This week marks four years since I began the Modern Library Revue, and herewith its 32nd official installment. I began the project the way I think people must begin training for a marathon, or eating like a caveman, or going to church: I felt some inner restlessness, some fullness, that needed exercising and exorcising. I chose the Modern Library list for my spiritual Nordic Trac because I had read one or two novels less than half the novels on it, and thought quite sensibly that this would give me a good head start. At first, the entries tumbled out of me as fast I could write them. And in these four years, I’ve managed to read another 30 titles from the list. But somehow, here we are at a mere 32 Revues. At this pace, it will be another eight years, God willing, before I finish the enterprise. (And oh, the party I’ll have.)
Despite my initial aspirations and productivity, I have found that the familiar books have been the hardest to interpret, the most likely to hamstring me over a period of weeks or months. Always they require rereading, and sometimes something more drastic. I’ve been stalled on Tender is the Night since October, which befuddled me to the extent that, not only did I have to reread it a third time, I had to reread all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and meditate on them before deciding that I know less, possibly, than I did before.
I used to feel that the novel output of Fitzgerald was like the literary version of the Myers Briggs test: whichever one a person favored was some fundamental indicator of his or her personality. Roughly it followed that ordinary and banal people liked The Great Gatsby, snotty, effete types liked This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned was for the discerning and unconventional (I’ll let you guess in which camp I numbered myself). Tender is the Night was sort of an unknown quantity, preferred by dramatic people, maybe, or people who take pills. This fall, in a classic Modern Library Revue time-suck, I revisited my youthful prejudices, all in service of understanding Fitzgerald’s last, strangest novel.
I can’t say that revisiting my youthful prejudices has confirmed them — This Side of Paradise crept up in my estimation, while The Beautiful and Damned moved slightly down, even while retaining the coveted corner office of my heart. However, to venture onto a tangent, I can say that The Great Gatsby still remains for me the least stirring of Fitzgerald’s novels. Perhaps it’s due to some wellspring of hipster haterade that must deem things played out, or perhaps The Great Gatsby is so great that it has actually managed to play itself out. After all, it’s as familiar now as the noble bombast penned by Fitzgerald’s own relative, the green light like the rocket’s red flare, the pier at East Egg like the ever-stalwart rampart, the boats beating on like liberty itself.
I feel that The Great Gatsby is the most together, the most surgically artistic effort of a novelist who was more exciting when he was not trying to contain the hot, maudlin, meandering mess of his own talent. (For the record, I also sense something phony about Gatsby’s very phoniness — for me the only convincing poor person Fitzgerald wrote was one who lost his fortune, not one who made it. Fitzgerald’s poor people were like his black people or his Jews–all characteristics, no character.)
If The Great Gatsby represents the nadir of said hot mess, Tender is the Night is its sprawling apotheosis. It’s hard to know what to say about this sultry dream of a book. Aesthetically it is very beautiful, the most impressionistic of Fitzgerald’s novels. A paragraph about Gausse’s Riviera beach makes me want to disport myself in the wine-dark sea, and ruin my skin in the sun wearing pearls and a marcel wave. There is a striking amount of color: the first two pages features a “tan prayer rug of a beach,” the “pink and cream of old fortifications,” a “purple Alp,” a man in a blue bathrobe, a girl with pink palms. The first half of the novel is all a bright haze of color, sensation, perception, personality. The revelation that the life events of the novel’s motley crew of upper-crusters might have anything to do with something like a plot is a surprise when it comes, about a third of the way through the novel.
As a plot, it’s an odd one, full of a kind of fruitless drama and portents that somehow portend both nothing and everything. Only the flimsiest motives are provided to explain why a man like the superhero Dick Diver, with his jaunty striped shorts and bathing cap, should piss away his life, trade in his professional credibility and crazed beautiful wife and Riviera idylls for a ruined liver and thwarted attempts at grab-ass in sleepy villages along the Hudson. Even fewer reasons are provided for why we should care. The demise part is okay — that’s a theme in all the novels past This Side of Paradise. But Dick and Nicole Diver are the sort of unlikable corollaries of Anthony and Gloria Patch of The Beautiful and Damned, which is a great, old-fashioned morality tale with implacable logic. I think it’s a shame, how it works out for the Divers, but they never seemed like very fine people to me.
