By the time I turned twenty, I had come to despise Zelda Fitzgerald. It was no fault of hers. I knew nothing about her, really, except that she had married F. Scott and lost her mind, but Zelda had come in for championing by that sorest of college nemeses — the Pitilessly Resentful Sophomore.
The PRS interrogated texts, it seemed, based primarily on whether their authors might have found more fun in life than she (a safe bet) — incorrect, wasteful, exploitive fun with absinthe and pretty girls they hadn't married, after which someone somewhere might have cried. The PRS always "interrogated" texts. Merely to read a poem or a novel without lying in wait for its offenses, to discuss it without swerving towards tears, to admire a turn of phrase and not indict its author in the next breath was for blinkered collaborators. The PRS would turn her blinding light on the canon and await the shivering confessions of Hawthorne and Hemingway, because every dick move ever perpetrated by a man in the Norton oppressed her personally.
I found this sort of dispositional sourness posing as feminism so annoying that I developed actual, dermatological symptoms in response — fierce itching under my watch strap or between my shoulder blades that I could only relieve by arguing, say, that Milton had created the first great villain in modern English literature, along with most of the Latinate words we still use today, at night, in his head, in the darkness he lived in at all times, waiting for his transcriptionist to arrive and take dictation in the morning, so if once upon a foggy day he got a beej from the school-age girl who brought the eggs and cream, why don't we let his ledger balance? I didn't consider Hemingway an attractive interpersonal prospect either, but since he didn't cheat on us and he shot himself in the head and the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms is a perfect egg thrown into a soundless chasm, could we agree to leave it at that? Or do I have to take a position I don't actually agree with in defense of the short stories with the damn elephants until the preceptor uses her Birkenstock as a gavel?
One of the PRS's favorite stalking horses: the idea — never offered as such, but rather as black-letter crit law — that F. Scott Fitzgerald had stolen all his best work from his fanciful young bride, then hounded her into the bughouse to cover his tracks. I naturally dismissed it out of hand, since it came from the PRS, and besides, what had he gotten for his trouble? Gatsby did only all right, and Fitzgerald set seriously about drowning himself and it took 15 years. Before anyone even invented pantyhose, he paid, and died, so just please, please, shut up.
Wait. The "beautiful fool" is Zelda's. The beautiful fool is us. It's complicated.
Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage keeps an even tone throughout most of the book, but sides with Zelda on the matter, as it should — Scott did steal from her. He did it openly, at first, when it didn't occur to her to mind, when she considered it par for the course as the great writer's wife. Later, when she did mind, he kept doing it, but turned it on her, made it out like she was stealing from him by withholding. The manipulation is revolting — but it didn't create Zelda's schizophrenia, and it didn't create Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald could sketch a period from his childhood like so:
He begins to remember many things, a filthy vacant lot, the haunt of dead cats, a hair-raising buck-board, the little girl whose father was in prison for telling lies, a Rabelaisian incident with Jack Butler, a blow with a baseball bat from the same boy — son of an Army officer — which left a scar that will shine always in the middle of his forehead." (39)
He didn't need Zelda to do this, or for the green light or poor dead Myrtle. But he saw that she could do it too, that someone else could draw the world in two strokes that way. "The marshmallow odor of the Biltmore" is a phrasing of hers — gorgeous. Perfect. To explain what I think she means, I would need four grafs. In her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz — which her husband "edited" and functionally ruined, then talked shit about for years — she says of her protagonist that she "wants to be told what she is like, being too young to know that she is like nothing at all." She described a mental hospital in one letter as looking "as if it was constructed to hide bits of Italian marble from the public." Yes. What? Yes.
Scott found her ways of putting things fascinating, and useful; I disapprove strongly of the denouement, which lasted about 50 times as long as the rest of their story — but I admire his taste in theft. And how fluky that two people with the same matchless gift for giving you the world in two strokes should get married to each other. This is what the book illuminates, as well as investigating how, or if, the Fitzgeralds created and/or destroyed each other.
It's a solid narrative, written well by Kendall Taylor, who lived with the material a long time. (I've just started Milford's Zelda, which is quite good too and pushes the quotes harder.) It touches on Fitzgerald's fundamental distance from his characters, from people, that he could sum up and judge environments quickly but that that detachment (and, it's strongly suggested, his inability to stay sober enough to remember most interactions) kept him from feeling much for them. It touches on the hopelessness of Zelda's treatment at that time, before pharmaceuticals could manage her disease. It glances on and then quickly away from their deaths, as if the fire and drink that consumed them were only incidental. Taylor could have explored those things more fully, but there is a frantic sadness to their lives, singly and together, that only either of the Fitzgeralds could have summed up — two aches shouting past one another.
Scott found [Gertrude] Stein fascinating, but Zelda detested being relegated to a tea table at the back of the room with [Alice B.] Toklas, and recalled the atmosphere as so smoky and mysterious that "a young poet vomited out of sheer emotion." (146)
That. Yes. I wish I hadn't despised Zelda for so long; it seems we'd have gotten along fine. And the PRS too, perhaps. It was complicated.
Tags: books day drinkin' Ernest Hemingway F. Scott Fitzgerald John Milton Kendall Taylor Nathaniel Hawthorne simmer down freshman Zelda Fitzgerald