Saturday, August 22, 2015

Save Me the Waltz - Zelda Fitzgerald

I’ve been on a 1920s –themed reading kick for the past ten years, so when I saw the name “Zelda Fitzgerald” pop up on a list of books that all women should read, I immediately put on some sweatpants and located an e-book version.  
        It took me awhile to get into the Fitzgerald craze, mostly because when I first read F. Scott’s “The Great Gatsby,” I was in middle school and my comprehension wasn’t all that great.  Somewhere along the line I got the impression that Daisy was Gatsby’s cousin, and I thought the theme of the book was less “class structure and consequences” and more “totally romanticized incest.”  I remember thinking why would they make me read this book?  This is completely inappropriate.
        Obviously, I was wrong – not just about the incest, but about F. Scott.  I went on to read a number of F. Scott’s writings and was a little surprised at how bleak the characters were.  My favorite writers are P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, so I was used to books of that era ultimately being uplifting.  F. Scott’s works were more realistic, and I noticed how sad the characters were.    I stopped reading him, because let’s face it, real life can be sad enough.
        Then, the internet brought another Fitzgerald into my life.  Previously, all I’d known about Zelda was that she had a kick-ass name, she and Scott were supposed to be wildly and tragically in love but also completely selfish, and that she’d gone insane and died in an asylum somewhere.  When I learned that “Save Me the Waltz” was her answer to “Tender is the Night,” I had to read it.  F. Scott’s male characters always seemed rather pompous and grand to me, and I wanted to see if she did as much rationalizing about her own shady characters and relationships.  After all – few people go insane without some kind of help along the way, right? I assumed there was some juicy, 100 year old gossip in there somewhere.  
        Let me just say that if you’re looking for good old solid prose, this is not the book for you.  The writing is full of similes and metaphors.  Despite this, it’s not difficult to read, nor to discern the meaning of the sentences.  I really believe that if Zelda had more writing experience, or if she had spent more than a month writing this, it would have gotten better critical support and she might have continued to write and publish.  As it is, she’s like the first NaNoWriMo writer.  She wrote this in a month, you guys.  THIRTY DAYS.  It’s a heck of a lot better than any of the two NaNoWriMo novels I’ve managed to punch through in a month, that’s for sure.
        Fangirl raving aside, let’s look at the plot of this book.  HERE THAR BE SPOILERS.  “Save Me the Waltz” is a very thinly disguised autobiography paralleling F. Scott’s also thinly disguised autobiography “Tender is the Night.”  The best thing about the book is that Zelda doesn’t make herself a Mary Sue.  She doesn’t throw F. Scott under the bus for the failures in their marriage.  The protagonist, Alabama, (Zelda grew up in Alabama, get it?  GET IT?) is a young flirt who gets away with dating around because her family has some status.  She eventually marries David, one of the soldiers she’s seeing, and they spend their early days drinking and partying. A baby is born.  It quickly becomes apparent that David is an alcoholic.  He eventually achieves success as a painter, but Alabama becomes quite jealous of the attentions David gets as a result of his charm and success.  She develops a flirtation with another man.  It is implied that there may have been more to than a flirtation, but the flowery language is enough to convey that it is Inappropriate and David Disapproves.  This is the first of the struggles in their marriage, and Zelda writes it as Alabama’s own fault as an immature reaction to her own jealousy.  Eventually they move to Paris, where David begins an affair with an actress.  Unhappy, and upping the ante, Alabama decides that she’s going to make a career for herself and decides to take up ballet.  
        Alabama uses ballet as an escape from her own misery, and as a means to regain control over her life.  As her skills and ambitions develop, she becomes distant from her family and friends in her practices, and eventually moves to Italy to dance a major part in a ballet there.  At the peak of her success she develops an injury and infection, and David rushes to her side with their child.  At the same time, David has received notice that Alabama’s father is dying, and when she is out of the hospital they return to America where Alabama tries to come to terms with her changed place in the world.  She has been told that she will never dance again, and her father’s death has redefined Alabama’s mother as a women who never had anything of her own.  Alabama feels sadness and compassion for her mother, who was always just the judge’s wife.
        During the funeral reception, on the very last page, Alabama empties an ashtray and remarks that she’s able to move on just like the emptying of ashes.  She puts the past in a big pile, dumps it out, and is able to continue.
        That’s it.  That’s the end of the book.  At first I felt cheated by this ending.  I read through all those fancy descriptive passages to end up in a paragraph about an ashtray.  I wondered why Zelda didn’t write that Alabama continued to achieve success as David’s drinking increased and his career flagged, or why she didn’t write that David saw her success as a way to pull himself out of his alcoholism.  I suppose that was the part of me who had read way too much optimistic 1920s literature.  On the other hand, if this was supposed to parallel real life, I wondered why Alabama didn’t stay in the hospital but seek other creative outlets there, such as teaching ballet to other patients.  This made no sense.
        After sleeping on it, I came to the realization that for a lady writing from a mental institution, Zelda was pretty shrewd.  She didn’t want to live her life institutionalized as the writer’s wife.  She wanted to be able to look back fondly on her memories and then move on completely, with her own success.  This was the rosy, 1920s wishful thinking ending, since the reality was that Zelda never found a steady course of treatment for her problems. Her painting and writing weren’t appreciated until after her death.  She was never able to pack up the past and move on.  It’s pretty damn bleak, and sad, and in that aspect it’s very much like the sadness I felt reading F. Scott’s writing.  
        The real life story is that F. Scott was furious with Zelda for writing this book.  She accused him of stealing straight from her diary to write his own books, so of course there are parallel themes and situations.   Apparently he made her rewrite large sections, which may explain why in the published version, Alabama never directly blames David for anything wrong in the marriage and shows him as a loving father.  Maybe the first draft was quite different.  I hope it was – mostly because it shows those of us who have written thirty day novels that you can create something publishable with a little bit of editing.
        Ultimately I’m glad I read this and would thrust my copy upon my best friend to read, if it weren’t an e-book heavily restricted by DRM.  This is a story about how a woman refuses to live in her husband’s shadow in a time when other women around the world were realizing that very fact.  You don’t have to be Alabama the judge’s daughter, or Alabama the painter’s wife.  You can be Alabama, the ballerina, or Alabama, the rationalist.  I guess that’s somewhat uplifting.
Whatever you do, though, please don’t be Zelda or F. Scott.  Dress like them or write like them, but please don’t drink, live, or act like them.  

1 comment:

  1. Wait. Please tell me "Alabama" was a dancer BEFORE the baby and the later move to Paris. Because to suddenly take up ballet at that point in her life seems a little late (not for many of the arts...but certainly for ballet).