I found an explanation for the novel’s strangeness partly in a 1962 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins about Sara and Gerald Murphy, the original inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver. The novel started out to be about the Murphys, and turned, says Tomkins, into a book about the Fitzgeralds (who were also the models for Anthony and Gloria Patch). These Murphys were real Somebodys, who knew everybody and lived artfully in Paris and on the Riviera, which they actually discovered as a summer destination.
Tomkins’s profile, which is well worth reading, has its own, dare I say, novelistic logic. I spent the first half of the piece feeling a certain savagery toward the Murphys. Page one (of thirteen) makes Tender is the Night out to be a turd on the porcelain of the Murphys’ impeccable lives:
“I didn’t like the book when I read it, and I liked it even less on rereading,” Sara said. “I reject categorically any resemblance to us or to anyone we knew at any time.” Gerald, on the other hand, was fascinated to discover…how Fitzgerald had used “everything he noted or was told about by me” during the years that the two couples spent together…Almost every incident, he became aware, almost every conversation in the opening section of the book had some basis in an actual event or conversation involving the Murphys, although it was often altered or distorted in detail.
I found both positions deeply suspect — the vehement denials and the faux naivete about artists, from people who surrounded themselves with artists (Hemingway, Stravinsky, MacLeish, Dos Passos, etc.). This strain of philistinism was as alienating to me as the impeccable lives:
Those closest to the Murphys find it almost impossible to describe the special quality of their life, or the charm it had for their friends. An evening spent in their fragrant garden, looking out over the water toward Cannes and the mountains beyond, listening to records from Gerald’s encyclopedic collection (everything from Bach to the latest jazz), savoring the delicious food that always seemed to appear, exquisitely prepared and served, at the precise moment and under the precise circumstances guaranteed to bring out all its best qualities (Provençal dishes, for the most part, with vegetables and fruits from the Murphys’ garden, though there was often a typically American dish, such as poached eggs on a bed of creamed corn); the passionate attention to every detail of his guests’ pleasure that gave Murphy himself such obvious pleasure; Sara’s piquant beauty and wit, and the intense joy she took in her life and her friends; the three beautiful children, who seemed, like most children who inhabit a special private world, to be completely at home in adult company (Honoria, who looked like a Renoir and was dressed accordingly; Baoth, robust and athletic; Patrick, disturbingly delicate, and with a mercurial brilliance that made him seem “more Gerald than Gerald”) — all contributed to an atmosphere that most people felt wonderfully privileged to share…
And then came their singing of the “American Negro spirituals.”
(All this, even the title of the profile–“Living Well is the Best Revenge”–made me want to throw their smug lives in their faces. Revenge against what? Against the horrible smashup of the Fitzgeralds — one drunk, one crazy — one who died choking on blood, the other on smoke, both before they reached 50?)
Tomkins’s society-page raptures notwithstanding, somewhere around the middle of the thing I began to defrost. First, there’s the death of two of the Murphys’ children — pain that cannot be extinguished by any amount of exquisite living. Then, in the excerpts of letters to and from the Murphys and Fitzgeralds, the real depth of their friendship (relationship, better to say), was revealed. I cannot imagine a relationship of my own bearing so much volatility — surrendering my home to an unhinged friend, placating my other guests when friend flings figs and ashtrays, putting up with his barbs and his staring and his weird questions about money, finally reading myself in his unedifying novel as the beautiful mental patient, the incest victim, the involved but unloving mother. It would be a lot.
