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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Lost & Found: Tommy Wallach on Zelda Fitzgerald
In our younger and more vulnerable years, Tommy Wallach wrote a Lost & Found that we’ve been turning over in our minds ever since. Here’s his read on Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz and its author’s curious place in literary consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is perhaps the most celebrated American author of the twentieth century. His wife, Zelda, was the emblematic flapper, independent and impulsive, possessed of an intelligence found intimidating by everyone from Hemingway to O’Hara. Their tempestuous marriage, characterized by madness and alcoholism, violence and recrimination, was artistically alchemized into the majority of Scott’s novels, and has been recounted in numerous histories of the era, most notable A Moveable Feast. Save Me the Waltz is the only completed novel by Zelda—a brief, fictional précis of her life that provides a pitch-perfect anthropological analog to Scott’s Tender is the Night. Zelda, serving both as inspiration to the foremost chronicler of masculine decadence and as oft-saddled hobbyhorse of the modern feminist discourse, bares her soul for 220 incisive, devastating pages.
So why isn’t Save Me the Waltz considered a classic?
Nancy Milford, Zelda’s first and most cogent biographer, proffers this theory: “Because [Waltz] is so deeply autobiographical, the transmutation of reality into art is incomplete.” Nowadays, Zelda’s book would undoubtedly be marketed as a memoir, without regard to how closely it cleaved to reality. Yet a large portion of its appeal lies in its quiddity as what can perhaps best be described only as a “moiré memoir,” in the shimmer born of the superimposition of fiction on top of reality. Everything the novel has to tell us about Zelda, about Scott, about life in general, is to be found in this juxtaposition; Milford’s criticism is thus logically correct, but irrelevant. Matthew J. Bruccoli, uncontested heavyweight of all things Fitzgerald, has his own theory regarding the failure of academia to recognize Waltz, namely the “troublesome authorial idiosyncracies of style and usage.” This is a more difficult contention to subvert, as Zelda’s novel is almost belligerently belletristic. “Gaunt, disciplined smells,” “apologetic trees,” “tired” and “unjubilant moons,” all populate her pages like the sweetest of nothings. And though meaning can often be ascribed to these fragments, it isn’t nearly as inherent as the seductive rhythms of Zelda’s prose would have us believe.
Yet why should a few flights of authorial fancy prevent us from enjoying all the truly wonderful things the novel has to offer, both as historical document and aesthetic artifact? By all rights, Waltz should be at least as well-known as the lesser works of Fitzgerald, such as This Side of Paradise or The Crack-Up. If the difficulty is located neither in her construction nor in her style, could it be something in the content of Waltz that has relegated it to this side of prominence?
First of all, it is important to note that the book that was eventually published is not the book Zelda originally wrote. Composed over the course of two frantic months in 1932 at the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, Save Me the Waltz was bowdlerized by Scott under the auspices of protecting both his reputation and his newest novel, Tender is the Night (upon which he’d been working for eight years and which wouldn’t be published for another two). The man who had once claimed the pages of Zelda’s diaries as his sole artistic demesnes now protested that his schizophrenic wife was maliciously preempting the shared material of their lives, which she knew he was using in his book. Though Scott undoubtedly made numerous sound suggestions in regard to Zelda’s novel (which had all but been accepted for publication by Scribner’s already, even without his edits), he was adamant that his wife remove any mention of debt, alcoholism, or jealousy over marital infidelity. There is no longer any extant copy of the original version of Waltz; we can only hope Zelda’s vision was not compromised beyond recognition.
The plot of Save Me the Waltz is quite simple, even simplistic. Alabama Beggs, Zelda’s alter ego, grows up a spoiled belle in—you guessed it—Alabama. Her father, Judge Beggs, is a fortress of conviction and decorum, always “disciplining his disapproval” and “sifting values.” Alabama adverts to the Platonic ideal of her father many times over the course of her fictional “life.” He serves as a touchstone of stability, a bulwark arrayed against her own life’s transience and the flighty and frightening lability of Scott, here transformed into David Knight. David is a painter rather than a writer (or a psychiatrist, as is Dick Diver, the Scott character in Tender), but his worldly success and emotional infidelity (enacted both with his work and with women) are as central to Alabama’s neuroses as they were to Zelda’s.
