the third time I have read Tender Is the Night, so I am in no hurry to see what happens.

This is a remnant of the old fraternity style – the actress has been on an all-night spree in Paris:

Later Rosemary and the Norths and a manufacturer of dolls’ voices from Newark and ubiquitous Collis and a big splendidly dressed oil Indian named George T. Horseprotection were riding along on top of thousands of carrots in a market wagon.  The earth in the carrot beards was fragrant and sweet in the darkness…  (I.xviii)

I like those carrots but that first sentence is packed with what I mean by overwriting.  Maybe it is directly drawn from life, manufactured dolls’ voices and Mr. Horseprotection and all, but it is, as the expression goes, too cute by half.  Case by case, adjective by adjective: too cute by 30%? 10%?  Just cute enough?

The ride on the carrot wagon is stolen directly from the opening of Zola’s The Belly of Paris (1873); a slightly earlier paragraph about the ludicrous “car of the Shah of Persia, “a new facet of the fabulous,” is likely pinched from Radiguet’s The Ball of the Count of Orgel (1924), although maybe it is an authentic contemporary detail used by coincidence by both writers.  I had not known any of this whenever I last read the novel.  What will I see next time?

Maybe I will have made it to the French Riviera by then.  The Riviera is the part of France that I am least interested in visiting, but in fairness it is now a lot more crowded than it was in Tender Is the Night.  It is a lot more crowded by the end of the novel than it is on the still, quiet first page.


  1. I was a great fan of Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's in high school and college but have since lost track of them so to speak--haven't read them in years although I often wish to. Your consideration of what is good writing vs. overwriting here is very interesting given how out of touch with him I am today as his prose stylist rep is one of the things that people go on and on about.

  2. It's just a taste exercise, but I think a hierarchy is visible. True fans of today's American plain style would probably find Tender Is the Night overwritten from beginning to end.

    But if I like surprises - I was not expecting that verb, that adjective - Fitzgerald is maybe at his most surprising in this novel. At his best.

    I should say, that as a pop writer, Fitzgerald is fun from the beginning. This Side of Paradise is energetic. This is what caught Edmund Wilson's attention right away - American literature had gotten so boring, and here comes a writer, finally, with a sense of fun.

    Hemingway has his own distinctive tendency towards kitsch. As soon as I figure out what I mean by that, I will write it up.