F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t happy with many things by the final decade of his life. He wasn’t happy with his career, he wasn’t happy with his wife, he wasn’t happy with his status, his wealth, his importance, the respect given him and (probably) with how much liquor he drank. Fitzgerald also wasn’t happy with something he really should have been: the structure of his finest novel, Tender Is The Night.
This revised edition was edited by Malcolm Cowley, a writer and critic who seemed to, once, be important. This edition, for a few years the standard version of the novel, is now out of print. This is wise, as this is far inferior to the version of the novel I read and fell in love with half a decade ago*.
The content is, broadly, the same. Intelligent and hard-working young psychiatrist falls in love with a very wealthy woman he meets as a patient, they marry, “discover” the French Riviera and then both become destroyed by the decadence and laziness of their “leisured” lives. Booze, sex and money, essentially, triumphing over talent, love and intelligence. It’s a classic tragedy very much because it speaks to that classic ideal society needs to believe: “I’d love to be rich, but would the money really make me happy?” No, is Fitzgerald’s resounding answer, no it fucking doesn’t.
What has been changed by Cowley, based on Fitzgerald’s notes (there is some justification to the edits, but I don’t really understand why the wishes of aging, sozzled, bitter, depressed Fitzgerald should be listened to), is structure. And these changes are dramatic. Ordinarily (in the version first published and the version that now is by preference), Tender Is The Night opens with the character of Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress, arriving in the south of France and becoming involved with a group of fashionable, hard-partying rich people. She is intrigued and excited by them and falls in love with Dick Diver, despite having great affection for his wife, Nicole. Bad things begin to happen, the marriage is tested, then there is a massive flashback and the full personal histories of both Nicole and Dick are explored. Their relationship and their mutual disintegration becomes the focus of the novel. In the revised version, however, we start at the chronological beginning of the story – with young Dick meeting Nicole at a sanatorium, with her problems described and explained within the first few pages. There is no mystery to the text, there is no (albeit temporary) confusion, there is no waiting for the explanation of what has gone on in the past that renders so tragically important Dick’s attraction to Rosemary. The reader knows everything too soon, to the point where very, very big reveals are made about characters who we know nothing about and care very little for. Meeting the young Dick Diver as an earnest medical student isn’t a shock unless one has read a hundred pages of him as an idle partyboy five years older, nor is it sad to see the charming and astute Nicole reduced to impressionable adolescence. Because it is not a reduction – it is merely her opening condition.
Besides these comments, the original opening of the novel is a passage of great beauty – it is evocative and witty and bloody sharp – even burying it as “Chapter II” of “Book II” in the revised edition cannot stop it from dwarfing the plot-heavy action of the chapters before: Tender Is The Night was written with a very strong opening, whereas the young adulthood of Dick Diver isn’t as wow.
This version, which includes two deleted chapters, as well as an informative introduction and a few notes, is worth reading for someone who knows Tender Is The Night well and is interested in either Fitzgerald’s working methods or the construction of novels more generally.
To anyone who has yet to read it, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is a beautiful, heart-breaking work about madness, depression, aging, addiction, sexuality and money. It’s a big hitter, and the unnecessary structural problems within this revised edition do no favours to a great piece of literary art. Read it, if you haven’t, but not like this.
It made me cry, but not in the buckets it should have. Ignore Malcolm Crowley and the drunker, angrier, Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is The Night is perfect in its usual form. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?
And Tender Is The Night ain’t broke.
* I read Tender Is The Night in the last great Summer of my youth, where hope, optimism, warmth and excitement were my only emotions. From the Autumn that followed, I began to read voraciously, living further and further outside of any kind of reality and more and more within my own interpretations of literature. Hence the ironic title of my blog: my life being one where the now never triumphs.