Today’s Lesson is taken from The Gospel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, Book I, Chapter XII. Fitzgerald’s work must properly be described as a Gospel, even if the news he brings is so melancholy it is difficult to describe as good. How can we describe the force of prose like this except in terms of revelation?
The semi-booth gave on the vestiaire and as Rosemary hung up the receiver she heard two low voices not five feet from her on the other side of a row of coats.
“—So you love me?”
“Oh do I!”
It was Nicole—Rosemary hesitated in the door of the booth—then she heard Dick say:
“I want you terribly—let’s go to the hotel now.” Nicole gave a little gasping sigh. For a moment the words conveyed nothing at all to Rosemary—but the tone did. The vast secretiveness of it vibrated to herself.
“I want you.”
“I’ll be at the hotel at four.”
Rosemary stood breathless as the voices moved away. She was at first even astonished—she had seen them in their relation to each other as people without personal exigencies—as something cooler. Now a strong current of emotion flowed through her, profound and unidentified. She did not know whether she was attracted or repelled, only that she was deeply moved.
Rosemary Hoyt, Fitzgerald’s eighteen-year-old starlet, isn’t the only one to be moved here. We move—a very long way down—with her. In this novel, not one breath, not one heartbeat of Nicole or Dick Diver seems to escape us. Wherever they fall, we fall too. No other novelist I can recall gifts us their characters’ every move in this way, or so sensitises us to their pain. I can’t quite tell you how he does this, except that the technique has something to do with reversals. Here, Rosemary, in love with Dick (and also a little in love with Nicole) eavesdrops as if she were witnessing an extramarital affair. What she discovers is a marital desire so desperate (“Oh do I!”) the words used to utter it drop like discarded clothing to the ground and only the ‘tone’ is left (what a sleight of hand on Fitzgerald’s part: to strip from us words and leave us with only the breathing pitch and weight of two turned-on human voices). The satin surface Fitzgerald’s prose is torn and we plunge into a kind of terror. So this is what desire is, Rosemary discovers, and she, like us, hardly knows what to do with the revelation. Dick and Nicole’s desire moves away from her, in its rolling storm, and now she is ‘breathless,’ she is ‘moved.’ Whatever Dick and Nicole had has struck her, and because Fitzgerald is so precise with his imprecise abstractions (‘tone,’ ‘unidentified,’ ‘did not know’, ‘deeply moved’) the lightning jumps straight from Rosemary to you.
Fitzgerald can do these fierce and airy things because he is primarily so earthy, sensual and fleshy. He spends most of the time giving you the sad joy of feeling a world blossoming under your outstretched fingertips:
Dorothy Perkins roses dragged patiently through each compartment slowly waggling with the motion of the funicular, letting go at the last to swing back to their rosy cluster. Again and again these branches went through the car. (Book II, Chapter VIII)
Feel that? If I raise my hand to my face right now I swear I almost get the scent of those old-fashioned pink roses, and I get Fitzgerald in a funicular somewhere, being brushed against by rose after rose, doused in pollen— caught, possessed by roses dancing. Sentences like that tell you how a man lived. If he perceived roses (with touch, scent, sound, sight, almost with taste) in this way, how could he even bear to breathe? The overheard conversation near the vestiaire shows he could hardly stand it. The sensual world drops away, leaving him with longing, insatiable and vast. In that scene, it’s as if we see him falling out of the frame of the dear world: and, grasping our hands, he takes us with him. He is Rosemary, Dick, Nicole, his astonished readers. No wonder Fitzgerald drank: he drank to blur a world that hurt him second by precious, agonizing second.