Books · Political

Augustine with the knife

Tender is The NightTender is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of course, it doesn’t matter what the author really meant to say. Reading Richard Godden’s introduction though, it was quite comforting to me to remember that it doesn’t matter what scholars think the text means, or author meant, either. Or the press. “A tragedy backlit by beauty” is the highlighted quote.

What tragedy? There is a ‘tragedy’ here, if that word, so empty of agency, so forgiving and concealing, can be used for a rape. But I don’t think that’s what’s meant; they mean poor Dick, emptied of his potency. For Godden he’s the old economic order, and his demise has a racialised edge. Nicole, the abuse survivor, gets out, though uncertainly, like a butterfly, into the new economic age. The Great Depression is subtly foreshadowed, gives a mood to the last chapters

But sorry, I don’t see tragedy, I don’t feel for Dick, though maybe the branded, consumer-driven new order is a scourge and I should join Fitzgerald (in whom Godden sees Marxism and class loyalty warring) in mourning the old way of being wealthy in wasting time gloriously… Oh demon drink! Oh thoughtless, unthinking Woman! Oh heartless, greedy, craven world!

No, I won’t have it. I’m with Augustine, the cook, waving the kitchen knife, dismissed for helping herself to Chablis, calling Dick on his alcoholism, fearless of police, demanding her wages, calling up to Nicole ‘Au revoir Madame! Bonne chance!’ Fitzgerald is ambivalent, but I seize the half-felt words. Bonne chance, Nicole, get out from under. Even if he cannot give her a mind, I am with her.

There is something too, almost, when Dick goes to ‘cure’ a young man of homosexuality – Fitzgerald appreciates at least, that it can’t be done.

This was an unwitting re-read: many years ago I must have taken this out of the library and read it without noticing. I like to think these days I am more awake, no longer lullayed by the susurrous lyres and viols of Fitzgerald’s sentences or distracted by the plangent grief for Dick. This time a part of me answers back, sympathising with the wrong people, with Baby Warren’s will, her singleness; her ugly power-wielding, despised by Dick, rationalised by the desiccating, sexist gaze of the omnipotent author, changes in my heart. You did not see her! You made her for your sport.

But I read Fitzgerald sympathetically not only for his seeming helplessness and honesty, for sending out a vital voice from the depths of affluenza, but also for the sweetness of that voice. And he does not aestheticise wealth I think, but feeling, for the sake of communication. Do readers envy his suffering rich? I think not. But we feel for them. There is something here, some kind of struggle, a half-lucid dream to interpret.

So ‘backlit’ by beauty also sounds wrong to me. There is the light of beauty here, but lighting the ‘tragedy’ is some other illumination, like the unwholesome glow of the movies with their unreal ‘faces of girl-children’. The experimental abstraction, the theatrical entry of Dick into the movie studio, reflects the dream-darkness of the mind probed by the rising field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Dick’s field. White-supremacist capitalist patriarchy projected itself into that darkness – do I detect a part of Fitzgerald trying to… at least… let it be dark?

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2 thoughts on “Augustine with the knife

  1. I confess 6 times I had to pause reading this, to look up what specific words in your review meant. Not only is it a fine review, but will also broaden the vocabulary of a few people. It certainly did with me.

    1. Haha thanks for taking the trouble & your kind words 🙂 I ought to have said that ‘lullayed by susurrous lyres and viols’ is a line stolen from a Sylvia Plath poem!

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