None of it is your material

Madeleine Schwartz

  • Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
    Handheld Press, 268 pp, £12.99, January, ISBN 978 1 999828 04 2

Véra Nabokov, Nora Joyce, Ann Malamud, Vivien Eliot – the list of literary victim-wives is long, but none commands as much attention as Zelda Fitzgerald. Recent years have treated her husband unkindly, or maybe truthfully, exposing more drinking and more affairs, but decades after Zelda’s death in a North Carolina asylum, her cult is teeming with new acolytes. Christina Ricci just played her in an adaptation of Therese Anne Fowler’s Z (costumes were the real stars there, especially Ricci’s big brown merkin). Jennifer Lawrence has been linked to an upcoming biopic, as has Scarlett Johansson. Unusual biopics, of course, since they contend that it’s better to be remembered for what you failed to do than for what you did.

‘Zelda did not succeed as a writer because she was brainwashed into believing that she was ill and that her art came out of her illness, not her brilliance, so much so that she really became ill,’ Kate Zambreno wrote in her book Heroines. Zelda, she notes, was treated at the same Paris clinc as Vivien Eliot and shared a ballet teacher with Lucia Joyce. All three women lost their minds in the shadow of recognised genius. There’s a lingering uncertainty about Zelda’s diagnosis. What was then diagnosed as schizophrenia might now be seen as bipolar disorder, or even something closer to hysteria. But the idea that, had she been encouraged, she would not have had a breakdown belies the fact that artistic creation is not in itself a prescription for sanity.

‘It seems to me that on one page I recognised a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage,’ Zelda wrote in a review of This Side of Paradise: Mr Fitzgerald … seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.’ Nancy Milford’s biography, published in 1970, made clear the extent to which Scott fed on his wife’s words, borrowing directly from her letters to create his female characters. She showed that stories Scott and Zelda supposedly wrote together, as well as some of Scott’s own, were composed by Zelda alone, with his name added to the byline to increase the magazine’s fee. More troubling were the lengths Scott went to in order to stop Zelda from writing, arguing that it exacerbated her mental frailty and embarrassed him. ‘My God, my books made her a legend and her single intention … is to make me a non-entity,’ he wrote to her psychiatrist.

The Fitzgeralds seemed to be incapable of even attending a party without leaving written traces of the occasion. Scholars have had a lot of material to rifle through while attempting to decide who copied whom and how much Scott discouraged his wife. A 114-page transcript cited in Deborah Pike’s recent study, The Subversive Art of Zelda Fitzgerald,[*] from a therapy session at La Paix, the estate near Baltimore that the Fitzgeralds moved into in the early 1930s, is one example among many:

Mr Fitzgerald: If you want to write modest things, you may be able to turn out one collection of short stories … [but] there is just no comparison. I am a professional writer, with a huge following. I am the highest paid short story writer in the world. I have at various times dominated –

Mrs Fitzgerald: It seems to me you are making a rather violent attack on a third-rate talent then.

Mr Fitzgerald: You pick up the crumbs I drop at the dinner table and stick them into books.

Mrs Fitzgerald: Well listen, you have picked up the crumbs I have dropped for ten years, too. You have done that.

Mr Fitzgerald: … Everything we have done is mine. If we make a trip – if I take a trip to Panama and you and I go around – I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.

For those wondering what Zelda did do, Handheld Press has reprinted Save Me the Waltz, her only completed novel, in a nice scholarly edition. Zelda wrote it in about six weeks in 1932, while being treated for schizophrenia at the Phipps Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She sent the manuscript to her husband’s editor, Max Perkins, without showing it to him first. It was the first piece of writing she had tried to publish without his approval or help. When he found out about it, he tried to stop its publication, first writing to her doctor and then to Perkins, who had been patiently giving him money while he went through drafts of Tender Is the Night and bottles of gin.

