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

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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