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repose

F. Scott Fitzgerald's great tragic novel of Roaring Twenties Americans in Europe, 'Tender is the Night', has some of its best moments in his sharp social observations. Take the scene where the protagonist, Dick Diver, an American psychoanalyst who has married into the high society of Europe, claims to be the only American with repose.

They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose - Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with. Things looked black for them - not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face.

"We ought never to have given up waxed mustaches," said Abe. "Nevertheless Dick isn't the only man with repose -"

"Oh, yes, I am."

"- but he may be the only sober man with repose."

A well-dressed American had come in with two women who swooped and fluttered unselfconsciously around a table. Suddenly, he perceived that he was being watched - whereupon his hand rose spasmodically and arranged a phantom bulge in his necktie. In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

(...)

"You see," said Dick smugly, "I'm the only one."

Ironically, this repose is precisely what Diver will be losing in his subsequent downfall, when the relationship with his wife - a former patient of him - starts unravelling and he must face the fact that he was bought by her family as a personal doctor.

By the end, looking back on this scene, it seems to contain the moral of the story: money doesn't buy repose. It is what separates the American nouveau riche from the old European nobility, and it is shown painfully in Diver's ugly antics in the final part of the book. (If embarassing behavior is the opposite of having repose, Diver embodies it, loudly and drunkenly.) But at the same time, the European repose conceals a whole spectrum of eccentricity and mental illness, as witnessed in Diver's wife and the patients that flock to his clinic in Switzerland.

Thus Fitzgerald paints a curious mutual dependency between America and Europe, like the lame trying to cure the blind while the blind tries to teach the lame to walk suavely. Both fail, but in Fitzgerald's story the American fails much more miserably. The story's cynical conclusion is that Diver's wife emerges from their broken marriage, perhaps not cured but at least stronger, more balanced, while he himself, the once idealistic psychoanalyst, has lost everything and drifts away into obscurity.

Owing to Fitzgerald's long struggle with 'Tender is the Night', two versions of the book are in print (and available online): the original edition (1934) using flashbacks, and a revised edition (1951) which tells the story chronologically. Though the first version is more suspenseful, the second version brings out more clearly the 'rise and fall' structure of the story, which has an almost Greek tragedy inevitability.

Recommended:

things

If you thought materialist escapism and spiritual dabbling were modern phenomena, check out this very amusing short story by D.H. Lawrence , called 'Things', written in 1928. The complete text is available here . As a cruel satire of… Read the full post »

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