Book of a Lifetime: Tender is The night, by F Scott Fitzgerald

Melissa Benn
Friday 07 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Tender is the Night, the book that caused F Scott Fitzgerald the most artistic heartache, was neither a critical nor a commercial success when it was first published in 1934. But its reputation has, rightly, grown and it remains one of my favourite books, suffused as it is with both the glamour and poignancy of Fitzgerald's own life: in particular, the failure of his marriage to the lovely, unbalanced Zelda and his acute sense of himself as a great and a ruined artist.

Tender tells the story of Dick Diver, a talented, charming young psychiatrist who marries fragile heiress, Nicole Warren, one of his patients in a Swiss sanitorium, and the slow unravelling of their relationship and Dick's career.

A large part of the story is based on the French Riviera, where sophisticated Americans holidayed in the 1920s. Here arrives a lovely young Hollywood actress, Rosemary Hoyt, who falls under the spell of the glamorous couple and embarks on a reckless affair with Dick. Fitzgerald skilfully recreates the sensual and emotional pleasures of the Divers' life; in his capable hands, life appears as a realistically drawn Eden.

Yet within this paradise lie the seeds of destruction. The Divers' exotic lifestyle is sustained not by significant professional work but by family money and social connections, and is doomed to fail. Ultimately, Dick Diver is ruined through a mix of professional laziness and drunkenness, although Nicole possesses sufficient self awareness (and independent income) to survive.

The beauty of Tender lies as much in its parts as its whole. In just a snatch of dialogue or a few lines of description, Fitzgerald can evoke the happy, troubled and perilous balance of a group of friends or the moment when a long friendship is ruined for good. Pre-occupied with surfaces, he is never limited by them. His most persuasive characters are complex self-reflective creations; glamorous, but with a questioning intelligence, a sense of irony and the possibility of true integrity which makes it all the more tragic when they sacrifice themselves for cheap pleasures or worldly effect. Of Dick's exquisite manners, Fitzgerald notes wryly, "often he used them and just as often he despised them because they were not a protest against how unpleasant selfishness was, but against how unpleasant it looked".

He has an acute eye and ear for the nuances of character, from the stage mother who handles her daughter's covert romance as efficiently as she does her career to the desperation of an alcoholic writer who has been silently "belly heavy" with love for his best friend's wife, for years. That such images linger in the imagination for decades is testament to this exquisitely crafted piece of fiction.

'One of Us' by Melissa Benn is published by Chatto & Windus

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