Rereading ‘Tender Is the Night’

To say that this is one of my favourite books is an understatement. It’s amongst my top ten (and I am very, very picky). Nine years in the making, revised endless times, Fitzgerald himself considered it his best work. First, here are some covers of ‘Tender Is the Night’ which I have admired over the years.

tender2 tender5 tender4 tender3 tender1My own battered copy dating from 1983 (goodness, so I must have read it for the first time when I was quite a bit younger than Rosemary, no wonder I found it so shocking!) has a less immediately appealing cover.



It has been with me for thirty-two years now, across nine moves to a different country, fourteen house moves, my own first marriage break down, through my own darkest days of depression, through my greatest personal triumphs and it has witnessed two children growing up to be nearly the age I was when I first laid eyes on it.

But I had not reread it cover to cover in oh-so-many years now. Would it disappoint? Not exactly, but nor did it delight me quite so much as before. One critic commented that anyone who loved Gatsby would end up loving this novel even more. In my case, I’ve moved the other way. I used to prefer it to The Great Gatsbybut I am no longer sure that is the case. Gatsby is concise and leaves a lot to the imagination. We never quite find out enough about Jay Gatsby’s missing years, unsavoury connections, or the way he made his wealth. It is the subject of myth and speculation. In Tender Is the Night everyone’s back story is much more clearly spelled out (although here too, there is plenty of gossip) and the points of view shift. The style feels much less in control, even repetitive at times. Some of the characters feel a bit extraneous, although each one contributes to the atmosphere around the gilded couple.

I remembered very clearly the French Riviera and Paris locations, but had forgotten about Lausanne and Vevey, so it was rather charming to read about the locations that are now so close to me. Some of the scenes that I remembered very clearly were still there, glittering like gems of absurdity and yet extremely poignant: the anecdote about trying to cut a waiter with a musical saw, the ridiculous duel which neither participant really wants, what Mrs. McKisko witnesses in the bathroom…

But the downward spiral of the marriage and the descent into alcoholism felt much more restrained this time round, not as shocking as I remembered – perhaps because I’ve read so much about dysfunctional families and breakdowns since. Now that I’m so much older, I had more sympathy with Nicole rather than with Rosemary. In fact, Rosemary seemed to me already tainted with the allure of fame and the artificiality of the film world. Yet I still understood her youthful hero-worship of Dick Diver, and her ultimate disappointment.

Finally, what struck me is how F. Scott Fitzgerald is so aware of the deadly consequences of privilege, how he mocks both those born with money and those chasing after it (or fame), how relentlessly self-aware he is in his work… and yet in his real life he could never escape the siren call of this very world he professes to despise. Tender Is the Night recognises that man is weak, filled with self-doubt, but that he is at his best when he still seeks out perfection. Doomed to failure of course, as we finally admit that there is no perfect moment, all is transient, but oh, how we hate ourselves for giving up…

Finally, what about the chronology? There are two versions of this novel. The best-known (the one first published in 1934) starts on the Riviera and then deals with the back story of Nicole and Dick’s meeting and marriage in flashback. The second version, published posthumously, follows the events in chronological order. The original version is best, even for people like me who don’t overly like complicated flashbacks. In this case, it’s not: Fitzgerald knew what he was doing. That chapter (X in Book II) from Nicole’s point of view, taking us right back to the present – priceless!

18 thoughts on “Rereading ‘Tender Is the Night’”

  1. What a lovely analysis of your reaction to the book then and now, Marina Sofia! We do change as we mature, and our life’s experiences give us different perspectives on what we read. So I’m not surprised that you had a different reaction to the book now. I’m glad, though, that it’s still a faithful companion for you.

    1. On the whole, the books I’ve reread after a loooong gap haven’t disappointed me, even though I now view them differently. But perhaps that’s because I steer clear of rereading the ones I fear I may be too ‘old’ for now: Catcher in the Rye, for instance.

  2. Thank you for this lovely piece. I confess to owning masses of Fitzgerald but actually having read very little of it – in fact, my volume may be a similar one to yours. I’m really inspired to pick up this one soon – and definitely in the first published version! 🙂

    1. I have to confess I’ve not seen the chronological version, so perhaps it was never published in the UK. I think I’ve read every Fitzgerald book, plus his letters and a biography (I used to go through periods like that as a teenager, when I had to devour favourite authors). I have not read much about or by Zelda, partly because I was worried it might be a bit of prurient interest in private life rather than in literature…
      Hope you get to read and enjoy…

  3. Oh thank you for this! You sent me digging into my biggest bookcase, that has two layers of hard cover copies, to see if I had kept my original copy from the 1970’s! Yes! Mille mercis!

    1. Oh, good, glad you found it, hope it has a nice cover! Of course, when you go to the South of France, you are pretty much in the area where half of the book takes place – so memorably.

  4. Interesting how your views on this and Gatsby shifted a bit. I read Tender is the Night very very many years ago and haven’t got around to re-reading it yet. At eighteen or ninteen I slightly preferred this to Gatsby too. However when I re-read Gatsby I was blown away by the utter perfection of it.

  5. Great post, Marina. It’s funny how our responses and sympathies shift in this way with age and life experience. A little like Ali, I read Tender in the Night as a teenager, but while I’ve reread Gatsby several times, I’ve yet to revisit Tender. I really ought to go back to Fitzgerald as it’s been a while.

    Oddly enough I had that very same edition from the early ’80s, but my copy disappeared somewhere along the way! Oh well…

  6. I reread Tender recently too …. In fact I enjoyed it more on this occasion than when I first read it ( about the same time as you ) although it has never been my favourite . I also read Save Me The Waltz by Zelda a novel which covers the same period of their relationship …..definitely worth a read too

  7. Gatsby …definitely . A few years ago I read his Pat Hobby stories written at the end of his life when no one would publish him and liked those v much too.

  8. I never knew about the chronological version of the story! I have to confess that my favourite bit of ‘Tender is the night’ is the holiday and introduction of characters at the very start. Now I’m questioning if I’d love the book so much if I had to go through the miserable marriage first…

  9. While I’m a huge fan of Gatsby, it’s the only Fitzgerald novel I’ve read. I think I probably will someday, maybe a retirement read. I’m saving a some great books for retirement.

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