A couple of months ago I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which features Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald as characters (Played by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston). In the film, the protagonist refers to Zelda as being “exactly as we’ve come to know her through everything we’ve read in books and articles. She’s, you know, charming, but all over the map”. I’m mildly ashamed to admit that prior to watching the film, I did not have even the faintest idea of her existence, let alone regarding any of her personality traits. I didn’t really think that much about them again until we went to see The Great Gatsby last week and after having done some reading about the couple. Then, I discovered that one of the Waterstone’s in Edinburgh had a table dedicated to Scott’s books (including about five different covers of Gatsby, which is just unnecessary), beside which was another table showcasing (I think) classics that featured Save Me The Waltz.
Save Me The Waltz is broadly a fictionalised auto-biography, in the same way that (apparently) her husband’s Tender Is The Night is, to the extent that Scott got quite annoyed with Zelda for writing in six weeks the book he had been working on for a number of years. Split into parts, each broadly concerned with a different episode in the life of the protagonist Alabama Knight, née Beggs (who is, for all intents and purposes, Zelda herself). Beginning with her adolescence and chronicling the marriage of her sisters, her own burgeoning sexuality and ventures into society,through her marriage and its gradual collapse as they traipse around France and Italy, ending with her returning to the States in her father’s final days.
As I tweeted while I was reading the book, Zelda had a way of twisting words into sentences that evoke so much more than most writers can manage. Everything from random observations at a dinner party:
It would be quite an experience to seek stimulation in the church and asceticism in sex.
to the description of her landscapes:
It was as if the sun had absorbed the coloring of the countryside to brew its sunset mixtures, boiling and bubbling the tones blindingly in the skies while the land lay white and devitalized awaiting the lavish mixture that would be spread to cool through the vines and stones in the later afternoon.
Unfortunately, ability to write beautiful language does not always translate into the ability to write a beautiful novel, and Save Me The Waltz is a perfect example of this. Despite the fairly straightforward plot, the novel is disjointed and frenetic, with very little structure to it. The narrative jumps around with little to no indication of when or where it’s going and it definitely gets lost in the middle section as Alabama and her husband David are falling out of love.To be fair, at the time of writing, Zelda was a patient at a Mental Hospital, and had been suffering from schizophrenia for a number of years, so she can be forgiven for these weaknesses. That said, it’s interesting that the most coherent and engaging segments of the novel are those in which Alabama is taking Ballet lessons, echoing Zelda’s own obsession.
Aside from the Ballet I don’t know which aspects were biographical or not, but there is one line, spoken by Alabama to her daughter, that I think seems to sum up Zelda’s own attitude to her marriage, at least in the earlier years:
“How can you be two things at once?”
“Because, my daughter, I am so outrageously clever that I believe I could be a whole world to myself if I didn’t like living in Daddy’s better”
All in all, Save Me The Waltz is an interesting book, and definitely worth reading if you’re interested in the era and classic American literature, but definitely not as a casual read.