“Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald”
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Price: $25.99 (Cloth)
Therese Anne Fowler is a professional, commercial novelist. Her first three novels are set in the contemporary South and well worth a read. “Souvenir” (2008) and “Reunion”(2009) are about the long-term consequences of romantic choices and “Exposure,” even more au courant, is the story of a high school boy who gives in to his girlfriend’s nagging and texts her “pictures” of himself which her father finds. The boy is arrested.
Fowler embarked on this novel, “Z,” not as the result of a long-time fascination and with little more than the standard amount of knowledge concerning Zelda, but there is a national craze for all things Jazz Age—Scott, Zelda, Gatsby etc.—these days and the fictionalization of Hadley Hemingway in “The Paris Wife” has been a marathon best seller.
There was, then, a waiting audience.
Twelve days after publication “Z “hit the “Times” list at No. 10 but did not remain long, with one more week at tenth and then five more on the extended list. As with any novel, Fowler’s challenge here is, first, to tell a lively story, which she does. She is a pro and the book moves right along.
Part of the problem lies, however, in exactly what kind of book this is.
Fowler writes that this book “is not a biography but a novelist’s attempt to imagine what it was like to be Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald.” Zelda was an extraordinary young woman: beautiful, athletic, daring, bright, curious. She and Scott meet at the Montgomery Country Club, fall in love, marry in New York City and are America’s golden couple for a number of years. Fowler successfully evokes these scenes.
Zelda tells the story of their marriage: Scott writing, heavy partying, villas on the Riviera, mansions in Paris and on Long island. Their friends were gracious and sophisticated like Gerald and Sara Murphy, witty like Cole Porter, volcanic geniuses like Pablo Picasso or intellectuals like Edmund Wilson or Gertrude Stein. For a while all is well but, over time, unwilling to be merely Mrs. Fitzgerald, Zelda becomes increasingly determined to have her own artistic outlet, whether it be ballet, painting or writing, and creative and energetic as she was, this is a tough crowd in which to compete.
To make matters worse, as Zelda tells it, Scott discourages/suppresses her and insists she be more wifely and more of a mother to their daughter Scottie.
Their dream life, of course, falls apart as Scott becomes more alcoholic and Zelda succumbs to bouts of mental illness, then termed schizophrenia, what would now probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. So, there are more than enough reasons for their fall from paradise.
But, despite her artistic frustrations, her affair with the French flier Eduard Jozan, her own poor mental health and Scott’s alcoholism, Fowler has Zelda say: what “is to blame for the disaster we made of our lives.…Ernest Hemingway is to blame.”
Zelda explains that Hemingway became infatuated with her, sexually accosted her outside the Dingo bar in Paris, was furious when rebuffed, undermined her at every turn and then began a homosexual affair with Scott.
Zelda listens while the drunken Scott, tossing in bed, seems to be having erotic dreams about Ernest—“’s good but ’s WRONG”—mutters “‘C’mon, Ern, no…’ and then [gives] a sigh of pleasure.”
Needless to say, there is no record anywhere of any of this. When asked, the novelist Fowler answers that in fiction the bar is set at plausible: what might have happened, who can say it didn’t? Sure enough, but short of time travel and levitation, etc. who can say for sure anything didn’t happen?
And more importantly, readers of this novel who don’t know much about the Fitzgeralds will TAKE it as biography I am sure.
The responsibilities of the historical novelist are not perfectly clear, but more liberties can be taken, barring anachronisms and absurdities, with novels set, say, in the sixteenth century than with novels set so recently there are numerous authoritative biographies and even a few living witnesses.
Fowler writes in her Author’s Note that she stepped into the war between the camp of Zelda and the camp of Scott. The Scott camp insists she ruined their lives; the Zelda camp blames Scott.
True enough; there is such a squabble. And Hemingway did have the last, unkind, word on the Ftzgeralds in “A Moveable Feast.”
Fowler bears down hard on Scott as drunk and bully, and it is true that Scott’s power over Zelda even reached into the mental institutions where the chauvinist doctors tried to reprogram her. In “Z,” Zelda is told, as she improves, “You realize now that a wife must first tend to domestic matters. Good. This is paramount in every woman’s happiness.”
Nevertheless, throughout the novel, Fowler goes light on Zelda’s irresponsibility and her family history of mental illness, which included several suicides and breakdowns.
Since “Z” is a restricted, first-person narrative, there can only be scenes where Zelda was present. This is a pity. I wish Fowler had had Scott tell Zelda his version of the motor trip with Hemingway from Lyon to Paris. There was an opportunity to imaginatively balance the books, if one felt Ernest had maligned Scott as a drunken hypochondriac in “A Moveable Feast,” but novelists make choices.
Other choices Fowler made diminish the book’s potential as a vehicle for telling Zelda’s story separate from Scott’s.
There certainly could have been a more extensive picture of Zelda’s childhood. She meets Scott one week before her eighteenth birthday, on page 21. And there are no scenes of Zelda at fraternity parties in Tuscaloosa or Auburn, where she was famous.
More importantly, Zelda’s story during the many years she is a patient, away from Scott, could have been told at much greater length. Zelda herself as distinct from Zelda as Scott’s wife is, after all, a major point of this novel. Aside from what we know from her letters, these many tortured years until her death in 1948 are a blank page for the novelist to write on. What did she do? What was she thinking? There was ample room for surmise.
Zelda’s life with Fitzgerald was tumultuous, no one denies, but, Fowler’s Zelda tells us, as painful as it was, she never regretted marrying Scott. After all, if she had declined: “in that alternate world, there might be no [This Side of] Paradise, no [Great] Gatsby, none of the hundred or more published stories that readers so love. Ernest Hemingway might yet be poor and little known.”
Now there’s a delusion.