Tender Is the Fall

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine

Writers in general are not known for their modesty. To a question by a New York Times interviewer in 1972 as to what was his position in the world of letters, Vladimir Nabokov delivered the merry reply, “Jolly good view from up here,” which, while typically smug, at least had the merit of being witty. At the weightier end of the scale there is the ever autobiographical Wallace Stevens and his stately assertion, in “Large Red Man Reading,” that “there were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,” the deathless phrases made by, as he has it in another poem, “the dauntless master,” who is of course Stevens himself. With Joyce we scale the very slopes of Mount Olympus, to behold the godlike artist standing aside from his creation, paring his fingernails. And shall we mention Whitman?

The writer’s egomania can, of course, be underpinned by, can indeed be founded on, acute personal insecurity. F. Scott Fitzgerald announced in 1924, “Well, I shall write a novel better than any novel ever written in America,” but in the matter of class, something about which he cared a great deal, he was driven by “a two-cylinder inferiority complex,” so that “if I were elected King of Scotland tomorrow after graduating from Eton, Magdalene to Guards, with an embryonic history which tied me to the Plantagenets, I would still be a parvenu.” And when it came to writing, too, although he could boast with the best, he was clear-eyed about his talent, especially toward the end; as he mused ruefully in 1940, the year of his premature death, “in a small way I was an original.”

Part of his problem, right up to the last, when he was broken in spirit and soused in spirits, was his good looks. Hemingway in his youth was handsome, but Fitzgerald was beautiful, in a way that neither he nor others could ignore. He was a troubled Narcissus, engrossed and bemused by his own physical loveliness. His helpless admiration of himself would not matter, except insofar as it mars his work, infecting it with a peculiar kind of low-level silliness that he seemed unaware of, and certainly made no effort to cure. Tender Is the Night, which he considered, and which many others still consider, his finest achievement, fairly throbs with self-regard in the portrait of its main character, Dick Diver, whom Fitzgerald closely modeled on himself. Here is Diver seen through the eyes of his future wife, Nicole Warren—modeled with equal closeness on Zelda Fitzgerald—who takes in “his somewhat proud carriage” and acknowledges, in the narrator’s words, that the

part of him which seemed to fit his reddish Irish coloring she knew least; she was afraid of it, yet more anxious to explore—this was his more masculine side: the other part, the trained part, the consideration in the polite eyes, she expropriated without question, as…

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