Quote of the Day: Hemingway and Fitzgerald in The Sun Also Rises

“[Robert] Cohn, the sad, ineffectual woman-haunted Princetonian, is most debilitated by being a Scott Fitzgerald hero in an Ernest Hemingway novel.”

That’s Patrick Morrow in his essay “The Bought Generation: Another Look at Money in The Sun Also Rises,” proving that not all academic articles must be humorless. I’m paying particular attention to humor, too, since I’m writing about humor as a response to conditions in The Sun Also Rises and The Dud Avocado. This is a more exciting topic than it may sound!

Tender is the Night — Fitzgerald

Early in Tender is the Night, we find this about a relatively minor character named McKisco:

“I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”

The context is a conversation putatively about duels, but one could take McKisco’s confusion as a synecdoche for the novel as a whole: no one see what it’s all about or why they’re doing it. Even Dick Diver, psychologist, doesn’t really; he’s supposed to have mastered the mind but hasn’t mastered his own. Some of the novel’s descriptions and transitions mirror this confusion or uncertainty, which makes Tender is the Night feel more Modernist than its predecessors. Take, for example, this:

When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.

The description goes from a relatively literal rendition of the Americans’ surface into a metaphoric one of their souls. But I have no idea what “vague racial dusk” means, which is perhaps why it needs “vague” out in front, or why that would blind observers; perhaps those theoretical observers are used to judging based on categories that Americans defy, or think they defy. If so, the novel is a journey into the ways Americans are more ensnared by history than we might want to be, and why we might be more obscure than we’d like to imagine. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors its themes: it cuts many of the “she shifted her attention to the fight” transitions that might otherwise make this easier to follow:

Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”

A chorus shouts after Nicole’s Deep Thought, and in re-reading Tender is the Night I see where Tom Wolfe got some of his techniques for representing speech.

Some of the stylistic tics, like the “vague racial dusk” are meant to make us poetically see something in a new light, but they often feel more like work compared to a novel like Gatsby. It feels more indulgent, too: this is Fitzgerald wanting to write a novelist’s novel, meaning that it should have enough strangeness to make it hard to figure out what’s happening and why. This brings pleasures of its own, especially on second reads, but the danger of obscurity for obscurity’s sake remains, as when a voice suddenly shifts from third person limited to first:

All that saved it [the offer of marriage? something else?] this time was Nicole finding their table and glowing away, white and fresh and new in the September afternoon.

How do you do, lawyer. We’re going to to Como tomorrow for a week and then back to Zurich. That’s why I wanted you and sister to settle this […] (166)

My confusion mirrored McKisco’s in this narrative jump. Eventually that confusion was (mostly) remedied, but not so remedied as to make the novel boring.

Continuing was worth it: Fitzgerald knows how to end a novel. Tender is the Night isn’t quite so overtly poetic as Gatsby, with its boats being beaten back into the past, but it has a sense of melancholy and emotion that few novels do. I’m being vague because I don’t know how to describe the feelings evoked; perhaps that is one definition of a powerful novel. Melancholy is a part, but like a good wine, it’s only a single strand of a complex weave, one cannot appreciate the whole without appreciating all its parts.

There’s one other thing that Tender is the Night reminds me of: the habit that literary history has of doubling back on itself. Received opinion—so received that I don’t know where I got it from—holds that people didn’t start really writing about divorce and affairs and torrid sex and so forth until Updike and Roth. Marriages were more stable, at least as depicted artistically, and the really great fireworks caused by social changes didn’t hit until the 1960s. But the more I read the less that narrative seems to fit: Tender is the Night encapsulates Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance and maybe even Couples. Middlemarch has marriages that end. Even Pride and Prejudice has its affair between Lydia and Wickham, although the sex they’re having is so powerful that it remains unspoken.

Madame Bovary doesn’t encapsulate Tender is the Night but at least presages it. The drama of adult relationships, which I’d thought a (relatively) recent invention in fiction, isn’t. Neither is the childishness that such relationships sometimes entail. More continuity exists over the course of history than I thought, and what seems new in terms of content no longer does. Even the style of Tender is the Night holds up: if it were published today, I’d not know the difference. one can see greater stylistic continuity from Fitzgerald to the present than from, say, Middlemarch to Fitzgerald (this is part of what James Wood discusses in his nominal discussion of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a topic that I will return to later).

I don’t know what to do with this idea concerning continuity and change save note its existence, at least in my reading. Perhaps the rhetoric of the love story hasn’t changed that much, except perhaps for the inclusion of overt female desire in a larger number of more recent novels; it’s hard to see a good precursor of Allison Poole in Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. Poole feels a long way from Nicole Diver, but the feeling of a search for something that cannot be adequately defined continues, and the inability to find that absent something propels novels and stories forward.

Links: Penelope Fitzgerald, How Fiction Works, and blogger ethics

* The L.A. Times is cutting its stand-alone book review. Mark Sarvas covers the protest of its former editors. I wonder if there will be any newspaper book coverage worth reading outside of the New York Times.

* I’ve never wanted to read Penelope Fitzgerald, but after reading A.S. Byatt discussing her former colleague, I feel compelled to.

* Slate discusses James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and in doing so, succumbs to the problem of writing a summary that makes the book seem pale and flat when it is anything but. I wrote about such problems here (see more links in that post).

* The good news is that Salon has a much better review, which observes:

And as delightful as that sounds, I can’t help noticing what’s missing — namely, anything to do with story. This is no accident. Wood has always been impatient with what he calls “the essential juvenility of plot,” an attitude that comes through most clearly when he deigns to review genre writers. In “How Fiction Works,” he uses a not very representative sample from le Carré’s “Smiley’s People” to damn the whole school of “commercial realism,” its bloodless efficiency, its famished grammar of “intelligent, stable, transparent storytelling.” Even when he finds a genre writer he likes, he acts a bit like Gladstone among the whores. In a recent New Yorker review, for instance, he writes admiringly of Richard Price’s “Lush Life” but wonders why the author doesn’t “free himself from the tram track of the police procedural.”

I like the criticism but think it uses a bad example: the problem with Lush Life is that for all its artfulness, it makes the same point most modern thrillers do—the cops and crooks aren’t so different and the ways of the world don’t change much regardless of the side you’re on. That’s nice, but it’s been made about a thousand times before and is the central weakness of modern thrillers and one refreshing thing about Elmore Leonard, who doesn’t generally fall into this trap. I wrote these problems with Lush Life in my review of it.

* A question of blogger ethics: should one post e-mails without permission? In general I’d say no, unless one uses a short excerpt as an example of a general trend and it’s done anonymously. For example, in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters, I quoted two literary agents but didn’t put their names or identifying information about them in the post. In a follow-up post, I paraphrased what some e-mailers said. But I would never post an e-mail with someone’s name without permission because I think it violates their expectation for reasonable privacy. If they wanted to write in a public place, comments are open, and to dash that expectation isn’t fair.

The only exception to this is egregious behavior—for example, threats to sue, gross cruelty or crudity, and the like might merit an exception to this general policy. With luck I’ll never have to do so, but reserving the possibility seems prudent.

(Hat tip Books Inq.)

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