Reviewed: Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Past infidelity.

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler
Two Roads, 384pp, £17.99

In 1923, T S Eliot wrote that the critic must have “a very highly developed sense of fact”. This is also a useful attribute for the historical novelist but it is precisely what is missing from Therese Anne Fowler’s fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, which is less a fiction than a series of falsities.

Fowler’s novel retells the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, from their courtship in Montgomery, Alabama at the end of the First World War, through Scott’s sudden fame as the bestselling author of This Side of Paradise in 1920 and their marriage a week later. The Fitzgeralds proceeded to take America by storm, while their well-publicised escapades in the early 1920s helped to inspire The Great Gatsby. After it was published in 1925 to disappointing sales and mostly uncomprehending reviews, the fun began to spiral into something more destructive. Fitzgerald’s drinking raged out of control and Zelda’s behaviour, always unpredictable, started to become seriously erratic.

In 1930, Zelda had a mental breakdown, and was hospitalised. She spent the next decade in and out of psychiatric clinics, while Fitzgerald’s alcoholism took a stranglehold over his life. Recriminations were thrown, Zelda’s friends and family murmuring that Scott was to blame – he had driven her crazy, or else was a jazz-age Mr Rochester locking up an inconvenient Bertha Mason. In fact, there is a great deal of epistolary evidence to show that Fitzgerald was desperate to find a cure for the woman he loved until he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1940.

Zelda was in and out of hospital for the next eight years but conspiracy theories are nothing if not resourceful: and so we are told that it was the treatments to which she was subjected that drove Zelda mad. It’s a tiresome story but tenacious, and unfortunately one to which Fowler whole-heartedly subscribes – the kind of victim feminism that can only see women as casualties and martyrs of selfish, domineering men, rather than as agents of their own destinies.

The truth, evident from the accounts of virtually everyone who knew them and from their own writings, is that both Scott and Zelda were brilliant, beautiful, charming, egotistical, theatrical, impetuous and selfdestructive; and they loved each other deeply, to the ends of their lives. “We ruined ourselves – I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other,” Scott wrote to Zelda soon after her breakdown. But Fowler knows better.

The emphasis in Z, an afterword tells us, “is not on factual minutiae but rather on the emotional journey of the characters”. Fowler certainly pays little attention to facts: names are wrong throughout (Tallulah Bankhead was called “Dutch”, not “Tallu”; Edna St Vincent Millay was “Vincent”, not “Edna”; Alexander Woollcott was “Alec”, not “Alexander”), as are easily checked dates (Fitzgerald’s play The Vegetable flopped in November 1923, not 1922). Relationships are rewritten: Fitzgerald quarrelled with Alec McKaig in March 1922, ending the friendship, so the Fitzgeralds should not be meeting “our beloved Alec McKaig” in Paris in 1925. The Black Bottom was not later “called” the Charleston; they are two different dances. Anachronistic language abounds: people in the 1920s did not say “come on” or “when he does shit like that”.

Defending such errors as the poetic license of the novelist is a prevarication: sloppiness is not art. Historical fiction can imaginatively fill gaps in historical knowledge, bringing the past intimately to life, or it can rewrite history, as a counterfactual. It’s not clear what virtue there might be to getting the known facts wrong, however, and most of what Fowler invents goes against the letter or the spirit of what we do know.              

This is true not only in the case of factual “minutiae” but also in terms of the larger emotional lives of the characters that Fowler claims concerned her more. It is precisely Zelda’s character that Fowler fails to respect or to capture, turning one of the most memorable women of her era into a sanctimonious bore, with decidedly 21st-century attitudes to monogamy, work, alcohol and child-rearing. Fowler’s Zelda is driven to exhibitionistic behaviour only by “the need to take some kind of action, even if it was wrong”, once tossing her lace knickers on to a lunch table.

The real Zelda was famous for throwing off her clothes at the drop of a hat, for dancing on tabletops and necking with men at parties, inviting them to take baths with her and reportedly chasing the 16-year-old brother of one party host up the stairs, none of which appears in Fowler’s account. Nor was there ever any suggestion that she regarded such antics as “wrong”. Indeed, conventional moralising was anathema to Zelda. It is simply absurd to suggest, as Fowler does, that Zelda would have been shocked to hear that Scott got drunk and “exposed himself” at a party. The real Zelda would be insulted at being portrayed as a prim Victorian maiden.

Fowler’s Zelda keeps preaching moderation and prudence in a way that would have made the historical Zelda hoot with laughter. She urges Scott to spend less and drink less. But Zelda’s own letters at the time admit with casual insouciance how much she’s been drinking, what she’s been buying, how much fun they’ve been having, very rarely mention their small daughter (who is, naturally, a subject of proper maternal devotion in Fowler’s banal imaginings) and never assert the need for temperance until after her breakdown.

On the contrary – in the summer of 1923, she wrote to a friend complaining that Scott had started on his novel and had retired into a monastic life, which Zelda was finding very boring. Fowler’s Zelda is horrified when Scott contemplates working on Gatsby after he’s had a drink; the historical Zelda embarked on an affair while Scott was working on his masterpiece because she was bored.

Needless to say, Fowler also thinks that Zelda was the artist in the family. Scott begins as a cynical self-publicist, and ends a sodden mess. It’s amazing that the unpleasant cretin in these pages could produce anything, much less The Great Gatsby. But happily he had Zelda’s constant, wifely support. Zelda comes up with the title for Gatsby and helps Scott write The Vegetable (an unfortunate credit for a champion of Zelda to offer, given that the play was Fitzgerald’s greatest professional failure).

Fowler can’t even grant that Scott was the one who kept a ledger; Zelda does that too. Even more ironically, although apparently convinced that Zelda was the greater writer, Fowler entirely fails to evoke her remarkable, imagistic voice. Zelda wrote in her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz: “Possessing a rapacious, engulfing ego their particular genius swallowed their world in its swift undertow and washed its cadavers out to sea. New York is a good place to be on the upgrade.”Fowler’s Zelda thinks: “The building was a wonder. Everything in New York City was a wonder, including Scott, who was treating me like the princess I’d once imagined I was.”

Writers of historical novels owe a debt to the facts that have inspired their fictions: Fowler wants to capitalise on the facts but feels no obligation to them. Where there is so little fidelity to the known facts, there can be no meaningful notion of history, no imaginative supplementing of incomplete stories, and the “minutiae” about which Fowler is so dismissive cannot be transcended. Certainly no sense of truth, history or fiction can flourish in a space that has no sense of fact.

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby” is published by Little, Brown on 6 June

F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald and Scotty in 1925. Photograph: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain