During my adolescent crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald, I read everything the American novelist had ever published (including a thick volume of mostly mediocre magazine stories) but spared barely a thought for the tragic figure of his wife Zelda. In the girlish imagination, mad wives are best kept securely locked in their attics. In middle age, however, I can see how Zelda is a woman who demands some feminist revisionism; she was a pulsating life force and polyvalent artistic temperament cruelly suppressed by her famous husband’s alcoholism and insecurity.
So, I can agree in theory with writer Therese Anne Fowler and the publishers of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s the practice that is the problem.
Writing in the first person, Fowler starts with the irrepressible party girl who captured Fitzgerald’s heart when he was an officer stationed in Montgomery, Ala., during the First World War and soon agreed to follow him to New York where she became, in his words, “the first American flapper.” As such, she is annoyingly self-absorbed as a narrator, as well as inconsistent: Is she simply the breathless young Zelda overawed by New York or is she the wiser Zelda of later years looking back on these events? (Fowler often uses foreshadowing of the tragic future to colour the glorious present.)
More worrying still, in a novel full of painfully awkward exposition (and plenty of excruciatingly arch, Jazz Age dialogue) she is uncertain as to her own degree of omniscience. Sometimes she is coy: the men are discussing someone named Eugene O’Neill, a playwright, apparently. Other times she is encyclopedic. By the time she and Fitzgerald are leading the so-called Lost Generation in Paris, she is name dropping her way through guest lists complete with professional labels – “… painter Pablo Picasso and his wife, ballerina Olga Khokhlova; artist, poet and novelist Jean Cocteau …”
After the dastardly Ernest Hemingway enters the picture – Zelda hated him and Fowler imagines a plausibly ugly encounter to explain why – our narrator matures, starts to seek out her own artistic pursuits, dotes on her daughter Scottie, and generally becomes much more agreeable even as Fitzgerald’s alcoholism destroys their marriage and his career.
Yet that, too, is a problem: Siding squarely with Zelda in the literary debate over who ruined whose life, Fowler wants you to sympathize with her main character, so she creates a sensitive and even sensible figure who, despite everything, loves her husband, her child and her art. When Zelda flings herself down a staircase because Scott is eyeing another woman or slips off her lace panties and presents them to critic Alexander Woollcott to enliven a boring party, the outlandish behaviour seems utterly removed from the wise judge of human character Fowler has created.
Worse yet, Zelda’s madness seems equally removed from this narrator’s experience: She was diagnosed in her lifetime as schizophrenic; in her afterword, Fowler reports that the modern diagnosis would probably be bipolar. Fowler deals with her breakdowns fairly briefly, tending to the view they were at least exacerbated by patriarchal doctors happy to repress her natural desire to dance and to write because these did not sit well with a husband who could not stand the least competition.
Here, the narrator’s mental landscape is mainly empty: Fowler can guess what it might feel like to be the frustrated wife of a celebrated but self-destructive writer, but the novelist cannot tell her reader what it might feel like to go crazy.
Both Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and contemporary fiction readers deserve better than this. If historical fiction is to leave that genre ghetto located right next door to the romance novel, if it is to rise to the heights of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or the many novels of Peter Carey, it must be driven by contemporary literary purpose. The past is not simply some conveniently glamorous setting; real historical figures cannot be resurrected only because they provide plot for writers too busy to invent their own.
Also, in her afterword, Fowler stresses this is not a biography of Zelda but rather fiction, and yet it seems to be little more than a highly partisan account of her life story rendered in a populist and accessible style. I suspect it is not solid history; I know it is not good fiction.
Globe and Mail arts writer Kate Taylor is the author of two historical novels, Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, and A Man in Uniform.