HIGHBROW, LOWBROW (Monthly Book Report: 12/1/17)

The past month’s completed books include a western, a thriller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A theme? Who knows…

 

 

 

 

 

Tender is the Night (1934)
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It sounds like nonsense to me.”

“Maybe it is, Dick. But, we’re a rich person’s clinic–we don’t use the word nonsense.” 

Tender is the Night was Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel. The literati now argue whether it’s a greater work than The Great Gatsby and the best I can say after finally catching up with it is that it’s a legitimate argument.

And while I can’t agree with those  (Ross Macdonald was one) who believe Fitzgerald’s best work was a step upward and onward from Henry James, his care with language was similar and his ear for the just-right phrase was sufficiently honed by this time to make his subsequent rapid demise a genuine tragedy of letters. Except for Nabokov–American only by accident–no “serious” American writer has shown similar facility with the language since.

The plot of Tender is the Night concerns a semi-autobiographical tale of a Fitzgerald stand-in, Dick Diver, become enamored of, then saddled with, a damaged beauty, Nicole Diver, who is a stand-in for the writer’s dazzling, troubled wife, Zelda. I suppose there’s fun to be had drawing parallels between the real-life Fitzgeralds and the fictional Divers. But that aspect didn’t interest me much. This isn’t a novel whose interest needs to be limited to the personal. Fitzgerald covered a narrow range, but within that range he was filled with penetrating insights. He’s worth reading not least because he had a fair bit to say about those who accrue power–and a great deal to say (much of it heartbreaking, but a good bit more bracingly cynical) about those who either stand by or are shoved aside by the people who will ultimately decide the fates of those less predatory.

That was not an insignificant well of knowledge for a writer to deepen and freshen in the 1930s….or now.

A beautiful book. I wonder if the same qualities that allowed him to write it, prevented him from living long enough or well enough to finish another.

The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
Jack Higgins

Higgins was one of several pen names adopted by Henry Patterson. It happened to be the one he was using when this novel made his name and he was stuck with it ever afterward.

I’m not exactly sure how many copies have ever shifted under “Jack Higgins” that wouldn’t have done the same under “Henry Patterson” but it’s sort of appropo, both in its mundanity and its duplicity, that a man whose Big Idea (the one every super-successful pulp writer needs to permanently hook whatever name he’s using into the Public’s grasping maw), involves an assassination attempt on Winston Churchill by a compromised man whose embattled sense of integrity ends up costing him success, should write under a pseudonym that isn’t even catchy.

That said, it’s damn effective. Given that you know his protagonist isn’t going to succeed–and that, unlike Frederick Forsyth’s “Jackal” or Ken Follett’s “Needle,” he isn’t going to be revealed as a sociopath, even though he’s on the darkest mission imaginable–Higgins’ ability to keep the finger turning the pages is near miraculous.

The Nazis hardly lost their usefulness to pulp writers in the decades since, but this, Follett’s Eye of the Needle, Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, and the similar-themed books by Len Deighton were the peak of the form. I’m glad I read it and Higgins’ is certainly a good enough writer that I’ll look for a chance to explore his work further. I keep hoping I’ll find one who hit it out of the park more than a time or two.

The Quick and the Dead (1973)
Louis L’Amour

Stranger: “They figure to kill you Mister.”
Settler: “What?”
Stranger: “They’ve seen your woman.”

Westerns were a big part of my youthful reading and I’ve revisited the genre here and there in the years since, but I haven’t read any L’Amour in decades. I found a stack of his books at a sale table in my little town’s fall festival antique show. At a dollar a pop, I figured what could it hurt?

I don’t know about the rest, but this, the first I read, was a nice little surprise. L’Amour and the other western pulp masters have never been embraced by the illuminati the way the crime writers have. And this very typical fare isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind. But if you have any feel for the genre, it’s a fine way to pass a weekend. L’Amour didn’t get to be the form’s all time bestseller by failing to understand its virtues. Those lines above set the story’s stage.

It doesn’t need anything grander, because L’Amour has a clear sense of what’s at stake besides mere survival:

Too proud to live in genteel poverty they had chosen to go west. They had no desire to seek gold, for to them wealth lay in ownership of land and in its cultivation. They wished to find a green valley where they could sink roots and live out their lives.

Now they were alone, and until now she had not realized what loneliness meant, nor what it meant to live in an ordered, law-abiding community. There had been occasional thefts, and she could remember a murder once, some years before, but the law had been there, and public opinion, with its protective shield of what was accepted and what was not.

There had been so many restraints, legal and social, between them and the savagery that lay innate in so many people. Out here the bars were down. There was no such restraint…not yet.

They’ll live in their green valley when eight men have been killed or run off. Not before. Then they’ll be free to impose the restraints of civilization which the Great Thinkers of the decade L’Amour was writing in were so engaged in casting off.

It’s that and the perfect placement of that  “and public opinion” that gets you.

I’ll be reading more L’Amour. (For the record, this was made into a superb TV movie with Sam Elliot as the Stranger, Tom Conti as the Settler, and a lovely turn by the ever-underestimated Kate Capshaw as the woman the bad men have seen. Not to be mistaken for the Sharon Stone campfest of the same name, it can be viewed or downloaded here).

AS I WAS GOING THROUGH ALL OF F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S BOOKS (Adventures in Language: Fifth Journey)

Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934)

You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books,
You’re very well read it’s well known
Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

(Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”)

In the process of becoming very well read, I’m finally getting around to Tender is the Night, the Fitzgerald novel most likely to be cited by contrarians (including the author himself) as superior to The Great Gatsby. I’m only about a fifth of the way in, and already convinced that when I finish this and The Beautiful and Damned (the other Fitzgerald I haven’t read), I will know  something is happening but I still won’t know what it is. Prospects are good, though, for it being a fine novel. Fitzgerald could turn a phrase with anyone, and it has passages like this, where his ex-pats are visiting the ruins of a Great War battlefield:

He went along the trench, and found the others waiting for him in the next traverse. He was full of excitement and he wanted to communicate it to them, to make them understand about this, though actually Abe North had seen battle service and he (Dick Diver) had not.

“This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer,” he said to Rosemary. She looked out obediently at the rather bare green plain with its low trees of six years’ growth. If Dick had added that they were now being shelled she would have believed him that afternoon. Her love had reached a point where now at last she was beginning to be unhappy, to be desperate, She didn’t know what to do–she wanted to talk to her mother.

“There are lots of people dead since and we’ll all be dead soon,” said Abe consolingly.

Rosemary waited tensely for Dick to continue.

“See that little stream–we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month. to walk to it–a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco–“

“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancee, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again….”

I imagine that was the kind of sentiment that left everyone scoffing in 1934 (when few saw it as prescient). No doubt they went right on scoffing up until May of 1940, when the Germans crushed the “western-front” Dick Diver said could never hold in a month, despite being outnumbered by two million troops.

One of the reasons Western Euros stay freaked about Russia-Russia-Russia these days is that if Putin ever decides to imitate Rommel, coming from a thousand miles further away, it won’t take him anything like a month.

And exactly no one will care to risk their life taking it back.

Somebody else’s life maybe. But not their own.

I mean, why would they?

Couldn’t we just nuke Moscow? Maybe trade it for London and Paris?

I guess we (and the Euros) better hope he thinks so.

Good thing I already know all this stuff. Otherwise, I’d be mightily depressed.