I just read Tender Is the Night and This Side of Paradise in rapid succession, and think I can now safely say that I don't get F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like, do you have to have lived through the Great War to understand where he's coming from? Because I get that sense from This Side of Paradise, which was his first book, but I'm getting ahead of myself, because first I read the other one even though it was written later. There's this kind of incest theme that runs all the way through Tender Is the Night, which I'll discuss further under the cut:
So this book is about the Divers, Dick and Nicole, and how the teenage movie star Rosemary Hoyt disrupts their lives with her disturbing sexual and romantic energy. When we first see Rosemary she's eighteen and has just rocketed to fame as the title character in the hit movie Daddy's Girl, of which even the title is creepy. And yes, when we see it, the movie itself is creepy too, containing "a lovely shot of Rosemary and her parent united at the last in a father complex so apparent that Dick winced for all psychologists at the vicious sentimentality." That's bad enough until we learn that Dick, himself a psychiatrist, met his wife, Nicole, because she was his teenage patient who had gone crazy because her father raped her. He was twenty-four and she was was sixteen when they met, and, like Rosemary, she fell in love with him first and dragged him down with her. This appears to be Dick's thing: he "falls in love" with teenage girls -- as long as they're rich and unbelievably beautiful -- but it's not his fault, man, they throw themselves at him! And he doesn't just fall in love with them, he fucks them. The book itself obviously judges him for this, because things get worse and worse, and the incest theme recurs, most notably when Dick gets arrested and an assembled crowd boos him because "a native of Frascati had raped and slain a five-year-old child and was to be brought in that morning -- the crowd had assumed it was Dick." Dick, who is already sliding into alcoholism, says to one of the people trying to spring him from jail, "I want to make a speech.... I want to explain to these people how I raped a five-year-old girl. Maybe I did --"
You could write that off as bombast from a guy losing his grip on his own personality, but notice the difference between Fitzgerald's wording and his character's. Fitzgerald says that "a five-year-old child" was "raped and slain"; it's Dick who makes that child a girl and himself her rapist, but not her killer. He's denouncing himself for his relationship with his wife, and so far I'm with him -- it's disgusting because he was one of her doctors, disgusting because she was literally a child when they became involved, and disgusting because she was mentally ill -- and had become so precisely because of sexual attention from an older man she trusted. So far, condemning himself is the only thing Dick Diver does that I'm on board with. As far as I'm concerned, you could slingshot that dude into the sun. But what makes it even worse is that he just repeats his mistakes by getting involved with another child, Rosemary, when he's even older, old enough to literally be her "Daddy," and married with two kids. Congratulations, Dick Diver, you just got even more loathsome. You seem really committed to acting out father/daughter incest -- and did I mention that Rosemary's actual father is dead, which is probably why she's drawn to Dick in the first place?
Then there's this throwaway line from Dick when he's justifying how he disciplines his children, including his daughter, Topsy: "What do I care whether Topsy 'adores' me or not? I'm not bringing her up to be my wife." But that's precisely what he seems to want, a daughter-wife. When Nicole gets into her twenties, he moves on to a different gorgeous teenager. And when his daughter-wives show that they have lives independent of him, and don't need him as much as he needs them, he becomes an alcoholic husk of a man and ends up divorced and -- gasp! -- living in America, where only losers live, instead of France or Italy or someplace glamorous like that.
So OK, Fitzgerald is clearly judging Dick. And I'm judging Dick too, as you can see. But I don't think we're judging him the same way. I get the sneaking suspicion that what Fitzgerald is saying is, "Don't fall in love with girls, because they'll grow up to be women, and women will eat you alive."
So then I read This Side of Paradise, hoping it would bring things into focus, and in a way it did, because that's when I realized what makes me uncomfortable about Fitzgerald, and it's not the incest. It's that he writes like someone with narcissistic personality disorder trying to convince me that he's capable of deep feeling. A summary:
Eyeteeth: So the protagonist falls in love with this girl. Why?
Fitzgerald: She's pretty. Like, really pretty. You can tell how pretty she is because she strings guys along and is mean to other girls. She's actually kind of evil. But pretty.
Eyeteeth: Anything else?
Fitzgerald: Well, she's rich. And she adores him, obvs.
Fitzgerald: Why what?
Eyeteeth: Why does she adore him? What's he got going on?
Fitzgerald: He's really handsome! God, do I have to draw you a map? THEY'RE BOTH PRETTY. THEY'VE BOTH BEEN EDUCATED TO BE USELESS TO SOCIETY. THEY'RE IN THE SAME ROOM. THEY FALL IN LOVE.
Eyeteeth: OK, we'll come back to that. Tell me more about how the protagonist lectures someone about socialism like some kind of Bizarro-world Ayn Rand character even though he hates poor people by his own admission despite being poor himself and has never had a job.
--This is why I ask if you had to live through World War I to understand Fitzgerald. Because he says, "This man is in love with this woman, and she is in love with him," but I get no indication from the characters of anything that looks to me like love. Is this emotional disconnect something that would make sense to me if I felt I had "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken"; rather, would it make sense to me if I lived in a time naïve enough to believe that it had seen the worst humanity had to offer? That it had hit rock bottom? Because Dick Diver and Amory Blaine and Jay Gatsby didn't know shit about rock bottom, they didn't know that while they were obsessing over their own wasted potential that the Nazis were already accumulating power. As far as I can tell, what they do know is that it hurts when pretty girls don't like you back, and didn't we know that before all the gods died?
So seriously, what am I not getting here? It bugs the shit out of me when a writer is famous and I can't figure him out. This is like Doris Lessing all over again, man.