Friday 12 October 2012

The scandal of mental health

Tender is the night
F Scott Fitzgerald

I will declare to start with: I picked this book because in a film I saw recently (the Squid and the Whale, very good actually, very moving breakdown of a marriage and the kids) the rather annoying university professor father goes on rather a lot about how it is The Classic by Fitzgerald.  And because I am drawn to such descriptions, I decided to try for myself.
I understand from glancing through the introduction by the academic (a strange economics based introduction actually) that there seems to be some dispute about the order of the text, but I know no more than this. Obviously that will have a massive impact on the first reading of the novel, and probably on my interpretation, but because I’d rather draw my own conclusions (and review) of the book first, I will leave Googling all of that until I have written this blog entry.

The plot revolves around an American couple in the French Riviera. They adopt a young American girl into their group, who has become a bit famous through some movies but is still very young, and then we follow this couple back through their own history and forwards into the future as their marriage breaks down. The young starlet leaves them behind and moves on with her career in the film industry, but her first love is always the husband, Dick. There’s a lot of discussion about the wealth of the wife’s family and Dick’s non-wealthy background.  And more importantly, the book dramatizes how Dick met his wife whilst he was a doctor at a mental retreat in Switzerland. Yes, that is it actually openly discusses mental health and the scandal of it.

The relationship between husband and wife is brilliantly drawn, and the book has sufficient breadth to show the picture over a longer time span. The depiction of the wife is convincing, as is the slow spread into middle age of Dick’s ambition, spark and intellect. It almost appears as she goes up he goes down in the world (see here for reference the disturbing film Poppy Shakespeare, which I saw on Channel 4 a few years ago, and which I can never forget).

The style of writing is sparse and beautiful. I had honestly forgotten how lyrically Fitzgerald writes, and it made quite a change to the previous book I’d been reading where I was so desperate to find out what happened that I read at breakneck speed. I found myself having to slow my reading speed here, just to account for one word I’d missed that gave the whole meaning to a sentence.

A few quibbles
I felt the focus drifted in parts of the book – why does the starlet open the novel, but then come to nothing really?
Is it me, or is it incredibly racist? The depiction of the blacks, including a savage murder at one point, left me queasy.

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