I remember it as a night of joy that zigzagged into a night of dolorous catastrophe. Scott and Zelda and I were drinking in our favourite café in Montmartre. The trouble began when Hemingway arrived. He was already drunk and insisted that we all drink repeated rounds of a murderous cocktail of his own devising, called The One-Legged Irishman. When I demurred, he called me a snivelling little faggot and threw a punch at me. I ducked and he accidentally hit Scott, who merely looked surprised and continued with his complaint:
‘I know the theme of the book I want to write – it’s the story of a good man, a generous man, who harbours a noble ambition; he has a high aim, but one that is within his powers. Yet his very generosity, his very goodness, trips him up – tangles him with duties and responsibilities, so that he fails. And he knows that he fails. I have the theme. I know it forwards and backwards, but I can’t locate it in a suitable context. Is it a novel about a great artist? A holy man – maybe a monk or a wandering sage? A lone scientist? A political visionary?’
I felt I could help. I knew my small talent would only equip me to turn out waspish magazine stories about lovelorn rubber planters. But Scott was a beautiful man with a soaring gifts: it would be a privilege to be his helpmeet in a small way. I said: ‘What about the story of the Prince Imperial? Do you know it – the brilliant young man, known to the Bonapartists as Napoleon IV? He threw away his life almost before it had begun, slaughtered by Zulus in a reckless and obscure action in Britain’s Zulu War in the 1870s.’
Zelda smiled her enigmatic smile. Scott looked interested. But as he started to reply, Hemingway broke in: ‘Hell, I’m so tired of your “brilliant young men”. Seen quite enough brilliant young men slaughtered.’ This wasn’t just a dig at my sexual preferences, it was also a dig at Scott, who hadn’t seen active service in the war. Hemingway continued: ‘Here’s a context for you. How about an heroic hunt for a Great White Whale?’
Zelda giggled and Scott, already a bit befuddled by drink, was slow but hearty in his laughter. He slapped Hemingway on the shoulder and called for another round of One-Legged Irishmen. While we waited for the barman, Zelda poured the rest of her drink into Scott’s glass. The Prince Imperial was forgotten.
Scott mused: ‘Someone told me that Hawthorne dreamt the character of Captain Ahab. Very odd. I just dream of real characters, like you or Zelda’ (he was addressing Hemingway – I was forgotten along with the Prince Imperial) ‘the only strangers who appear – burglars, Arabs, shop-keepers, or whatever – are just cardboard cut-outs, with no depth of character at all.’
I pitched in: ‘Can anyone tell me why it is that the great parade of relatives, friends and acquaintances that appear in our dreams always – ALWAYS – behave in character? They never ever do anything unusual or preposterous. I remember dreaming about my mother one time and…’
Hemingway: ‘Gonna tell me about these Arab strangers in your dreams, Scott? Where the Hell did they shine in? I shot at an Arab once.’
Zelda and Scott together: ‘You shot an Arab??’
‘Naw. I missed.’ Hemingway chortled, downed his new One-Legged Irishmen and called for another round: ‘And put more whiskey in it this time!’
Hemingway wasn’t so drunk that he hadn’t realised that it was my turn to buy the round. His calling for the round was simply another calculated insult, a feigned failure to register my presence. And yet, and yet… I doubted if I had sufficient francs on me to pay for all these exotic drinks. Angry and confused, I excused myself (only Zelda noticed) and headed for the pissoir.
I stood at the urinal and tried to clear my head. The evening which had shone like a winter star was now dark as pitch. Should I cut my losses and head back to my frowsty rooms? I had seen Hemingway in these cruel moods before: they dragged on for hours and hours until everyone found themselves in the same drunken ditch. But I couldn’t bear to leave the ineffably beautiful couple: I plunged back into the café.
Hemingway squinted up at me: ‘Ah, there you are. Did you meet anyone nice in there?’
