A biographer doesn’t need to possess the same level of intelligence, eloquence, wisdom or imaginative reach as her subject because biography is essentially telling, not showing. A novelist, on the other hand, cannot convincingly create a character who is more intelligent, eloquent, wise or more imaginatively complex than she herself is because there will come times when she has to prove it. These make-or-break moments will often arrive in the writing of dialogue.
The author states that “much of what we think we know about the Fitzgeralds comes from unreliable sources or has been spun into half-true myth. My mission was to set the record straight.” But then she proceeds to do exactly what she’s complaining about and takes the myth making to a whole new level. And of course she’s more of an unreliable source than the people she’s referring to. I would argue her statement that the popular perception of Zelda has reduced her “to being only an edgy flapper, or only an unstable, jealous spouse, or only a pathetic, “insane” drain of her husband’s creativity and life” is wholly unfounded. The popular perception of Zelda is much more complex and fully formed than that. And yet this is the treatise Fowler seeks to disprove in this novel. To do this she sanitises Zelda, whitewashes all her excesses, dumbs her down. She makes her reasonable, domesticated, conventionally likeable and the victim of the insensitivity of others. She exaggerates her talent, as an artist, a mother and a woman which, ironically involves trivialising her brilliance. She gives us conversations that never happened – thus revealing herself as a completely unreliable source. And, like I said, there’s a big problem when an author tries to put words into the mouths of people who were much more brilliant, eloquent and intelligent than she herself is. The belittling process begins here. This is how Zelda herself writes Scott’s dialogue in her own novel Save me the Waltz – “If you would stop dumping ash trays before the company has got well out of the house we would be happier.” That’s sophisticated dialogue – there’s psychology and wit in it. You can imagine it as something Scott actually said.
And this is how Fowler writes Scott’s dialogue – “If not for my blood, my sweat and my – my- determination, you’d be nobody special, just another aging debutante wasting away the years somewhere in Alabama. It’s my life that made yours worthwhile! And yet all I get is selfish ingratitude.” The less said about that the better. Poor Scott gets these misogynist clichés dumped on him throughout the novel, like the literary equivalent of canned boo’s. Scott was eloquent after all – no one would deny him that. It’s impossible to imagine him capable of the crassness Fowler attributes to him in every argument he has with Zelda.
Perhaps I’m simply taking this novel too seriously. Really, it’s little more than fluffy light entertainment. And perhaps I wouldn’t have taken it so seriously had I not read and then taken issue with the author’s declaration of intent in which she clearly aspires to creating a historical document. Her mission is “to set the record straight.”
Most pointedly of all, the author gets round the very tricky problem of depicting Zelda’s madness by ignoring it. The irony is, were Zelda capable of writing such a rational grounded account of her own life she wouldn’t have been Zelda; she would have been someone else. She completely leaves out some of Zelda’s most infamous stunts – like trying to wrestle the wheel from Scott and drive the car over a cliff with her young daughter in the back seat. You can’t come up with a reasonable explanation for that so she ignores it.
She also greatly exaggerates Zelda’s talent as a writer. “The swing creaks on Austin’s porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of the hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back to the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moon-vines trail dark, absorbent pads over the string trellises.” This excerpt from Zelda’s Save me the Waltz is like something from a teenage self-published author. Scott has taken a lot of flak from feminists for his reluctance to have this book published. No doubt he was irritated she was encroaching on his territory – that’s just human nature – but perhaps he also wanted to save her from the savagery of criticism he assumed would follow? Zelda could write some fantastic one liners – “I’m much too proud to care – pride keeps me from feeling half the things I ought to feel.” – and was capable of insights of absolute brilliance but that doesn’t make her a novelist.
Of course another huge problem is Scott wrote about Zelda so much that there are many instances when Fowler is describing scenes he has written beautifully into his books and needless to say she never comes out of these comparisons well. Zelda herself wrote some of these scenes into The Last Waltz and even she did a better job. So what we have here is a massive act of hubris on the part of the author. To write a convincing novel about Scott and Zelda you’d have to be as artistically gifted as they were.
Essentially the author uses simplistic contemporary doctrines to further a thesis she had arbitrarily formed before writing the novel. Feminism can be no less guilty than any other ism of seeing only what it wants to see in order to create a simplistic judgemental doctrine. Imagine if the tables were turned and someone wrote a novel positing the idea that Virginia Woolf stifled Leonard’s gifts as an artist. Or that he was responsible for Virginia’s madness. Blame isn’t as simplistically apportioned as Fowler would have it. Scott, by all accounts, was reckless, irresponsible, emotionally immature, fatally insecure but these were all traits he shared with Zelda. They were soulmates in the most classic sense.
The ultimate irony is Fowler thinks she’s doing Zelda some kind of favour by writing this book. This is a daytime TV Zelda, a Zelda whitewashed into middle class respectability, stripped of her dark sorcery. If you want to read about the real Zelda Nancy Milford’s heartbreaking biography is excellent.