lip lit: z: a novel of zelda fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is a fictional interpretation of Zelda’s life, chronicling everything from her spirited adolescence in Alabama to her various institutionalisations and literary failures. The crux of the narrative, naturally, concerns her troubled marriage to Gatsby’s author, F Scott Fitzgerald. They meet at the end of the Great War, when he is an ambitious but penniless writer on the verge of his first novel.
After a tumultuous on-off courtship, Scott convinces Zelda to join him in New York, where the pair quickly adapt to life as society’s ‘Golden Couple’, drinking, dancing and laughing their way into the small hours of the morning. She is proud to be known as Scott’s fashionable young wife and muse (due to his work, Zelda is often cited as America’s first flapper), and she encourages his growing success.
Unfortunately, their tendency to live beyond their means puts pressure on Scott to produce profitable short stories, plays and novels, which hinders his desire to immortalise himself in the literary canon. Chasing inspiration, he shifts them from Manhattan to the suburbs to Paris and back again, causing Zelda to grow increasingly adverse to his alcoholism and lax spending habits. The cracks begin to show in their marriage.
Years after her death, Zelda Fitzgerald became a feminist icon. In Fowler’s adaptation, it isn’t difficult to see why. Zelda’s attempts to forge her own identity in their social circle of artists, writers and dancers are consistently thwarted by her husband’s interferences. When she writes several short stories for prestigious literary publications, Scott’s name is attached to hers in the by-line. Her first and only novel, Save Me the Waltz, a thinly veiled account of their marriage, undergoes extensive edits when Scott claims it portrays him in a negative light – ironic, considering Zelda’s reputation as Scott’s vain flapper protagonist. And her obsessive desire to become a professional ballerina eventually precipitates her mental breakdown, a turn from which she never truly recovers.
The novel’s flair for anachronistic dialogue aids its portrayal of Zelda as a woman struggling against the constraints of her time, one who refused to be defined by her relationship with her husband but was punished for her ambition.
It is arguable as to whether Zelda or Scott was the more disruptive presence. The novel takes the stance that Zelda was an essential contributor to his work, that his negativity and interferences stifled her potential and destroyed her self-esteem, while acknowledging the mutually destructive role they played in one another’s lives. Those looking for insight into Scott’s stance on the relationship may find themselves wanting, as the book skims over his infidelities and later life in Hollywood, adhering to Zelda’s limited perspective on certain events, but the historical cameos, and speculation concerning Zelda and Ernest Hemingway’s well-documented animosity, should chuff literary lovers.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is a layered exploration of the writer’s ego, and the damage it inflicts on lovers struggling to retain their individual identities while striving for creative validation. The couple remained tethered for the remainder of their lives, unable to release one another fully but unable to achieve the success they both wanted; a tragedy that resonates.
Despite the focus on their marriage, this is ultimately Zelda’s story, and Fowler remains faithful to that. She makes Zelda a three dimensional personality rather than the subject of a staid biography, successfully capturing the fragility, reckless humour and vivaciousness that turned her into such an interesting modern figure.