Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

9781250028655_p0_v4_s260x420Say the name Zelda and clearly, the reference is to the legendary wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Theresa Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda tells the story in her own voice – at times, reading like an illicit look into her private diary.

The highs and lows of this Jazz Age marriage have been chronicled in fiction, movies, biographies – some accusing Zelda of destroying her husband’s career, others pointing to Scott as the alcoholic womanizer who drove her insane. Fowler is on Zelda’s side.

Her fictionalized version of this dysfunctional yet brilliant pair includes relationships with a star cast of writers and artists of that era – Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and, of course, Hemingway. Fowler uses the strange love/hate friendship of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald as a turning point in her novel, and creates an explanation for Hemingway’s intense dislike of Zelda with Zelda’s sexual rejection of Hemingway – plausible but only fictional.

The first half of the book seemed to last forever and I found it hard to concentrate on the Southern Belle drivel, as Zelda grows from a 17-year-old Scarlett to a bobbed flapper, partying in Europe. After Hemingway enters, the pace improves, racing to the inevitable ending. To be fair, my lackadaisical attention may have been due to my dizzying ear infection, the small print on my iPhone – or maybe the disappointing use of language.

The Jazz Age with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda continues to be romanticized – a new movie version of Gatsby with Leo DiCaprio is being released, and the New Yorker recently published a Fitzgerald short story rejected over 75 years ago. Fowler’s rendition highlights Zelda’s accomplishments as a painter, would-be ballerina, and as a writer, who was actually plagiarized by her husband. Although fiction, the story certainly justifies the PBS conclusion that

“As an icon of the Jazz Age, she struggled against her traditional southern upbringing and its societal constraints to create a new, independent identity…”

If you don’t know the story of this famous pair, Z is an easy entry into their lives and worth the read, but lower your expectations if you are expecting Fitzgerald’s prose. Although Fitzgerald never wrote a roman à clef, characters from some of his work – The Beautiful and the Damned; Tender is the Night – reflect his life with Zelda. The New York Times reviewer Penelope Green calls his language “precise and a delight.” Maybe that’s what was missing in Fowler’s interpretation.

Happy Birthday, Ernest Hemingway

Remembering Ernest Hemingway as “Papa” fishing in the streams was changed for many, including myself, by Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife; Woody Allen secured that image in the movie, “Midnight in Paris.” Today is Hemingway’s birthday.

Julie Bosman notes in her New York Times article – To Use and Use Not – that a new edition of A Farewell to Arms has just been published with Hemingway’s 39 (or maybe 47) different endings for the book –

“… an attempt to redirect some of the attention paid in recent years to Hemingway’s swashbuckling, hard-drinking image.”

You can decide if he “got the words right.”

Hemingway spent his winters on a farm in Cuba from 1939 to 1960, writing Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) and The Old Man and the Sea (1953), which won the 1953 Pulitzer prize; he also won the 1954 Nobel prize for literature.

If you are among the Americans planning to travel to Cuba to connect with the culture – the newest place to tour – this might be a good time to revisit Hemingway’s legacy.

Related Article: Review of “The Paris Wife”

Favorite Last Lines

First lines of novels are often quoted, the first promise of  the story yet to come, but last lines can linger long after the book has been forgotten.  Those last lines can offer a philosophy or a mantra.

Among my favorites:

“An excellent year’s progress.”   Bridget Jones Diary by Fielding

“But this was how Paris was in the early days, when we were poor and very happy.”   A Moveable Feast by Hemingway

“I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the valley of Panjshir on my lips. I ran.”  The Kite Runner by Hosseini

“He is coming, and I am here.”  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Niffenegger


And, of course …

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”    

The “American Book Review” has an alphabetical list – here.

Do you have a last line that you jotted down when the book ended?

The Paris Wife

Romance, history, focused dialogue, clear intent – all Hemingway.  I’m reading and savoring Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife, pretending I am back in the 1920’s Paris of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound – with the beauty of that city and the intellectual zest of its expatriate writers.  McClain writes as though she were inside the writer’s head, as he begins his journey into greatness, but from the perspective of Hadley, his older first wife.

Mirroring Hemingway’s style, McClain “lets the action speak for itself” with glimpses into the war experiences that haunted him, the family background that irritated him, the obsession with writing and the ultimate fear of any writer – that he will lose the thought at any moment.

When Hemingway’s manuscripts are stolen from Hadley on the train, it may have been the beginning of the end.  Then, she is pregnant, and the wonder is that they survived his returning to dead-end newspaper work in Toronto, but it’s the bohemian elitist life and infidelity that ends the magic.  In McClain’s portrayal, Hemingway is the cool, talented, tortured genius – entitled to loutish behavior.

Although this is a fictionalized account told by Hadley, it’s hard not to imagine being in the bedroom, overhearing their conversations; at the racetrack at Auteuil, when their horse falls; or at the running of the bulls, as a pregnant Hadley rediscovers her inner strength.  Of course, knowing that Hemingway had four wives precludes a happy ending, but, as I keep reading,  it’s hard not to hope for one.  When I finish, I plan to reread the book he dedicated to Hadley – The Sun Also Rises – hoping to see Hemingway with a fresh perspective.  McClain chronicled their lives, using letters and primary sources in her research, and, of course, Hemingway’s own accounting of his life at that time in Moveable Feast.

As I sat in a coffee shop, checking email, forgetting to turn the book over to hide its cover, an elderly man, seeing the title, asked me if the book was any good.

“Better than anything,” I said, but I should have told him it was really a sad but romantic love story.