Scott’s main worry was his reputation. Zelda’s book is largely autobiographical: it follows Alabama Beggs from her adolescence in Montgomery, Alabama to her encounter with a dashing lieutenant-turned-painter and their life together. Fearful that the book might flop and take him down with it, Scott edited the text, which largely meant removing obvious references to himself. In the first draft, Zelda had named the Scott character Amory Blaine, after the hard-drinking Princeton writer in This Side of Paradise. ‘It is a good novel now, perhaps a very good novel,’ Scott wrote to Perkins after he had gone through the text. Later he wrote to his agent: ‘It is a bad book.’ Whether because of his interventions or despite them, the book wasn’t proofread, and when it was published, the typos attracted most of the attention. It sold about 1400 copies. Zelda earned $120.73.

The central question of Save Me the Waltz is whether Alabama Beggs can build an identity for herself that isn’t dependent on being a daughter or a wife. When the book opens, she is living in a large house in Montgomery with her father, a judge whom she describes as ‘a living fortress’, her flighty and unstable mother, and her older sisters, who are all out chasing husbands. Her life is all expectation; she knows it will not start until a man comes to rescue her. ‘The girl had been filled with no interpretation of herself … She wants to be told what she is like, being too young to know that she is like nothing at all.’

Alabama is steeped in the bigotry and privileges of the South, ‘incubated in the mystic pungence of Negro mammies’. At times, the degree to which she has built her self-worth on her race and lineage is mocked. She uses her family name to justify her drinking and wanton romancing: ‘She’s the wildest one of the Beggs, but she’s a thoroughbred.’ Elsewhere, Zelda lapses into uninflected Southern racism: ‘Negroes, lethargic and immobile, draped themselves on the depot steps like effigies to some exhausted god of creation.’

Into this quiet world rides a knight. David Knight is a handsome lieutenant with hair in ‘Cellinian frescoes and fashionable porticoes over his dented brow’. He carves their names into a tree. ‘David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Miss Alabama nobody … She was a little angry about the names. David had told her about how famous he was going to be many times before.’ Even before they are married, she finds that falling in love means losing what little idea she has of herself. ‘She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion.’ In one of the book’s most evocative passages, Zelda presents the pair’s first kiss as a kind of entombment. ‘She crawled into the friendly cave of his ear. The area inside was grey and ghostly classic as she stared about the deep trenches of the cerebellum.’

Still, anything, even someone else’s success, is better than sitting around in Montgomery, waiting to see which lieutenants will come through town. Alabama and David move to New York:

Through the gloom, the whole world went to tea. Girls in short amorphous capes and long flowing skirts and hats like straw bathtubs waited for taxis in front of the Plaza Grill; girls in long satin coats and coloured shoes and hats like straw manhole covers tapped the tune of a cataract on the dance floors of the Lorraine and the St Regis.

Sentences like this are characteristic; Zelda excels at descriptions of places, witty phrases and bon mots; conversation is lively and loud, and some of the novel’s best passages have the pull and snap of screwball comedy. When forced to describe Alabama herself, however, she is often distant and formal, as if she were not writing a novel but discussing her feelings in front of her shrink. The novel keeps reminding us that it was written by someone undergoing treatment. Description, analysis and conclusion are tangled together, and the paragraphs go stiff with diagnoses. On Alabama’s mother: ‘Millie, who had never had a very strong sense of reality, was unable to reconcile that cruelty of the man with what she knew was a just and noble character.’

Even at its finest and brightest, the excitement of the sentences isn’t reflected in the plot. Zelda’s productive periods, whether in writing, ballet or painting, were difficult to distinguish from mania, and stretches of activity were often followed by mental collapse. The book lingers in the moments it finds beautiful, especially in smells and depictions of flowers. It then lurches past others, as though fast-forwarding through unpleasant memories. When Alabama discovers she’s pregnant, the scene is condensed into a single curtailed argument:

David and Alabama faced each other incompetently – you couldn’t argue about having a baby.

‘So what did the doctor say?’ he insisted.

‘I told you – he said “Hello!”’

‘Don’t be an ass – what else did he say? – We’ve got to know what he said.’

‘So then we’ll have the baby,’ announced Alabama, proprietarily.

Milford compares this to the treatment of Gloria’s pregnancy in The Beautiful and Damned, which disappears almost as soon as it’s mentioned, perhaps a coded reference to Zelda’s own abortion. In Save Me the Waltz, Zelda doesn’t describe the pregnancy, the baby or Alabama’s feelings. The birth is announced indirectly, through a telegram sent to Alabama’s mother. Bonnie, the daughter, is as rigid as a doll and has little personality of her own.

