I bought the book Tender is the Night for 20 cents from my school library annual bin-out sale when I was 17 and I remember being mesmerised by the cover of the book which bears a photo of a beautiful woman with a short bob leaning against the lid of a piano. While the woman gazes at her reflection, the reflection stares straight back at the reader. It foreshadowed the schizophrenia of Nicole Diver, the wife of Dick Diver, a young psychoanalyst.
A friend of mine recently urged me to read Tender is the Night which is one of his favourite novels. And I keep meaning to re-read it. I think people’s favourite books reveal a lot about their character or maybe I am just happy to devour any literary or musical ties I can to people and places. Nevertheless, I’ve been meaning to re-read it for a while and see if it’s as enchanting and more meaningful now that I’m older. Tender is the Night is based on the real life events of Fitzgerald’s life with his wife Zelda who was an amateur ballerina. Save me the Waltz is Zelda’s own account of their lives as the ‘It couple’ in the South of France, the music, the champagne, the dancing all night and later her passion for ballet and how it took over her life, a testament to her husband’s work and their life together.
Between work and university it took me a long time to finish Save me the waltz, yet each time I had a spare 20 minutes and actually managed to get into it, I found it really hard to put it down. While Tender is the night is disturbing and gripping in the way it strikes a dischord, it jars against something inside you, Zelda’s novel about the same set of events has an unusual prose that is vaguely bubbly and yet calming in her almost hindsighty way of writing about things. You can sense the mother in her. Little things stuck with me. The way that Alabama has to swallow a yellow sedative at night so that she can forget about Bonnie’s letters. The solidarity of husband and wife in the face of their daughter is also really poignant, as I think it’s what most good parents do. You might have your fights in private but where the kids are concerned, you look at each other and decide on your joint stance, for together you are stronger.
The luxury of their 1920’s life is painted with a whirl of rented cars and holiday houses by the sea, nannies that are replaced with Mademoiselles and affairs with the likes of Jacques and Gabrielle Gibbs. I don’t quite understand the pain and hurt that she must feel – “she lay sprawled like a damp wrung towel over the window sill, like the transparent shed carcass of a brilliant insect” and yet her resignation to being a thwarted lover, her resignation to the fact that her husband strays and seeks ‘emotional stimulus’ elsewhere. How does a woman lay in bed crying that her husband has spent the night with another woman and then wonder whether to put a pillow under his head to stop him snoring. I feel like for me, this is the first sign of her mental instability. Because it would have surely driven me mad.
I was listening to the song ‘Old Cape Cod’ today at work, the Groove armada version. The original by Patti Page “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air…”kind of makes me think of Zelda with her beautiful face lying on a sun chair by the sea, with her daughter accessorising her look like Madonna with child. And its nostalgic song that could place you anywhere, in the Deep South, among the plantations at Tara with Scarlett and Bonnie, or in the South of France with Zelda and Scottie. If I loved a man so fiercely and yet my love for him diminished in pursuit of my independence and my art, I don’t think I could possibly bare the loss of that art. And yet Alabama loses her legs, all that work for nothing, and rushes to her father, in his death feeling like she has inherited only uncertainty.
Maybe I am more like Zelda than I care to admit. Maybe I’m not. But I can almost taste the salt in the air.