After their wedding and a brief honeymoon period in New York, the Knights travel to the Riviera with newborn Bonnie in tow. Here, David submerges himself in his painting (as Fitzgerald once did with Gatsby), and Alabama involves herself in a brief and anticlimactic affair with a French aviator, Jacques Chevre-Feuille. When David returns the favor, showering a young actress with his affection, Alabama is crushed. Among the luminaries of the Riviera, “Alabama felt excluded by her lack of accomplishment.” Just as Zelda did at the relatively ripe age of twenty-seven, Alabama reacts by throwing herself into an art form at which she is too old to truly excel: ballet.
Thus begins the third and most assured chapter of the novel. Zelda writes of dance as enthrallingly and evocatively as Degas painted it. Her first moment in the studio finds a “muscular girl…in the centre of this atmosphere winding the ends of space about the rigidity of her extended thigh.” Alabama pushes herself to the breaking point, ignoring her husband and daughter in pursuit of a simultaneously corporeal and spiritual perfection. “She worked till she felt like a gored horse in the bull ring, dragging its entrails.” All of this culminates in an invitation to perform as a soloist at the Naples Opera, a job that Alabama eventually accepts. This is perhaps the most interesting of the novel’s deviations from reality; Zelda turned down this same offer for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery. Historical emendations remain the most enviable benefit of writing the moiré memoir.
It is not long after Alabama accepts this invitation that the tenuous existence she has carved out for herself begins to disintegrate. A foot infection that will eventually end her dancing career coincides with her father’s sudden illness. Alabama returns home before he dies, but her hopes of receiving some last words of wisdom or explanation are quickly dashed:
“I though you could tell me if our bodies are given to us as counter-irritants to the soul. I thought you’d know why when our bodies ought to bring surcease from our tortured minds, they fail and collapse; and why, when we are tormented in our bodies, does our soul desert us as a refuge?”
The old man lay silent.
“Why do we spend years using up our bodies to nurture our minds with experience and find our minds turning then to our exhausted bodies for solace? Why, Daddy?”
“Ask me something easy,” the old man answered very weak and far away.
The book ends with a going-away party thrown by Alabama and David, during which we learn that the great painter has begun representing dancers in his work, thus delivering a final humiliation, arrogating the very world of which his wife was so painfully shorn. In the penultimate paragraph, Alabama describes the emptying of an ashtray as an obvious metaphor for Zelda’s writing of Waltz: “Having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continued [sic].” It is not much of a leap to read such a sentence as evidence that, in the beginning of March 1932, Zelda still held out hope for recovery. She was not yet the woman who would say, “I can’t find hope by looking either backwards or forwards, so I suppose the thing to do is shut my eyes.”
So there it is—Zelda Fitzgerald’s last grasp at artistic greatness (aside from her paintings, which are both compelling and flawed in an entirely different way). There is no question that Waltz is far from perfect. The dialogue often reeks of Cowardian farce poorly mimicked, full of wit and dull semantics in equal measure. The descriptive passages, as florid and inchoate as a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, are so liberally interspersed in the narration that it is as if one were watching a film in which the director insisted on inserting a new establishing shot after every few lines of dialogue. Yet in spite of all these problems, Zelda’s novel is ultimately intoxicating. The quality of the prose, the fidelity of the characters, the breadth of the ideas—all are worthy of the Fitzgerald name. When forced to give up ballet, Zelda wrote to her doctor, “I am neither young enough nor credulous enough to think that you can manufacture out of nothing something to replace the song I had.” But where dance failed, Waltz succeeds. It is Zelda’s reprise—a siren song, a song of Solomon, and a swan song. It proves that Zelda was an unqualified talent—hampered by instability, intimidated by her husband’s success and ability, all but destroyed by his furious egotism and opprobrium, but a talent nonetheless. Save Me the Waltz is not just a must-read for all those fascinated by the Fitzgerald mythos, but for anyone who wants to read a compelling chronicle of a breakdown, the admissions and admonitions of a broken soul.
“I am a book,” Alabama says at one point in the novel. “Pure fiction.”
“Then who invented you?” a voice asks.
Save Me the Waltz is incontrovertible evidence that, in spite of what many have believed, Zelda Fitzgerald was not an invention of her husband’s. She was a woman and artist unto herself, and deserves to be remembered as such.
Tommy Wallch’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s,Wired, and The Huffington Post. His book reviews have been featured on PRI’s “The World” and Salon. Visit his website at www.tommywallach.com.