Sunday, October 7, 2012

This Day in Literary History (Zelda Fitzgerald Writes Book of Her Own)

October 7, 1932—When readers saw Save Me the Waltz in bookstores, many undoubtedly recalled author Zelda Fitzgerald as the glamorous, free-spirited wife of the man who christened the now-lost “Jazz Age,” F. Scott Fitzgerald. Only intimates of the couple would have known that Zelda had written her debut novel while institutionalized; that fiction writing was her latest, desperate creative attempt to carve an identity outside that of her husband; and that the circumstances surrounding publication had further strained a marriage already resembling a train wreck.

Zelda’s nervous breakdown in Paris in 1930 had ended her aspirations to become a ballerina. In the two years since, even as her condition appeared more fragile, she took up painting, then writing, as therapy. Scott’s ambivalence about all this—a determination to take care of someone he loved, denial of how his drinking had warped the dynamics of their relationship, a competitive streak over who was the more creative person, and some good old-fashioned sexism—resulted in a furious reaction to her fiction.

Part of Scott’s frustrations over his wife’s novel stemmed from his extreme difficulties in producing a work covering essentially the same time period and setting: the Riviera in the 1920s. It had been seven years since The Great Gatsby, as he was stymied by a host of problems: the need to handle Zelda’s psychiatric care, his own deteriorating health (including hospitalizations resulting from alcoholism),and the urgency required to crank out one endless short story after another to pay for all of this as well as daughter Scottie’s education.

But a factor that can’t be ruled out was his hypercritical internal apparatus. Fitzgerald was given to telling all and sundry (including Thomas Wolfe, who rightly regarded it as a criticism of himself) of the need to shape a novel, to be a self-conscious craftsman in the mold of such masters as Henry James and Gustave Flaubert.

That mindset can lead to a masterpiece such as Gatsby, but also to the creative paralysis satirized expertly in the 1987 comedy Throw Momma From the Train, in which writing instructor Billy Crystal can’t get beyond an opening sentence: “The night was hot,” “The night was damp,” and, perhaps the capper, “The night was dry, yet it was raining.” Then one day, Danny DeVito—not exactly a stellar student--submits a composition with this opener: “The night was humid.” It seems at once uncannily derivative and, because its author has gone further than his teacher, mocking. “Class dismissed,” Crystal announces. “I have an enormous headache in my eye.”

The “enormous headache” experienced by Scott Fitzgerald derived, at least initially, from a similar situation: Zelda, with time on her hands at Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, encouragement from her current psychiatrist (the first female one she had had), and a decade of pent-up feelings from marriage, actually completed her manuscript—in three months—a fraction of the nine years it would eventually take her husband to finish Tender Is the Night. But even more issues angered Scott to no end:
           *The chief male character of her novel was called Amory Blaine—the name of the protagonist of what was then Scott’s best-known novel, This Side of Paradise (1920). The only way that Zelda could have made clearer that this was her husband was to call him Scott Fitzgerald.

·         *Aspects of this male character resembled Scott. Between this factor and the one just above, he understandably feared that he would become the laughingstock of the literary world.

·         *Zelda had sent the manuscript to Scott’s editor at Scribners, Maxwell Perkins, without telling her husband beforehand. Though Zelda had had earlier pieces published, this project came as a surprise to Scott. Informed by her psychiatrist that her husband was livid over this, Zelda protested that she hadn’t wanted to distract him when he was still struggling over his novel. Scott didn’t buy it, though.

·         *Zelda had appropriated images, themes and concepts from Scott’s still-aborning manuscript. She had “poached” his manuscript, he claimed. This wouldn’t do at all. It wasn’t only that he was the family breadwinner, but that he was really the truly professional writer in the family, he claimed.

On this last point, Zelda—tagged with a condition (schizophrenia) that, according to biographer Sally Cline, might have been a misdiagnosis—could only mutely disagree, given her dire circumstances. Since Nancy Milford’s groundbreaking 1970 biography Zelda, however, a number of scholars (such as Cline and Linda Wagner-Martin) have taken up her cause more vigorously than she ever could. They point to Scott’s hypocrisy about “poaching” (he had quoted passages from Zelda's letters and diaries for a decade in his fiction). This penchant was so rampant that, in a mock newspaper review of The Beautiful and Damned, Zelda had noted ironically: “Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

With Zelda’s psychiatrist, in effect, mediating their dispute, Scott agreed to publication of the novel, on several conditions: 1) “Amory Blaine” had to be named something less obvious; 2) certain scenes—especially involving drinking—needed to be removed; and 3) Perkins, the editor they now shared, should not encourage her about the prospects of commercial success or critical acclaim.

The contract executed between the Fitzgeralds and Perkins stipulated that any profits from the book should be applied to alleviate Scott’s debt to Scribners. Yet the novel sold so poorly—only about 1,400 copies—that the clause never needed to be invoked.

The novel also came in for some brutal treatment from critics, who seized on Zelda's lapses into purple prose (e.g., “A shooting star, ectoplasmic arrow, sped through the nebular hypothesis like a wanton hummingbird. From Venus to Mars to Neptune it trailed the ghost of comprehension, illuminating far horizons over the pale battlefields of reality.”)

Ironically, one critic for the Saturday Review of Literature dismissed as implausible perhaps the most heavily autobiographical element of the novel: “the desperation which prompts Alabama [Zelda’s fictional alter ego] to turn to ballet-dancing with a group of dingy, impoverished people in Paris.”

Critics today are more charitable, pointing to Zelda’s originality and sometimes startling use of language. But Save Me the Waltz (Zelda came up with the title from a record-company catalog) only succeeded in her lifetime in exacerbating tensions between husband and wife.  

Seven months after its publication, the two sat down for a joint session at the clinic. The resulting 114-page transcription of their exchange contains some of the most extraordinarily sensitive and painful material ever laid before readers concerning a literary couple. They argued about her out-of-control behavior, Scott’s drinking, the costs of Zelda’s care, their respective marital roles, and even their suspicions about the other’s sexual orientation. Scott often sounds at his worst here: belittling her achievements and even capabilities while championing his own. Though Zelda would be checked out of institutions from time to time through the rest of her life, she and Scott would not live together after 1934. Given the intense feelings that surfaced in the counseling session, that might have been just as well for both.

In assessing the Fitzgeralds’ marriage, several facts need to be weighed.  The couple acted in staggeringly erratic ways that made living with each other impossible. Yet, through it all, they continued to lean on each other, either for material support (Zelda) or as an intellectual sounding board or moral support (Scott).

In the end, afflicted with overwhelming physical and mental deficits, the two often stumbled, but just as often came back. Scott sought to pay for her treatment and their daughter’s education until he suffered his fatal heart attack in December 1940. As for Zelda, she continued not only to paint but—surprisingly, given her painful experiences on her single published novel—to write. She wrote a satirical play, Scandalabra, that did not find a Broadway backer, and after Scott’s death she worked intermittently on another novel, Caesar’s Ghosts—a project interrupted for good by her death in a fire in her last institution, in Asheville, N.C., in 1948.

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