Save Me The Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
24 July, 2013
Oh Zelda, why do you do this to me?
The myth surrounding Zelda Fitzgerald has almost eclipsed that of her husband Scott and his novels and certainly her own literary output. I didn’t even realise Zelda had published a novel if it wasn’t chosen by Claire for my book group. Save Me The Waltz is a thinly veiled fiction based on Zelda and Scott’s far from perfect marriage. The preface by Harry T. Moore which was pretty condescending described Zelda’s work as a ‘literary curio’ and totally put me off Moore who came across as a bit of a knob and so I was determined to give Zelda a chance. I had previously read somewhere that Scott was jealous of Zelda’s talent and was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt and felt Zelda was probably being treated unfairly by her husband’s friends and admirers.
In Save Me The Waltz, Alabama Beggs, a young Southern socialite who is charming, spoilt and used to getting her own way marries David Knight, an equally jazzy young artist who whisks her away to a life of freedom and parties in New York. Although strapped for cash, they live from one raucous party to another, throwing up scandal and gossip in their wake. But they love each other. And when New York becomes too small for them, they set off to France to live a bohemian life with their little daughter, Bonnie. And here, their marriage starts to lose its charm as David’s star rises and Alabama begins to feel left behind and struggles to find her niche in life. It is only when she decides to start ballet, a little late in life, that she discovers her passion leading her to neglect her family in pursuit of something that gives her a reason for living.
I really tried, people. But with each sentence, Zelda’s heavy, flowery and indulgent prose just chipped away at my earnest wish to give her her due. There were just too many words; difficult, complicated words that crowded each sentence, all fighting for attention and tiring out the reader in the process, an indulgence of words. What came across was that Zelda was well-read, she had a large vocabulary and indeed, it is astonishing that she wrote this novel in 6 weeks straight, half of which she spent in a mental asylum. And it does read like a mad rush to verbalise her internal struggles. Reading Nina Auerbach’s article in the LRB, you can see how much Zelda wanted to formalise and maybe justify some of her choices and even change them.
Although this novel is often described as semi-autobiographical and a vivid account of life in Paris in the 20s and 30s, it’s much more than that. I did say the novel was tedious, especially in the earlier chapters describing Alabama’s childhood and adolescence, but once the action moves to Europe, it does pick up. Especially when there is dialogue although this can also be reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek with characters saying some incredible things which you would never hear in real life, one soundbite after another. But, the thing I liked about Save Me The Waltz was that it seemed to be an extremely honest account of one woman’s journey of self-discovery, her struggles as a wife to a successful artist and mother to a little girl, an intelligent woman who finds herself almost suicidal with boredom. I think it’s probably a sentiment that many women experience and although embellished by the party atmosphere of interwar Paris, you can’t really hide the sadness and vulnerability of Alabama and her fierce determination to make her life worthwhile.
It would be interesting to read this in tandem with Tender is the Night which Scott published a few years later and which Moore says is complemented by Save Me The Waltz. Scott’s work is hailed as a masterpiece but both are said to show the two sides of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage.
So although Zelda and I didn’t get on, I finished the book with a grudging respect for a woman who was probably born too early for her time. If she was alive now, she’d be blazing ahead gloriously doing whatever the hell she likes and not giving two hoots. And she’d be able to as well.