Reviewed by Harriet
Written in just two months while its author was a patient in a psychiatric clinic, Zelda Fitzgerald’s first and only novel found a publisher in 1932. Three thousand copies were printed, but fewer than half actually sold, and for more than thirty years the novel sank without trace. When it was republished by a university press in 1967, the text required more than 500 emendations, and was described by an editor as ‘one of the most sloppily edited novels produced by an American publisher’. Thankfully Handheld Press have just republished it so we can see how good it actually is.
Save Me the Waltz is strongly autobiographical, sharing most of its plot with the story of the life of its author. Like her central character Alabama Beggs, Zelda Fitzgerald was a Southern belle, the centre of the social world of flappers and boyfriends in which she thrived. Alabama falls in love with David, a handsome young soldier, just as Zelda did with Scott Fitzgerald, though in the novel David is a painter rather than a novelist. They have a baby girl, they move to France and live a highly charged life of alcohol and parties. Gradually their relationship founders: in the south of France Alabama falls in love with a young French airman, and later, in Paris, David starts an affair with an English actress. Frustrated by having too little to do, and feeling the lack of a creative outlet of her own, Alabama joins a ballet class, determined to become good enough to be a professional ballerina. She works immensely hard, neglecting home and family in favour of long hours spent in the ballet studio, but eventually ill health forces her to abandon her much desired career.
Anyone familiar with the lives of the Fitzgeralds, and with Scott’s novels, will easily recognise how thinly Zelda has concealed the facts. The only major change she made was in the outcome of Alabama’s ballet training. Like her heroine, Zelda was offered a job in the Naples Ballet, but – for reasons that have never been clear – she refused, while Alabama takes up the offer and spends many months in Naples parted from her husband and daughter. As for the illness that draws her career to a close, the fictional Alabama suffers from blood poisoning which forces her to stop dancing, while in Zelda’s case it was a diagnosis of schizophrenia, causing her to spend the rest of her short life in and out of various psychiatric clinics.
All this may sound as if you are being presented with little more than a barely disguised autobiography, but this magnificent novel is so much more than that. And that’s not just because you’re getting Zelda’s side of what must be, certainly for admirers of Scott Fitzgerald, a well-known story. What makes this book really stand out is the quality of Zelda’s prose. Initially you may be a bit overwhelmed by the way her images and metaphors slide and tumble over and around each other, but once you get used to it this becomes a huge pleasure.
Thinking, she thinks romantically of her sister’s beau. Randolph’s hair is like nacre cornucopias pouring forth those globes of light that make his face. She thinks that she is like that inside, thinking in this nocturnal confusion of her emotions with her response to beauty. She thinks of Dixie with excited identity as being some adult part of herself divorced from her by transfiguring years, like a very sunburned arm which might not appear familiar if you had been unconscious of its alteration….Alabama never could place what woke her mornings, conscious of the absence of expression smothering her face like a wet bath mat.
The quality of the writing, never less than bright and immensely readable, serves as a reminder of the characteristics of the mind of its author, clever, perceptive and imaginative with a gift of expression which sets her apart. But it’s also a novel that reveals the difficulties faced by a talented woman who feels overshadowed by her successful husband and who sacrifices domesticity for the hard discipline of art. Alabama loves her daughter and longs for a happy marriage but deliberately separates herself from child and husband in order to pursue her quest for perfection in dance. The agonies she puts herself through and the long hours she spends in the studio are painful to read about, but they are a testament to her need to carve out a fulfilling life, and not one that is lived in the shadow of her husband’s fame and success.
Save Me the Waltz comes with a useful introduction by Erin E. Templeton, which provides biographical details of the Fitzgeralds’ lives and puts the publication of the novel in context, showing how conflicted Scott was about his wife’s work: it’s not too much to say that the novel became a focus of the deep bitterness that had developed between the couple. Before it was even published Scott had insisted on many amendments: accustomed to using Zelda’s diaries and the couple’s own life story as material for his novels, he was horrified to find that she was preempting him by using the material herself. Zelda did acquiesce but the quarrels continued after publication and it seems clear that all this acrimony, together with her declining mental state, contributed to her inability to write any further novels. It’s pleasing that this one is seeing the light of day, and deserves to be widely read on its own merits, which are many.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz (Handheld Press, 2019). 978-1999828042, 270pp., paperback original.