By F. Scott Fitzgerald
All Posts Contain Spoilers
It’s time to talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I am hesitant to do this, because my feelings about F. Scott Fitzgerald are complicated, and heavy. But Fitzgerald towers over American letters, blotting out the sun before it can reach other authors. He is read ubiquitously, but narrowly: it is almost impossible to graduate from an American high school without having read ‘The Great Gatsby‘, but his other works have faded from the national consciousness.
In fact, really, it is ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and not Fitzgerald himself, which really dominates the American literary cannon, and so I ought to spend a moment on it before proceeding to the book which is usually thought of as ‘Fitzgerald’s other book’.
‘The Great Gatsby‘ fills me with awe, and with rage, with fury and contempt and profound respect, all at once (I warned you that this was going to be complicated). It is, as near as I have ever encountered, a perfect novel.
I mean that technically. ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a masterpiece of prose craft – there is not a sentence, not a single word, out of place. I am confident in this, because I have read it many times looking for one. Do you know how difficult it is to write one perfect sentence? The amount of skill required to write an entire novel of perfect sentences honestly boggles my mind.
So I stand before Fitzgerald as an ant before a mountain, and I am humbled by the sheer talent for the craft of writing which he surely possessed. Nevertheless, ‘The Great Gatsby‘, while technically perfect, is banal. Worse, it is barren: emotionally vacuous, and utterly superficial on any level above that of composition. Its worldview is shallow; its metaphors childish (there is a reason that it is taught in schools – it is simple to the point of obviousness, and therefore the perfect text for teaching young people the rudiments of metaphor).
This juxtaposition, of compositional genius married to complete vapidity, disturbs me profoundly. It’s more than that, actually: it makes me angry. Fitzgerald was a genius, but he was also a twit. Gifted by fate and practice with perhaps the greatest writerly skill in the history of his nation, he only cared about the habits and costumes of the very rich, the drinks they consumed and places that they summered. He might have used his immense craft to describe anything, to explicate any mystery of the human psyche, but, no. He could describe only what he felt: a longing to be wealthy.
It’s like taking the world’s most powerful telescope and turning it to a brick wall – I am devastated by the waste. I am filled with resentment for the work he did produce, which is so virtuosic and so unfulfilling. And I think about writers like James Baldwin, who is the closest I can think of to his equal in prose-craft. And I think about the ways in which Baldwin, who was not only a great writer but also a great soul, used his gifts, and I weep for what the world lost when such mastery was spent on a fool like Fitzgerald.
That, basically, is how I felt about F. Scott Fitagerald when I rolled up to ‘Tender Is the Night‘. It’s difficult to say why, feeling that way, I even wanted to read it. Maybe it will suffice to say: I have a fetish for thoroughness, and I do not like to convict a man before weighing all the evidence.
F. Scott Fitzgerald actually published four novels in his lifetime – ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is the last of them. It was published nine years after ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and Fitzgerald apparently considered it his greatest work. It tells the story of Dick Diver, an American psychiatrist living in Europe between the two World Wars. Diver, handsome and charming, has married one of his patients, Nicole, a beautiful young woman suffering from schizophrenia. The novel tells the story of his slow fall from greatness: an affair, the collapse of his marriage, and his alcoholism.
It is apparently considered a semi-autobiographical novel: Fitzgerald, one of our many famous literary alcoholics, did live in Europe and wrote it after his own wife, Zelda, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I had not connected these facts when I decided to read it, and they did not intrude on my experience of the novel itself. Nevertheless, I was aware all through ‘Tender Is the Night‘ of a much greater depth of insight, of humanity, in this work than in ‘The Great Gatsby‘.
It is not, in terms of prose-craft, the masterpiece that ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is. It is poorly paced, and makes a few jarring transitions. It also contains a few experiments with prose style (particularly in attempts to catch Nicole’s madness) which are unsuccessful, if not downright incoherent.
But Dick’s slow unwinding, the emotional forces which impinge on him, which drive him onwards in all their contradiction, those are beautifully portrayed. The thing which failed in ‘The Great Gatsby‘, the attempt to show how a wealthy life might yet be bleak, actually works here: all the strands of money and charm and loveliness which surround Dick Diver slowly enmesh and entangle him, tightening and tightening around him until he, and you, are thrashing in a sort of slow, angry suffocation.
And, of course, because it is Fitzgerald, it contains passages of transcendent beauty, like this one:
“Baby had certain spinsters’ characteristics – she was alien from touch, she started if she was touched suddenly, and such lingering touches as kisses and embraces slipped directly through the flesh into the forefront of her consciousness.” (p. 172)
Or this one:
“Her naivete responded whole-heartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior, also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.” (p. 21)
Or this one, which I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life:
“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.” (p. 169)
It’s kind of funny, actually: ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a perfect book utterly without emotional effect; ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is a imperfect book which is, nonetheless, much more emotionally affecting. It lacks the tightness, the lapidary, flawless prose that ‘Gatsby’ has, but it shows so much more depth, is so much more moving, than ‘Gatsby’ ever was.
Maybe it’s because Fitzgerald, himself a man falling apart, was writing about a man falling apart in the exact same ways. He might have been too barren a soul to ever describe anyone else’s humanity, but he was able to describe his own plight with some grace. He remained a vain and shallow man to the end, but, finally, he turned his craft on the one subject which could hold both his interest and mine: himself.