Tomkins’s descriptions of the Murphys’ collective life are very like the tableaux Fitzgerald creates in Tender is the Night. Here, in the novel, the young film actress Rosemary is entranced by the Divers on the Mediterranean shores:
Rosemary felt that this swim would become the typical one of her life, the one that would always pop up in her memory at the mention of swimming. Simultaneously the whole party moved toward the water, super-ready from the long, forced inaction, passing from the heat to the cool with the gourmandise of a tingling curry eaten with chilled white wine. The Divers’ day was spaced like the day of the older civilizations to yield the utmost from the materials at hand, and to give all the transitions their full value, and she did not know that there would be another transition presently from the utter absorption of the swim to the garrulity of the Provencal lunch hour.
What is missing from Tomkins’s account is the resentment that runs through Tender is the Night, the resentment I instinctively felt myself for the Murphys’ Mediterranean menage. Seen thus, the novel is almost a revenge against the Murphys’ good lives, a preemptive retribution; right around the time that Fitzgerald started to die in Hollywood, Gerald Murphy–whose own melancholy spells Tomkins mentions only in passing–took up the family business, a little outfit called Mark Cross, and did a thriving trade for two decades. Perhaps the novel even adds some necessary balance to Tomkins’s fulsomeness.
But as the character of Dick Diver transmutes to Fitzgerald himself, the resentment takes on a strange key. In a novel partly about psychoanalysis, what does it mean that Abe North, the drunk creative type clearly modelled on Fitzgerald, is kicked to death on a spree in New York, a moment that roughly marks the start of Dick Diver’s slow, similarly gin-soaked decline? (Nicole Diver was raped by her father in her lonely adolescence, an event that led to her nervous breakdown. And yet somehow Dick Diver’s Gendarmo punchout, when his Fitzgeraldian side is ascendant, is five-fold more awful.) The novel even suggests, with Fitzgerald’s characteristic attention to money, that Dick’s demise is a tied to his unmanning financial dependence on Nicole. More resentment, class bitterness transferred.
Tender is the Night is no Gatsby, with everything nailed down tight as a coffin-lid at the end. When the novel is over, Dick is still shunting around doing God knows what and living off of Nicole, who has been transferred part and parcel to another, less cerebral man. There’s nary a moral to be had between this novel and its characters. Yet curiously, even with its multiple lives clumsily conflated — extraordinary lives, furthermore, with outsize amounts of talent, privilege, and misfortune — there is something true and lifelike about this flawed, lovely, befuddling book. Writing well may not be the best revenge, but a few decades later, it comes pretty close.
I think I was the last of my age peers to read Native Son; I feel like most of us read it in school. Either I never had it in a course, or I did, but it was during one of my bouts of absenteeism from class and scholastic responsibility. So I got it from the library a few years ago. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew that it was a book about race and a Huge Deal.
I started the novel, and I had a feeling of dread from the page one, and when I got to the severed head I quit, feeling dispirited. There is a moment in the (completely unrelated) Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful and the Damned, wherein three elite gentleman make plans to see a show: “The thing is tersely called ‘The Woman,'” says one character. “I presume that she will pay.” Stripped entirely of its context, I have always felt that this remark is an elegant statement of life’s facts. At the time of my first reading, Richard Wright’s novel seemed to reaffirm my conviction that this is true (and this, mind you, was before I had even got to poor Bessie). This particular woman, severed-headed Mary, was pretty awful, but I didn’t want to read about her getting stuffed in the furnace. And things seemed so inevitable for Bigger Thomas; the only place for the story to go was down. Talking of tropes, we all know what happened when a black man was suspected to have looked sideways a white woman. Bigger Thomas’ goose was cooked long before he put a pillow over Mary’s face.
Much later it occurred to me what a fraud I am. How, I thought, am I going to go crazy for 2666, happily slogging through 100 pages of murdered women, while this crucial American work offends my delicate sensibilities? So I returned to the novel with my nerves steeled. I gave it another chance, and it knocked my everloving socks off.
