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In which Netty spends a bit of time hanging out with The Great Gatsby’s real-life counterparts …

June 14, 2013

ImageYours truly has had a very Gatsby few weeks. In the lead-up to the release of Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby, I decided to revisit the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel on which it is based, and which I had not opened since my teenage years.

I first encountered Fitzgerald when I studied This Side of Paradise – which I adored – in college; I subsequently worked my way through his other novels – all of which I loved. And despite its mixed previews, I was keen to see what Luhrmann (and, indeed, Leo DiCaprio) had made of Gatsby; I was equally keen to see how the book stacked up for me after all these years.

Noted celluloid fan Bret Easton Ellis, who, like Fitzgerald, has established himself as one of the foremost social chroniclers of his generation through his writing, rather snarkily opined on Twitter that “every generation gets The Great Gatsby movie it deserves”. As I am yet to get around to seeing the film (surprised, aren’t you?), I will have to reserve my judgement. However, I was delighted (and perhaps more than a little relieved) to rediscover that the book was as devastatingly good as I remembered it, its prose chillingly sparse, elegant and finely honed. His personal shortcomings are many and well-documented, but for mine Scott Fitzgerald is simply one of the finest writers ever.

ImageOf course, this entry is not about books reread, it is about books being read for the first time. Hence in the middle of my Fitzgerald festival, it was a no-brainer to trot over to the bookshelf and dust off his wife Zelda Fitzgerald’s only published novel, Save Me The Waltz. I picked up a Vintage imprint last year purely on a whim; I needed change to buy a copy of The Big Issue from the nice man outside the bookshop, so I had to buy something. Scott’s wife, I mused to myself, yeah, I should get around to reading that some day …

Of course, it’s nigh on impossible to separate Scott Fitzgerald’s life from his work. Scott famously plundered his own life, and those of his friends and family, as material; Zelda does exactly the same in the highly autobiographical Save Me The Waltz. Zelda, who suffered from schizophrenia, dashed it off in a six-week flurry during a stint in a psychiatric hospital in 1932. She sent the copy to Scott’s publisher Maxwell Perkins without her husband’s knowledge; upon reading it he was furious, as it mined the same material – primarily the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and its associated ephemera – that Scott was using for his novel Tender Is The Night, on which he had been working for several years and which didn’t see the light of day until 1934. Scott demanded significant revisions, to which Zelda eventually agreed; in a letter to the publisher accompanying the final draft, Scott wrote: “It is a good novel now, perhaps a very good novel, I am too close to tell … praise will do her (Zelda) good, within reason”.

Zelda’s fictional alter ego is Alabama Beggs, like her, a feisty small-town southern girl, the youngest daughter of Judge Austin Beggs and his wife Millie. It is the (first world) war years; Alabama’s older sisters Dixie and Joan marry and move away, leaving the high-spirited teenage coquette to assuage her conservative parents and field the attentions of the soldiers who spill in and out of town. She meets the dashing young soldier David Knight, who is hoping to (and does) avoid service so as to fulfil his true ambition to move to New York and become a famous painter (which he also does). (In the original draft, David Knights was called Amory Blaine, the narrator of Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel This Side Of Paradise.)  The pair embark on a passionate long-distance romance that culminates in their marriage, and the birth of their daughter Bonnie, before they leave the United States for Europe.

The young family establishes itself in France, before a summer vacation in the Riviera – and Alabama’s affair with French pilot Jacques Chevre-Feuille – strains the couple’s relationship. David gets his revenge on their return to Paris by having a fling with actress Gabrielle Gibbs. Alabama attempts to rouse herself from her ensuing funk by announcing her plans to revisit her childhood love of ballet and become a professional dancer. Throwing herself into the discipline and neglecting her family in the process, she eventually accepts an offer from a Naples corp and relocates, leaving behind her husband and daughter (and nanny). But her big break is cut short when she is hospitalised with an infection that ultimately ends her dancing career, at the same time that she receives word from the States that her elderly father is dying. The family reunites to make the journey home, with much cause for reflection on their past – and on their future.

Any one familiar with the Fitzgeralds’ history will recognise many elements of their lives that Zelda has appropriated here for her (not so) fictional characters. Unlike Scott, she pours lavishly florid, sometimes overbearing descriptions on to her prose – a technique which is not without its charm, but sometimes comes at the novel’s expense. Then, with disjointing abruptness, she strips back the prose to the bare bones for the chapters detailing Alabama’s excursion into dance. Knowing, in retrospect, the book’s back story, with its major restructuring and revisions – some reputedly at Scott’s hands – throws on some light and offers perspective. Waltz has been dismissed as a literary curio; that it might be, but it’s also an essential piece of the canon for Fitzgerald completists – and the only one told by Zelda. Judging how it stands as an independent work – well, good luck with that. In life, Zelda was inexorably entwined with her famous husband; in death, it is even more so the case.

Speaking of which, it would be an interesting exercise to reread Tender Is The Night alongside Save Me The Waltz; perhaps one day I might get around to that – but I won’t be holding my breath. As I write this, I am halfway through Therese Anne Fowler’s recently released Z, a factually based but fictional imagining of the Fitzgeralds’ life written in the first person from Zelda’s point of view. I’ve also got a copy of Careless People, Sarah Churchill’s addition to the Fitzgeralds’ biographical works, to tackle at some stage. Which I strongly suspect will see me completely Fitzgeralded out for the time being.

Still, it’s been a fun, wild ride. The Great Gatsby famously finishes with the words, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, words which adorn the Fitzgeralds’ gravestone. There are echoes of that sentiment in the final sentence of Save Me The Waltz: “… they sat together watching the twilight flow through the calm living room that they were leaving like the clear, cold current of a trout stream”. So different, yet still intrinsically the same. Much like the respective writers themselves …

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