I must have been drunker than I realised. I picked up one of my untouched One-Legged Irishmen and flung it in Hemingway’s face. Was it his filthy jibe, or Scott’s smile, that goaded, or shamed me, over the edge? Hemingway growled and rose. I shouted: ‘You bastard! It’s a duel now. I challenge you to a duel.’
Scott had a trick of instantly sobering up, and he was immediately on his feet quelling the uproar in the café and dispensing francs and soothing words. As he ushered the three of us out onto the street, he whispered to me: ‘You crazy English rooster, he’s a crack shot. But he won’t hold you to this when he’s sober – leave it to me.’
I was drunk on his regard: ‘Damn it. HE can play chicken if he wants to. As for me, I’m ready to shoot the bastard any day, any time.’ Scott gave me a long, silent stare, a quick smile and a nod. He gave my address to the waiting taxi, told me that he’d call on me tomorrow, and turned his attention to Zelda who was sobbing in the shadows.
As the taxi pulled away, I slumped back into the seat and simultaneously fell out of my mood of hysterical bravado. I spent the rest of the night pacing up and down my room.
When Scott eventually turned up, just before noon, he was tired but kind. I’d been half-expecting him to be carrying a pair of duelling pistols for my inspection. Instead, he told me right away that he’d just come from Hemingway’s place, that Hemingway evidently had no recollection of my challenge. Of course, neither Scott nor Zelda were about to remind him.
Scott paused, and to my horror, I felt my eyes wet with stinging tears. I found myself steered outside to a pavement café and Scott ordered two brandies. I started to stumble through an apology, but Scott cut me short: ‘Hell, no. It was a brave thing you did last night.’ He smiled and was soon gone.
A couple of days later, I was called back to Sussex by my mother’s illness. I never saw Scott and Zelda again, as they soon returned to the States. When ‘The Great Gatsby’ came out, it was largely ignored by critics and public alike. A blow for Scott, who needed money for Zelda’s hospital treatments – after her breakdown, that is. There was then a long delay before his next novel. He was working for MGM studios, churning out film scripts for the regular salary cheque.
And then came ‘Tender is the Night’. Right from the first pages, I knew this was the one where he was shedding blood. This was the great novel of lost hopes that he’d spoken of in the café that night. He’d found the context for his great theme: the context was his own thinly-disguised life. I loved it; the public ignored it (who knows why? perhaps because The Jazz Age of The Twenties was gone and it was the time of The Great Depression).
Reading on and revelling in his poet’s prose, I was unprepared for a great shock. I was at the point in the tale of the Riviera house-party, the night when the lives of Dick and Nicole Diver – the golden couple – start to unravel. One of the more noxious guests, Violet McKisco, stumbles on evidence of Nicole’s mental fragility. As she rushes to share this gossip with her fellow-guests, she is rudely silenced by the taciturn soldier, Tommy Braban. Out of the late-night confusion that follows, it emerges that Violet’s husband, a minor writer, and Braban have engaged to fight… a duel!
The minor writer, McKisco, wasn’t an attractive character, yet the novel tells us that he shows some ‘spunk’ in his determination to go ahead with the duel against an opponent who is an expert shot. McKisco’s unexpected courage redeems him in the eyes of the party-goers, and probably in his own eyes as well.
I read and re-read the passage: I had helped Scott after all. That drunken spat in the café, all those years ago, had given Scott an inkling of how to signal the start of the disintegration of the lives of the golden couple, of how to mark a pivotal point in the story. Long after my slight tales of rubber planters will have dwindled to mere ‘period’ curiosities, I will live on as a kind of fugitive muse for one of the very greatest novels of the twentieth century. That’s my view of it anyway: posterity, here I come.
MICHAEL BLOOR is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who discovered the exhilarations of short fiction. His most recent publications are in Ink Sweat & Tears, Scribble, Dodging the Rain, Everyday Fiction, The Drabble, and The Cabinet Of Heed.
Image: Anne & Saturnino Miranda via Pixabay