I was interested to read this fictionalized version of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life as I know so little about her. My only impressions about her from talking to friends and reading about F Scott Fitzgerald’s life was that she spent some time in a mental hospital, had her own literary ambitions and possibly derailed her husband from producing as much work as he might have. These are the kind of brief biographical details that we sometimes lazily cling onto to rather than taking time to investigate the full complexity of the person and that we are prone to believe because we are always handed a subjective view of history. As the author notes in her afterward: “Where the Fitzgeralds are concerned, there is so much material with so many differing views and biases that I often felt as if I’d dropped into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott.” We can’t ever know what really happened in this long and tumultuous relationship. However, what is clear is that Zelda was a passionate, troubled and highly artistic individual. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald sheds light upon the inner life of this fascinating woman and the sexist attitudes of the time which often stifled her own artistic endeavours.
The novel takes us from the time Zelda is a teenager first meeting Scott through to the disintegration of their marriage and the end of Scott’s life. At the start Zelda comes across as quite an ordinary girl from a distinguished family who goes to parties and flirts with young men. When someone asks Zelda “There’s more to life than fellas, right?” Zelda replies: “‘Not really,’ I said. My smile felt weak, but it was a start.” Her whirlwind romance with the charming and ambitious Scott takes her to NYC and eventually Europe where the pair lead lives filled with drink, parties and endless socializing. One is suspicious of the simple elated excitement and wonder Zelda exhibits without showing a trace of fear or uncertainty or sadness, but this throwing herself headlong into the giddy rush of it all serves as a hidden warning for the tricky times ahead.
When the party wanes Zelda becomes a much more interesting character because of her own greater appreciation for and engagement with the world. At one point she observes, “For the first time, I had a glimmer of the immensity of the planet, of lives being lived as routinely or as vividly as my own had been at any given moment.” She also grows from someone who is complacent in the subjugation of women: “I ended up with a black eye. I was of the mind that I deserved what I got.” to someone who understands it’s necessary to stand up for herself as she comments later in the novel “It was so much easier to be led, to be pampered and powdered and petted for being an agreeable wife. Easier, I thought, but boring. And not only boring, but plain wrong.” However, standing up for herself and expressing her own voice is difficult given Scott’s own misogynistic attitude toward Zelda and his attitudes about women in general. The vision of liberated free-acting women portrayed in his novels turns out to be a sham. Scott says at one point “All of that flapper business was just to sell books.” This attitude most likely partly stems from Scott’s own fears that Zelda’s artistic powers might compete with his own. Unfortunately, this oppressive nature is reinforced institutionally at the psychiatric clinics she enters into where she’s told to write about the correct role of women in the household and by her own family and many of their social circles. At Gertrude Stein’s literary salons the wives (Zelda included) must sit apart drinking tea while Stein herself and the men talk art. Also, the powerful and threatening figure of Hemmingway looms large in the novel. Initially he is a kind of protégé of Scott, but then becomes a well known author himself who drives a wedge between the couple by continuously making Scott believe that Zelda is hobbling his artistic abilities and holding him back. Meanwhile, Zelda suspects Hemmingway might be a “fairy” and have designs on her husband that involve more than literary kinship. Generally in this book Zelda’s viewpoint seems to be a trustworthy one. However, when it comes to her perspective on Hemmingway one wonders if her opinion isn’t skewed due to jealousy and personal bias after a disturbing encounter where Hemmingway propositions her. What is clear is that Hemmingway is a calculating social climber who works too hard to prove his machismo. He is accustomed to using people especially for his own sexual gratification and to advance his literary career.
When the glitzy cloak of success starts fraying at the edges and the endless parties and boozing take their inevitable toll Zelda and Scott’s relationship really starts to feel the strain. Scott is shown to be someone convinced of his own literary genius, but also harbours a tremendous amount of insecurity. Often he prefers drinking, socializing and whoring over getting down to the tedious business with pen and paper. As money troubles mount he even starts to let short stories written by Zelda be published under his own name in order to receive greater payments and to enhance his own literary standing. Zelda grudgingly accepts this, but it adds to her increasing mental strain. Throughout much of the novel it’s as if Zelda is viewing her life by looking through a cracked window making wry comments about her relationship with Scott, artist-packed soirees and stuttered attempts to make a career as a writer or painter or dancer. Towards the end of the novel, her viewpoint becomes more fragmented as she mentally breaks down from the ever towering strains of her physical problems, misdiagnosed psychological problems, tumultuous relationship with Scott, lack of recognition for her own achievements and the weariness which comes from partying hard like a true woman of the Jazz age.
There have been many other books which fictionalize the lives of writers to give insight into their personality and the circumstances which went into creating their body of work. Some of the most accomplished I’ve read are CK Stead’s novel Mansfield, the Virginia Woolf portion of Cunningham’s The Hours and my favourite of all Colm Toibin’s novels The Master (about the life of Henry James). It’s difficult to resist peering through the window into what the lives of these authors might have been like – a strange impulse given how writers often lead reclusive and quiet (ie dull on the surface) lives. Of course, great writing speaks to our souls and, while we might like to believe we’d have a spiritual kinship with the author of such great thoughts, the actual person might turn out to be deeply flawed and disappointing. After reading Fowler’s novel I can’t help but feel suspicious about Scott Fitzgerald and Hemmingway knowing that their personalities probably in some ways mirror their fictional versions. Not that I won’t still be able to appreciate their work, but I’ll be more guarded when approaching it. What’s particularly excellent about Z is that it establishes Zelda was an artist in her own right (albeit, one who is little read now and usually only by fervent fans of her husband) and a woman who is largely misunderstood (as is shown by my own vague prior impressions of Zelda.) So this novel has given me much greater appreciation for the complexity of her life and understanding of how lives of terrific excess can fuel and finally extinguish the flames of creativity.