The Clash of Egos in the Night, Illusion and Reality
In all his five novels, the tragic heroine is central. The hero or anti-hero is a man possessed by her enticing charms. He is caught in a web and yet at the same time has the freedom to impress her with his riches as in The Great Gatsby and The Beautiful and Damned, his medical prowess as in Tender is the Night and always his power to create illusions as in The Last Tycoon. The narrative in each of his novels can be linked to events in the author’s own life with his real tragic heroine, Zelda Fitzgerald, née Sayre. This Side of of Paradise is strewn with the unrequited loves of the hero, the impoverished Amory Blaine. He finally falls in love with a New York debutante who discards him to marry a much wealthier man. The logic is that money will buy happiness. Francis Scott Fitzgerald similarly had fallen in love with Zelda Sayre in 1919 but they broke up because he believed he did not have sufficient funds to support her. He then wrote This Side of Paradise which was a huge success, enabling him to whisk her off to Paris and the French Riviera to lead some version of la dolce vita.
He wanted to shower her with all the things affluence makes possible as Gatsby did Daisy. He must have realised at some point that contrary to his beliefs in the power of money, this was just not enough and turned to the bottle. The idyll is therefore marred by his heavy drinking: Hemingway, a close friend, in true band of brothers style, blames this on Zelda whom he disliked and considered ‘insane’ and accused her of encouraging Francis to drink to distract him from work on his next novel. It begs the question of who encouraged Hemingway to drink? James Joyce perhaps? Or is it always a woman? In The Beautiful and Damned, the idyll reappears and this time the hero, Anthony Patch, a tycoon in waiting and his wife Gloria, to all appearances, an ideal match, find time hang heavily on their hands. They both have what they want; she a rich husband and he a fortune to inherit; and yet they have nothing – a vacuum at heart or vacuous hearts – and their dissolute life ends in indolence and alcoholism.
The Great Gatsby, depicts the nostalgia for a dream – the great illusion recurs that money will solve everything – will return the past to us however unreal that past was. Ugly reality shatters the dream in the form of the Wilsons; their gritty and forlorn lives allowed to stain the gossamer surrounding Daisy and exacting a heavier price from Gatsby. Perhaps the author thought he too paid the price of a life of seeming enchantment in something more than dollars. With these two books the author knew he was living in a fantasy, knew that reality could not be allowed to break into this dream and possibly drank in excess to sustain the illusions he and Zelda lived by. The irony is that with or without illusions we are perhaps all lost and so one might reason; better to live with the illusions no matter the cost. A glimmer of this at the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem: “ . . .we have lingered by the chambers of the sea by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown till human voices wake us and we drown.” The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock
The pivotal book is Tender is the Night, set mainly on the French Riviera where Dick Diver, psychoanalyst marries his rich patient, Nicole, an American heiress, whom he met in a sanatorium recovering from a nervous breakdown triggered by some illicit liaison with her father during her childhood. What do they want from each other: she is attracted by the fact that his interest in her is both personal and professional; he, that a beautiful yet damaged woman will submit to him on a personal and professional level. Each uses the other. Dick casts a spell with his words trying to convince himself and Nicole of the glamorous perfection of their life together and Nicole plays along? He believes his love is a cure for her suffering and she lets him believe this. But the charm fails and what is left – two people, isolated from each other and hurtling apart. Did they ever love each other or was it a drink induced illusion. Dick turns his attention to the alluring young film actress, Rosemary and casts his spell: “ He looked at her and for a moment she lived in the bright blue worlds of his eyes, . . .” Book 1 Ch2
Nicole realises something more devastating than a possible affair: “She had somehow given over the thinking to him, and in his absences her every action seemed automatically governed by what he would like, so that now she felt inadequate to match her intentions against his. Yet think she must; she knew at last the number on the dreadful door of fantasy, the threshold to the escape that was no escape; she knew that for her greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herself. It had been a long lesson but she had learned it. Either you think—or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.” And then at the end of the novel, the transfer of power: “While he did not answer she began to feel the old hypnotism of his intelligence . . . she struggled with it, fighting him with her small fine eyes, with the plush arrogance of a top dog, with her nascent transference to another man, with the accumulated resentment of years; she fought him with her money, and her faith that her sister disliked him and was behind her now; with the thought of the new enemies he was making with his bitterness, with her quick guile against his wine-ing and dine-ing slowness, her health and beauty against his physical deterioration, her unscrupulousness against his moralities—for this inner battle she used even her weaknesses—fighting bravely and courageously with the old cans and crockery and bottles, empty receptacles of her expiated sins, outrages, mistakes. And suddenly in the space of two minutes she achieved her victory and justified herself to herself without lie or subterfuge, cut the chord forever. Then she walked, weak in the legs, and sobbing cooly, towards the household that was hers at last. Dick waited until she was out of sight. Then he leaned his head forward on the parapet. The case was finished. Doctor Diver was at liberty.” Book 3 Chapter IX
The novel is deemed to be semi-autobiographical. A twist in the tale is that two years before this novel was published, Zelda who was recovering in a psychiatric institution from an episode of schizophrenia wrote and published her own novel Save me the Waltz which drew heavily on her life with her husband on the French Riviera at that time. She had been encouraged to write as part of her therapy. Scott Fitzgerald’s reaction on reading the manuscript is telling – he was outraged! Why? because he had not published anything since The Great Gatsby in 1925 and had been working on the as yet unpublished, Tender is the Night which covered the same period and material as Zelda’s novel. He forced his wife to revise her book extensively and who knows what was deleted. The original manuscript and revisions are all lost. There are many examples of couples who are both extremely gifted but the man always prevails: Rodin and Camille Claudel, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood to name but a few. Scott Fitzgerald finally allowed the publication of Save me the Waltz to go ahead in 1932 and it was greeted disappointingly by critics and sales of just over one thousand copies. Zelda tried a second novel on her experiences in the clinic but Scott Fitzgerald told her amongst many other criticisms, she was a third-rate writer and the psychiatrist agreed and Zelda was crushed. The clash of egos was over.
His novel, Tender is the Night was published in 1934 to mixed reviews but has since gained in stature. The illusions they had managed to sustain for so long vanishing amidst cruelty and mental frailty. In the book she wins; in life he triumphs as a writer . . . but perhaps in their own way they both lost. The power struggle between a different set of real protagonists, Irving Thalberg, an American film producer and the studio boss of MGM, Louis B. Meyer provided the material for the final book by Scott Fitzgerald published posthumously, the unfinished The Last Tycoon. How fitting that this last book should be set in that factory of illusions, Hollywood.
© Capercaillie Books Ltd 2013