In retrospect, I am discomfited that I took Bigger so personally the first time I picked up the novel, and that I actually to an extent, failed to separate the author from his creation. I have never assumed that John Fowles sympathized with men who hold women hostage in their basements, so why would I think Richard Wright was holding up this crapbag Bigger as a delightful specimen of humanity? Why did it suddenly matter that the woman always pays? Surely a book so lauded wouldn’t deal in pointless female victimization (okay, one might, especially if it was by Norman Mailer, but that’s a story for another day).
Wright’s novel begins with Bigger Thomas doing a series of hateful things. Mean to his sister, mean to his long-suffering, hard-working mother, mean to his friends, prone to violent rages. Starting the novel, I admit I had that ignoble instinct I so hate when I hear it from the mouths of right-wing reactionaries; the sentiment that basically goes “Do what your parents did, Sir. Get a job, Sir.” When I got near the end of the book, to read basically the same words come out of the miserable dickhead State’s Attorney’s mouth during Bigger’s (sham) trial, that hurt.
No! He cursed his mother! He said that he did not want to work! He wanted to loaf about the streets, steal from newsstands, rob stores, meddle with women, frequent dives, attend cheap movies, and chase prostitutes!
It’s a shocking sensation, to see yourself partially mirrored in the novel’s villainous bigot. That’s good art, friends! Especially because by the time you’ve made it to the State’s Attorney you, (I, that is) do feel pretty terrible for Bigger. And also just terrible.
Wright’s pacing is brilliant. It starts hard. It’s a realistic sort of pace. It doesn’t get easier as the novel goes on, but things get explained. They start to make more sense. In life, when you hear about something terrible, you usually haven’t prepared for it by reading a treatise on human behavior and motivations beforehand. And, unfortunately, often you don’t want to take the time to reflect on said behavior and motivations. You just want to say, “Do what your parents, did, Sir. Get a job, sir.” You want to put the book down.
I think I really quit the novel that first time because I had a premonition that it was going to be hard, and possibly even hard on me. I suspected that it wouldn’t let me walk the easy, feel-good path with regard to racism – the Newbery Medal kind of way, where even though terrible things happen, humanity mostly prevails and, ideally, a triumph or two of the human spirit takes place. The kind of book, additionally, that lets me, as a white person, feel confident that I would have been friends with Cassie Logan even if the town disapproved.
But Native Son is not a novel that wants to hold anybody’s hand. Native Son does not want to tuck you into bed at night and reassure you that you are with it. Wright, starting as he did with a hugely unlovable character, dares you to face certain realities. Namely, that discussions of oppression are infinitely more comfortable when members of the oppressed race in question are doing things like passively resisting, writing monumental novels, and being elected president by a majority of the country so that one can say “My goodness, we’ve come a long way!” But that’s stupid. The reason that institutionalized racism is despicable is because it takes away humanity. Obviously it makes the oppressor ugly; but it can make its victims ugly too. Ugliness breeds ugliness. Why should a book about something ugly be made palatable so that I, a white lady, can feel uplifted?
Normally I don’t read authors’ explanations of their work, because I prefer the author to not be tiresome and talk about himself all the time, when he could be working hard to create more entertainment for me. However, I found Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ was born” (included in some editions of Native Son) fascinating. I’m not crazy about the writing style in Native Son, although it more than serves its purpose in the novel, but I love Richard Wright’s prose in the Bigger essay (and in Black Boy). I enjoy the prose, and it was illuminating to learn why Wright sat down to write this novel. But the essay mainly struck me as impressive proof positive that the author set out to do a very specific something, and, in fact, did that very thing.
I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in earnest.
Well, I’m hear to say that this is hard and deep, and that I faced it without the consolation of tears. The man did what he wanted. And, I would add, did in spite of “the fears which a Negro feels from living in America – standing over me, draped in white, warning me not to write.”
Post Script: A twisted coincidence: lest you think this book and its indictment of American society is no longer relevant, consider this: as I was writing this Revue, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fucking quoted on my copy of this novel, was arrested for, it would seems, entering his home while black.