It took me a long time to appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald. In my twenties, I was too obsessed with Hemingway to give Fitzgerald more than a nod.
But then, a few years ago, I read Frank Conroy’s essay “Great Scott” (collected in Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations from Then and Now) and I became curious about what I’d missed in Fitzgerald. (I was infatuated with Conroy’s writing when I read the essay; I wanted to get inside his writing and understand it as a writer, and I’ve found it helps to read the writers other writers read. Also, isn’t it mysterious as readers how we are drawn to particular writers at a given time, how we latch onto a writer and want to read everything he or she has written? Or that’s often the kind of reader I am. Sometimes after a book or two I’ve had enough, and have to put the writer aside, perhaps never to return.) Anyhow, I reread The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald suddenly sank in.
Another writer — Francine Prose — has led me to read Tender Is the Night to see if I could see what she saw in the power of his writing, in the power of word choice. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose notes how Fitzgerald could “at lazy moments . . . resort to strings of cliches, but in the next paragraph he could give a familiar word the sort of new slant that totally reinvents the language.”
As I read — a first reading — I wasn’t as attentive to detail as Prose is in her reading. In a brief couple of paragraphs she talks about the novel’s opening scene and points to Fitzgerald’s unusual use of the word deferential and notes how the phrase “rotted like water lilies among the massed pines” evokes what “will come to seem increasingly applicable to much of what happens in a novel that is partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.”
I didn’t catch this detail or make such an association when I read, but as I reflect back over my reading, Tender Is the Night is “partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.” That’s what happens to Dick and Nicole Diver’s marriage — it dissolves.
But so does the world the Diver’s live in, the world of champagne, caviar and resorts on the French Riviera. It’s a novel, as is Gatsby, about the Jazz Age, or rather that age passing. Already, in the novel’s backstory, is the slaughter of the First World War that broke the back of Western tradition, and brought forth the Lost Generation scrambling to make sense of the war’s chaos by muddling through that chaos.
Ahead of that generation is the Depression, the rise of fascism, another war. The Diver’s world is already dissolved and they have further broken with it.
A poignant scene about midway through the novel captures the break with the old world. Dick has returned to America briefly to attend his father’s funeral.
Flowers were scattered on the brown unsettled earth. Dick had no more ties here now and did not believe he would come back. He knelt on the hard soil. These dead, he knew them all, their weather-beaten faces with blue flashing eyes, the spare violent bodies, the souls made of new earth in the forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century.
“Good-by my father—good-by, all my fathers.”
It’s the sad break with an old world, the kind of break we seem to be experiencing now. Wars and rumors of wars. Caesars rising and striving for power. A kind of post-9/11 grief, because we don’t have the same world to go back to that we once did.
Or perhaps it’s just my own grief buried in the Diver family plot: the loss of my own parents, a sense of chaos and uncertainty present at a time when I long for a sense of stability. A sense of dissolution overwhelming me. I can’t go home again. And yet moving forward seems just as frightening and uncertain.
Or perhaps this is just the way Fitzgerald makes you feel when you read him: You understand grief and loss better, understand that the world can dissolve and fade away, only to return again full, a beacon blinking from a distant pier. And so you go on, beating your oars against the current, believing in the green light.