Once he had said, ‘If you want to choose, you must be a goddess.’ That was when she had wanted her own way about things. It wasn’t easy to be a goddess away from Olympus.
Zelda Fitzgerald wrote and published only one novel. This one, Save Me The Waltz.
Zelda Fitzgerald wrote this in less than two months whilst in a psychiatric hospital.
Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who together form the autobiographical root of the central characters of this book (Alabama and David Knight), as well as those of Fitzgerald’s husband’s masterpiece, Tender is the Night.
(NB: As this is a blog about Save Me The Waltz, all instances of “Fitzgerald” unaccompanied by a first name will be referring to Zelda Fitzgerald, the author of the piece. If this proves confusing, I’ll exclusively use first names. Let’s see how it goes.)
Save Me The Waltz is, unfortunately, not a great novel. But nor is it terrible. It’s not good enough – and here’s the sticking point – to be enjoyed very much by anyone without a vested interest in the piece as writing. As literature, it has great flaws. It is very clear, for example, that it was written quickly, and that it was written quickly by someone who had not written much before. It misuses time, constantly, in a manner that one could argue is an attempt to evoke the confusion of mental illness and the pain of ageing, but that would be a critical stretch. Fitzgerald, it seems, just had a poor grasp of unfolding speed and the passage of time in a novel – characters’ ages and names change, as well as physical descriptions: there is a lack of consistency that isn’t a reflection of the way she saw the world, but it is little more than not having bothered to check continuity. It is implied that Alabama’s childhood and youth inhabit one Westerosi-style Summer that lasts from circa 1914-1921, which is confusing as we see American involvement in the First World War begin and end and we also witness its after effects, without anything else changing. Maybe that was the world Fitzgerald was trying to write about, maybe that was an experience she was trying to capture. I don’t think it was, though, as although the writing does improve as the book goes on, it never feels like a tight, put-together, well thought through narrative. It feels far more like expressive renditions of memoir and self-reflection, it feels more like a long form creative writing exercise conducted by someone in a psychiatric institution: which is exactly what Save Me The Waltz is, and this adds to its value, rather than detracting from it.
People read memoirs and autobiographies written by the shittest, least literary slebs all the time – check those bestseller racks in airport bookstores* – because it is a normal human urge to have an interest in the lives of others. People – less of them – read the letters and diaries of historical (and contemporary) figures they find interesting, and this is also considered to be normal. Save Me The Waltz should be viewed as a text in this vein: “diaries/letters”, rather than “fiction”.
Zelda Fitzgerald was an interesting person who lived an interesting and deeply tragic life. The circumstances of this life are explored in the fiction of her husband in Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and Damned**, but far from Fitzgerald being an interesting person because she was a famous man’s wife, a HUGE part of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s success came about as a direct result of their life together, and his own booze-fuelled tragedy was his repressed, 19th-century man’s, response to the severe breakdown of the woman he loved. Scott (F. Scott, I’m not slipping into the third person) found Zelda fascinating, Scott found Zelda inspirational, Scott wanted to help and – when he realised he couldn’t – immortalised the darkest depths of their relationship in a heartbreaking, wonderful, novel, then drank himself to death while Zelda waited for immolation in an asylum far, far away.
I’ve read Tender is the Night multiple times, and it is a novel I hold in very high esteem. Save Me The Waltz draws on many of the same experiences and the same parts of a shared life, but draws on them in a different and a far more introspective way. Fitzgerald doesn’t have the wider sense of empathy of her husband – all her periphery characters are shadows, are half there – because this is a novel about Alabama Knight, this is a novel about Zelda Fitzgerald. This is a fascinating insight into someone who famously fell apart, it is a rewriting of her own past to justify where she had ended up. In the novel text, Alabama’s attempts to become a ballerina – mirroring Fitzgerald’s own – go far better. Alabama leaves her husband and daughter to pursue her dancing career, but then sustains an injury and has to give it up. In reality, Fitzgerald never got that far, turned down the one opportunity she had and this segued into the breakdown that would leave her institutionalised for the rest of her life.
The saddest note in Save Me The Waltz is the way Fitzgerald paints Alabama’s husband, David Knight. He is a successful painter (rather than a novelist), and he has a far stronger bond with the couple’s child than Alabama has. He has a wider social circle, and though they both flirt with affairs, he is able to form personal bonds outside of the marriage with people who don’t just want to fuck him. Alabama feels objectified by all men she meets, there is a touch of de Sade to Fitzgerald’s worldview, but it is based on, again, her experience. As Alabama sinks into herself, finding a purpose to her life that is then thwarted by accident, she finds no solace in her marriage. David Knight is happy and carefree and supportive, but distant. Fitzgerald’s fictional husband lets her pursue her dreams but because he doesn’t care. Fitzgerald sits, writing, in a hospital, surrounded by nurses and doctors and other patients, and she feels abandoned. She feels alone. She feels that her big, successful, happy, novelist husband doesn’t give a shit about her and has locked her away so he can forget about her.
But F. Scott Fitzgerald could not and did not forget about her, no matter how much he drank, no matter how much he started opening up in the pages of fucking Esquire magazine (true story), he never forgot Zelda. The fact that his wife – the source of his poetry, the source of his pain, the source of his success (did he not want to succeed so he could support her, impress her, show her the world???) – was shut up for her own protection was a situation that damned and destroyed him. And she didn’t even realise that he cared.
Save Me The Waltz may not be a very successful novel, but read as a fictionalised memoir about a destructive relationship, it is powerful and engaging stuff. There are lines of beauty, moments of joy, rivers of pain. But the vast majority of them exist when the reader engages with the second level of this novel. Alabama Knight’s failure to be a ballerina and her return to America, to arrive just in time for the death of her beloved father, is not in itself sad. What is sad is the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, is the fact that even when rewriting her life to suit herself better, she couldn’t give herself either long-lasting success or a husband she felt understood her.
Do not read Save Me The Waltz for a stonking 1930s novel, read it as confused memoir written by a deeply unhappy woman. This is about Zelda Fitzgerald, a real life literary heroine, by her own narrative and merit. With polish and with practice, she could have written a beautiful novel, she probably could have been a successful ballerina. But she didn’t find success, she instead found its opposite. It is her tragedy – doubled up by the fact that she was unable to understand its effects on the people around her – that is central here. And for that reason, Save Me The Waltz is a beautiful and moving text.
Worth a read, but only if you know the context. Rereading this blog before posting made me cry. The life of the Fitzgeralds was a very sad affair.
* The bookshops I go in don’t tend to have bestseller racks. Except for the ones I go into in airports, which I do frequently because I frequently travel. Always, I might add, on budget airlines, which I think are one of society’s greatest innovations, and reason enough to maintain the status quo indefinitely. Would I be happier in a disassembled state where societal pressure towards certain prescribed ideals no longer existed? Yes, I would, but would I have had as many bangin’ mini breaks? No, and some of those mini-breaks were genuinely transcendental.
** I’m sure one can argue it into Gatsby.