Book review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald in 1926. Picture: Getty
Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald in 1926. Picture: Getty
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They were, arguably, the first celebrity couple of the Jazz Era. She was a precocious, spoiled Southern belle and bad girl; he was a Midwesterner and Princeton dropout who had turned his experience into the novel This Side of Paradise.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Two Rivers, 384pp, £17.99

In the 1920s, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald careered through New York, Paris and the South of France, leaving in their wake a trail of splintered champagne glasses and glittering bons mots. Their tragic, slow-motion falls – she to madness and a series of mental institutions, he to alcohol and an indifferent public – seemed inevitable, and drawn from the pages of one of his novels. She was reckless to the point of oddity; he always drank like a professional, collapsing the arc from charming to churlish early on.

But theirs was surely one of the most fascinating literary and romantic partnerships, symbiotic to the point of cannibalism, with Scott drawing freely from Zelda’s diaries, letters and experiences (including her treatment for mental illness) for his own work. But Zelda wrote stories, too – some were published under both their names (better for sales) in magazines – as well as plays and, later, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel called Save Me the Waltz. This she banged out in two months during a stay at a Maryland mental institution, enraging her husband not only because of the speed with which she produced the book, but also because its themes – a married couple in free-fall; a wife hospitalised – were those of the novel he was trying to write (Tender Is the Night), and she’d beat him to the finish line.

The Fitzgeralds turned out so much copy about themselves, fictional and otherwise, that biographers have been able to serve them up every which way – with Zelda providing a particularly juicy and complex meal.

Was she an artist in her own right, or just artistic? (“Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs Fitzgerald is a novelty,” Ring Lardner wrote.) Was she really schizophrenic? Did she suffer from borderline personality disorder, or was she bipolar, as contemporary psychiatrists have argued? Was she truly mentally ill, or a victim of a controlling, alcoholic husband and a patriarchal society?

What is indisputable is that she was a personality, a woman with her own very distinct voice – passionate, sometimes chaotically allusive, always vivid. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler, which attempts to give new voice to a woman whose voice was hardly muffled. (It arrives just as Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is about to appear in a multiplex near you).

Despite its racy, one-letter title, Z is a rather tame affair, dutiful but somehow distant, as is sometimes the case when one’s material is so well-known. Fowler has determinedly imagined her own dialogue and written her own versions of Zelda’s letters, and the voice she has given her is that of a perky helpmeet to her husband: a can-do girl saddled with a hopeless drunk, jollying him along, deflecting his alcoholic rage and attendant social embarrassments with quips delivered over her shoulder as she leads him away from the bar.

The pivotal plot point is the bromance between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Although Zelda was never universally beloved, Hemingway took a particular dislike to her, and Fowler imagines cause and effect with a scene in which a boorish Hemingway comes on to Zelda and she rebuffs him.

While the reader can enjoy a quick bit of literary tourism along the way – “At a Left Bank bar called the Dingo a day or two later, we had just taken a table when Ezra Pound spotted us and came strolling over” – you feel hustled toward the plot’s climax, and then just as quickly hustled away from it, toward the twin declines of both Zelda and Scott, which are rendered in passages like this one:

“Blackness had poured into my head like hot tar. What came afterward is mostly lost to me, though here’s what I’ve since been told:

“Scott was out of money, so I moved to a grim sanitarium called Sheppard Pratt Hospital in May of ’35. The doctors tried to thin that tar with insulin therapy, or scare it off with electroshock treatments, or blast it from me with pentylenetetrazol, a compound that provokes brain seizures. Still the blackness remained, and I began to see and converse with God.”

This Zelda is brisk and rather incurious, and she hurries the reader along, with no stopping for self-analysis. She is a dutiful mother who mops up her bilious daughter, a woman you could never imagine saying of that same child, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool,” to quote one of Zelda’s more famous lines.

In the book’s afterword, Fowler describes Zelda’s death eight years after her husband’s, in a fire that tore through the mental hospital she’d checked herself into. Z leaves us with the last line of The Great Gatsby, the epitaph written on Scott and Zelda’s tombstone – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. It’s a shame: not because the line is so well-known, but because it reminds you of the precision and delight of Fitzgerald’s words, the remarkable voices of the real Zelda and Scott – and the much flatter sound of Z and her man.