Tuesday 22 May 2012
"Lucky Dick, you big stiff."
So Dr. Richard “Dick” Diver whispered to himself in the first few pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Dick Diver, a young American psychiatrist working in post-World-War-I Europe, is the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s most auto-biographical novel. Diver, the stand-in for F. Scott himself, is a smart, sociable, successful guy with his whole life ahead of him. While working in a Swiss sanatorium, he meets Nicole Warren, a wealthy young American with some serious mental problems. Nicole becomes fixated on Dr. Diver, who gradually falls in love with her. The two marry, hoping that Dick can keep Nicole healthy outside a mental hospital. It doesn’t work. As Nicole and her needs suck the life out of Dick, he turns to alcohol and their marriage disintegrates. In the end, they divorce; Dick is left a hollow, alcoholic husk of a man, while Nicole remarries and continues on her merry way. Their positions have completely reversed by the end of the novel. What is most disconcerting, though, is that Nicole’s older sister doesn’t care a bit that Nicole has essentially ruined another person’s life. Dick did not come from money, so Nicole’s sister was content to keep him around as long as he was useful. When Nicole comments that Dick was a good husband and never let anyone or anything hurt her, her sister responds with, “That’s what he was educated for.” And big sister doesn’t seem to be talking about psychiatry – she seems to mean that Dick was educated to protect his wife and that his success in that was no great achievement. He is expendable and easily replaced by Nicole’s new husband.
Obviously, the book is more detailed than that, but I don’t want to give it all away. Although I realize I just spoiled the plot, you don’t read a Fitzgerald novel just for the plot. It’s not so much that A leads to B, as how A leads to B. But I must admit, I have a beef with the journey.
According to Wikipedia, there are two versions of Tender is the Night. In the original version, published in 1934, the story is told through flashbacks; in the 1951 revision (made by Malcolm Cowley from notes Fitzgerald left), the story is told in chronological order. The revision was possibly done because readers initially complained about the novel’s structure; seemingly the revised version is now more widely in print.
I read the revised (chronological) version, and I kind of wish I had the flashback version. The juxtaposition of a strong Dick beside an alcoholic, hollow Dick would have been very powerful. In the chronological version, I didn’t feel Dick’s desperation. I get pretty emotional about books (although not about real life) and I expected to feel completely gutted and devastated by the end – but I didn’t. The novel is pretty long (my version was 392 pages) and there was just too much space between strong Dick and weak Dick (it didn’t help that the middle of the book was taken up with introducing and explaining another character). There’s a reason Fitzgerald wrote the book the way he did. The chronological version just loses something in the telling.
So there you have the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a close parallel of Fitzgerald. Although Dick is a physician and not a writer, both men are exceedingly smart and, as adults, live a far wealthier and more exotic lifestyle than they did as children (both were ex-pats). Both turned to alcohol as a way to dull the pain, had their life-force sucked out of them by their mentally-ill wives (I’m not blaming Nicole and Zelda; mental illness is tough to deal with and care-givers have to take responsibility for their own health and well-being), and ended in a heap of despair. Dick, however, is also an idealized version of Fitzgerald: a man who gives his all to his wife, only to be cast off once he has outlived his usefulness. Although it doesn’t feel quite right to say Dick is “wronged,” he clearly gets a raw deal; this is most obviously seen through the comments of his sister-in-law, who is not mentally ill and still sees fit to use Dick like a medicine, rather than a person. As a reader, we feel deep sympathy for Dick (although, in the chronological version, not as much as we could). In real life, Fitzgerald was not quite so splendid. It seems he could be a real douche to his wife and was probably an alcoholic before he even met her. However, Zelda’s illness didn’t help things; she suffered much more than the fictional Nicole does.
Anyway, Tender is the Night is a good novel featuring a Dick. Richard Diver’s descent into alcoholism and despair is quite sad, so don’t read this novel looking for a good time.