06 February 2010

Save Me the Waltz

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I've finished re-binding my copy now, and I've given Zelda's novel a second read. It's idiosyncratic, it's bizarre, but it's also occasionally genius. She describes David Knight's (F. Scott's) hair as having the colour of "eighteenth-century moonlight." Breathtaking image. But then she also falls into episodes of parties told so impressionistically, you'd have to stand 3,000 miles away to see the picture she's painting.

The story is her own, the plot follows her life almost exactly. David Knight is an acclaimed painter, not a writer. But other than that-- the story is her life. A Southern girl, maybe a little flirty, charmed off her feet by a handsome young military man with no money, but plenty of ambition. Alabama, Zelda's alter ego in the book, is young, immature, and throws remarks of dustbin-quality philosophy at anyone who crosses her path.

From the beginning, David Knight makes Alabama feel insecure, unsure of her position in his life, carving "David, David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Ms. Alabama Nobody" into a tree while she waits for him to ask her to dance. Though they marry and find fame through David's canvases, she never feels like her family approves of her life, and though she's always been a bit of rebel, she wants to be her father's princess, too. She wants her whims, and to be applauded for them.

The Knights are the toast of New York, they frequent the Riviera when it's still a quiet beach with only one rather lousy hotel. The Knights become American royalty, of a sort. They have a baby, Bonnie, who goes on to be raised by a Nanny, and becomes the snob that rich children deprived of proper parents often do.

Throughout the book, Alabama struggles to create an identity other than just David's wife. Not content with waiting around while he paints, she annoys him; she always wants to go to another party, if only to have something to complain the next day. She ends up in a flirty, poetic affair with an aviator, which ends with Alabama crying and screaming at David, with David jealously threatening to leave her. They fight. Violently.

Eventually, Alabama finds her calling, the one thing she can actually be bothered to do. She takes up ballet, at the age of 28; at this age, after having had a child, the odds are against her even achieving even a modicum of success. Of course, Alabama wants to be the best; she must not only have her whims, her ambitions must be met as well. She works herself to exhaustion, ignoring her literally torn muscles, her blisters, her bruises and infection. She neglects her society friends to practice at studio; she neglects her daughter. Offered a place in an Italian ballet, she leaves David to care for Bonnie, while she desperately tries to carve a name for herself, independent of David's stellar career.

And this is where Alabama's life and Zelda's life part ways.

For Alabama, her dancing lands her in hospital, fighting against a deathly infection. David and Bonnie fly to her side, and with their love, she survives, though unable to dance ever again. She and David rekindle their friendship and love, and they visit her family home to say a last goodbye to her beloved father before he expires. The family re-united in the peaceful South she knows and trusts.

For Zelda, this obsession with ballet was an early indication of later mental instability. Her fights and competition with F. Scott were signs of a marriage under too much strain. Scott's drinking led to alcoholism and indifference. After her dancing nearly broke her, Zelda was admitted to various asylums; she wrote this book in one after a breakdown caused by her father's death. And finally, she died in a fire at yet another.

In Save Me The Waltz, Zelda clearly feels that she is financially dependent on Scott; when she leaves him to study ballet, she realises David bought her all the clothes she owns, and now that she can't afford to buy anything, she'll just have to wear these clothes out. She lives in his extraordinary shadow, but still he jealously keeps her from being extraordinary in her own way. He wonders aloud if she knows that she's much too old to be any good at ballet. Interestingly, in Tender Is The Night (F. Scott's own thinly veiled novelisation of his marriage to Zelda), it's Dick Divers' dependence on his rich wife's money that destroys his ambitions, keeps him from developing into the promising talent he was meant to be. They find in each other the excuses they need to explain their lives.

Scott had plenty of friends to call Zelda crazy and jealous. Hemingway accused her of intentionally trying to sabotage Scott's work, accused her of trying to take him down, compete with him. But without her, Scott couldn't have written the way he did. The relationships in his most masterful pieces are his marriage, the women are Zelda. In Gatsby, Daisy's famous line (where she says she hopes her baby is born a beautiful fool) was taken directly from Zelda's mouth. And though Zelda and Scott both present Scott as the solid one in their books, he wasn't so innocent of cruelty toward her, as well. When her doctors told him that publishing Save Me the Waltz would be good for Zelda, he kept her from using stories from their life that he had intended to use in Tender is the Night. Zelda's alter-ego in Tender... is Nicole Diver, the model of the beautiful, crazy girl, whose vulnerability attracts and repels Dick.

It's easy to imagine Zelda this way, as an over-anxious, hysterical, self-important woman who didn't know how to stop being the centre of attention, even if it took acting wild, partying hard, and sabotaging her husband. It's far too easy to see F. Scott as the withered hero of American letters, slowly driven to perilous drink by a jealous, unstable woman. But it's too simple to look at things that way.

Because Zelda can write, in moments of brilliant lucidity. Because Scott needed her to write the way he did. Because they are American royalty, glamourous and spectacular. And because being American royalty demands one thing: an equally spectacular crash and a glamourous slow burn.

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