Classic Thoughts: A touch of class on the Riviera: Geoff Dyer on the degradation and poise of F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1934)

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WHEN Tender is the Night first appeared in 1934 it was dismissed as frivolous, glitzy, fashionable. This seems strange to us since no novel is more saturated by the aftermath of the First World War. Quite apart from the famous scene when Dick Diver and his friends visit the battlefields of the Western Front in 1925, the book is dominated by what Dick terms in a 'half-ironic phrase: Non-Combatant's shell-shock'.

In fairness to those early reviewers the version they were reading opened with the Divers holding court on the French Riviera. Fitzgerald subsequently rearranged the book so that on the very first page, as Dick makes his way to Zurich, aged 26 - 'a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood' - he encounters 'the long trains of blinded or one-legged men, or dying trunks'. The expensive clinic where he meets Nicole is 'a refuge for the broken, the incomplete, the menacing'. Her smile is 'like all the lost youth in the world'. Lost youth may be a perpetual theme of Fitzgerald's, but there is often a larger historical dimension to our most personal concerns. 'After all,' he wrote in a letter, 'life hasn't much to offer except youth and . . . every man I've met who's been to war, that is this war, seems to have lost youth and faith in man.'

Similarly, if there is in the story of Dick and Nicole much of the personal anguish of Fitzgerald and Zelda, the novel is explicit that they represent 'the exact furthermost evolution of a class'. No one was more entranced than Fitzgerald by the poise of this class but, again, he is explicit about the larger system of global degradation on which their wealth and elegance depends: for Nicole's sake, 'girls canned tomatoes in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations . . .' Eventually poise itself seems the manifestation of degradation (Fitzgerald was one of the first writers to show the horror of infinite leisure).

If poise and degradation are inescapably entwined then so too - as in the 'Ode to a Nightingale' from which Fitzgerald took his title - are the exultant and the despondent. For Fitzgerald desolation is a precondition of the lyrical. Hence the most distinctive impression of Tender: a beautiful novel about failure. The exact trajectory of Dick's collapse becomes more difficult to trace with every re-reading - it was, of course, caught up with Fitzgerald's own - but so too does the affirming sense that in failing, Dick is somehow fulfilling his destiny.