Published by Two Roads
I’ve always been fascinated by the 1920’s period, the great writers it produced, the jazz music and flappers, all epitomised in one of my favourite Woody Allen movies, Midnight in Paris. Out of that period came the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, Dos Passos, Ezra Pound and the subjects of this book, the writer of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.
The novel’s prologue opens in 1940’s Montgomery, Alabama and a letter from Zelda to F. Scott which speaks of their separation. We then jump back over 20 years to 1918 and the pair’s first meeting, their courtship and subsequently turbulent marriage despite seeming to be the Jazz Age’s Golden couple.
The novel is far from perfect. It wears its research heavily almost buckling under the weight of it. At one point we’re even told the names of the adverts on the billboards on Broadway at the time.
Some of the claims it makes are also questionable. There’s the suggestion that F. Scott and Hemingway had more than a plutonic relationship but that Hemingway was the reason behind so much of the turbulence in the Fitzgerald’s marriage, with Fowler suggesting that Hemingway’s dislike of Zelda came as result of her rejection of his sexual advances. I’d be interested to see the evidence supporting this. It was well known that Hemingway was a womaniser so it’s not outside the realms of possibility that he made a pass at Zelda. But F. Scott’s alcoholism played a major role in not only his downward spiral but also hers. This is only further acerbated by her dissatisfaction with the limited role dealt out to women in the period and her frustrations and ambitions being stifled by her husband. It is perhaps no wonder then that she repeatedly suffered from bouts of depression for which she was institutionalized (though at the time she was believed to be suffering schizophrenia).
But what spoke to me the most about this novel was the darker side of being not only a public commodity but also someone else’s muse. Right from the beginning of their marriage, this never sat comfortably with Zelda but F. Scott was so determined to be seen as the voice of his generation, that her protestations are drowned out in a whirlwind of glamorous parties that came with the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise.
Fowler’s novel shifts the focus from F. Scott Fitzgerald, to his wife Zelda in what feels like a feminist reworking of literary history. Here she is given a voice to counter that of the heavily male dominated ones of the period. Zelda made numerous attempts to define her life and not be defined solely by her husband’s achievements. She desired a career of her own and made a number of attempts to do so as a ballet dancer, painter and writer. What the novel does well is to bring out Zelda’s frustrations, her longings and her desires to be in control of her life. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a case of the author giving Zelda attitudes and opinions that were not in keeping with the period.
The real victim of this novel though comes in the form of Fowler’s representations of F. Scott Fitzgerald as a controlling, egotistical, debt-riddled alcoholic. Fans of F. Scott may be less thrilled by this unflattering portrait of the novelist. He is presented as a man who was afraid to be outshone by his wife and feared that her accomplishments may overshadow his. We see him more than willing to champion a young Hemingway than give the same support to his wife. When she’s confined to a psychiatric hospital she’s told to cooperate with the treatments if she wants to get better and F. Scott demands that she, “Admit how damaging it is for you to complete with me,” (p.323) She is told again and again by medical professionals that it was her ambitions that drove her to breaking point, “a jazz-age train wreck in slow motion” as she’s described by one Swiss doctor.
Despite some reservations in the facts department I found this novel to be an engrossing read. The novel, like Zelda’s life, is something of a whirlwind and I was swept along by it, as if watching a car crash and unable to look away.
3 ½ stars