Is this the greatest of Fitzgerald’s novels?
‘Fitzgerald said “There’s my new novel. I’ve written four hundred thousand words and thrown away three-fourths of it. Now I only have fifteen thousand left to write—” He stood there with a glass in his hand, then suddenly burst out, “It’s good, good, good. When it’s published people will say that it’s good, good, good.”
‘Tender was published in the spring of 1934 and people said nothing of the sort. It dealt with fashionable life in the 1920s at a time when most readers wanted to forget that they had ever been concerned with frivolities; the new fashion was for novels about destitution and revolt. The book had some friendly and even admiring notices, but most reviewers implied that it belonged to the bad old days before the crash; they dismissed it as having a “clever and brilliant surface” without being “wise and mature”. Nor was it a popular success as compared with Fitzgerald’s first three novels, which had been easier to write; in the first season it sold twelve thousand copies, or less than one-fourth as much as This Side of Paradise. In the following seasons the sale dwindled and stopped.’
Dick Driver is at the heart of the novel:
‘“The novel should do this,” he said in a memorandum to himself that was written at the time: “Show a man who is a natural idealist, a spoiled priest, giving in for various causes to the ideas of the haute bourgeoisie, and in his rise to the top of the social world losing his idealism, his talent and turning to drink and dissipation. Background one in which the leisure class is at their truly most brilliant and glamorous…”
…but the novel was always fraught with problems.
‘It has to be said that Fitzgerald could never have revised Tender into the perfect novel that existed as an ideal in his mind. He had worked too long over it and his plans for it had changed too often, just as the author himself had changed in the years since his first summer on the Riviera. To make it all of a piece he would have had to start over from the beginning and invent a wholly new series of episodes, instead of trying to salvage as much as possible from the earlier versions. No matter how often he threw his material back into the melting pot, some of it would prove refractory to heat and would keep its former shape when poured into the new mould.
So why is it a great novel?
‘It was not an attempt to analyze social values, show their falseness, tear them down—that is a necessary attempt at all times when values have become perverted, but it requires no special imaginative vitality, and Fitzgerald was doing something more difficult; he was trying to discover and even create values in a society where they had seemed to be lacking.’
The novel’s structure was a problem – it’s complexity lead to a so many major revisions. But the novel does work well in the end:
‘…Fitzgerald was right when he stopped telling the story from Dick’s point of view and allowed us merely to guess at the hero’s thoughts. Dick fades like a friend who is withdrawing into a private world or sinking to another level of society and, in spite of knowing so much about him, we are never quite certain of the reasons for his decline. Perhaps, as Fitzgerald first planned, it was the standards of the leisure class that corrupted him; perhaps it was the strain of curing a psychotic wife, who gains strength as he loses it by a mysterious transfer of vitality; perhaps it was a form of emotional exhaustion, a giving of himself so generously that he went beyond his resources, “like a man overdrawing at his bank,” as Fitzgerald would later say of his own crack-up; or perhaps it was something far back in his childhood that could only be discovered by deep analysis—we can argue about the causes as we can argue about the decline of a once intimate friend, without coming to any fixed conclusion; but the point is that we always believe in Dick and in his progress in a circle from obscurity to obscurity. With our last glimpse of him swaying a little as he stands on a high terrace and makes a papal cross over the beach that he had found and peopled and that has now rejected him, his fate is accomplished and the circle closed.’
Not as straightforward as The Great Gatsby, that’s probably because it is this novel that is Fitzgerald’s attempt to write a truly great novel. Does he succeed? Probably.