The new family traipse off to France. Alabama tries out an affair, but the pilot she sleeps with makes it clear he’s not going to stick around. Paris is an endless party that no one seems to want to keep celebrating: ‘It had been going on for weeks. When you felt you couldn’t survive another night, you went home and slept and when you got back a new set of people had consecrated themselves to keeping it alive.’ The marriage begins to creak. David goes out all night, leaving Alabama alone while he goes out drinking or pursues other women. He comes home in the morning, groggy and elusive:

‘Darling!’ she said, ‘I wish I could live in your pocket.’

‘Darling,’ answered David sleepily, ‘there’d be a hole you’d forgotten to darn and you’d slip through and be brought home by the village barber.’

He no longer hides his infidelities and flirts with an American actress in front of Alabama:

‘I imagine you wear something startling and boyish underneath your clothes,’ David’s voice droned on, ‘BVDs or something.’

Resentment flared in Alabama. He’d stolen the idea from her. She’d worn silk BVDs herself all summer.

She decides to distract herself by taking up ballet, and the novel begins to live. The discipline of lessons, with their repeated exercises, gives some rhythm to the streams of thought. Her gaze turns from department store bouquets to what it might mean to be an artist. ‘Miles and miles of pas de bourrée, her toes picking the floor like the beaks of many feeding hens, and after ten thousand miles you got to advance without shaking your breasts.’ She hopes that dance will bring her peace: ‘It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her.’ David is angry that she is spending less time with him. His friends come to watch her in the studio and mock her. ‘She can’t be getting any fun out of it, foaming at the mouth that way!’ When a company in Naples offers her a position in the corps, David tells her that ‘the biggest difference in the world is between the amateur and the professional in the arts.’

This was Scott’s argument about Zelda’s writing, and it holds up to a degree. The novel is uneven and often incoherent; the good lines fade quickly without a structure to frame them. But reading Tender Is the Night, his version of their story, I missed Zelda’s energy and fizz, however lumpy her book is compared to Scott’s careful plot. Although he insisted that his novel was made of the same material, it seems to chronicle an entirely different marriage. Nicole Diver doesn’t resemble Alabama. She’s cold and ascetic, seems to lack any interests. She swings from man to man, holding onto one and then to the next for support. Scott based the timeline of her illness on Zelda’s, but he gave her illness a reason, who was also a man: Nicole’s father abused her as a child. I was reminded of Alabama’s remark that ‘women sometimes seem to share a quiet, unalterable dogma of persecution that endows even the most sophisticated of them with the inarticulate poignancy of the peasant.’

Zelda avoids any discussion of mental illness and sends Alabama off to Naples. This is where her book turns most sharply away from biography: Zelda herself was offered a part as a dancer in the Teatro di San Carlo’s production of Aida but declined it for unknown reasons. She had her first mental collapse shortly afterwards, which her doctor attributed in part to her dancing. He had her teacher refuse to give her any more lessons.

Alabama loves Naples, in part because she can afford to live there on her own. Her life in Paris seems distant, ‘their apartment appeared to her far away, and dull.’ She nearly forgets about her daughter, until Bonnie comes to visit and sneers at the dirty city, which does not have chauffeured cars, just flea-bitten horses and buggies. Alabama’s career ends as a result not of a mental breakdown but a physical one: an infected foot. ‘She lay there, thinking that she had always meant to take what she wanted from life. Well – she hadn’t wanted this.’

After Alabama’s father dies, the Knights have to return to Montgomery. When the novel leaves them, they are on the town, back together, among the ‘mountains of things that represented something else; canapés like goldfish, and caviar in balls, butter bearing faces’. David yells at Alabama for spending the party emptying ashtrays, but she refuses to stop. ‘It’s very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labelled “the past”, and, having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continue.’ They sit in the ‘pleasant gloom of late afternoon, staring at each other through the remains of the party’. They’ve finally surrendered to life as a couple because, as Alabama says, they’ve shed the parts of themselves that could bear to live alone.

[*] Missouri, 264 pp., £47.95, May 2017, 978 0 82622 104 9.