Reviewing Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Zelda Fitzgerald’s first and only novel, Save Me the Waltz, is as fascinating for the circumstances surrounding its writing as it is for the writing itself. Largely autobiographical, Save Me the Waltz is inspired by Zelda’s own life, particularly her infamous marriage to the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, arguably most famous for writing The Great Gatsby.

Zelda wrote Save me the Waltz in an astonishing six weeks at John Hopkins Hospital where she spent time after a mental breakdown. According to the F. Scott Fitzgerald biographer, Henry Dan Piper, the act of writing her novel was, for Zelda, “a desperate and moving attempt to give order to her confused memories”. Based on the novel’s preface written by Professor Harry T. Moore in 1966 the general perception of Save Me the Waltz seems to be that of a less accomplished version of her husband’s novel, Tender is the Night, which was published two years after. As someone who hasn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, I cannot cast judgement on that one way or the other but I do believe that Save Me the Waltz surpasses the label of “literary curio” that it has been unfairly landed with.

Alabama Beggs is a beautiful, free-spirited young woman growing up in the deep South where, according to her, there’s “nothing to do but drink and make love.” The youngest of three daughters, Alabama endeavours to take what she wants when she can and so marries David Knight, a young soldier stationed nearby. The couple leave for the glamour of New York, living off the money David makes from his paintings. Mixing in high society, the pair soon become famous and journey to the Continent where the first cracks in their seemingly perfect marriage begin to appear. No longer content with her lack of personal accomplishments, Alabama turns to ballet, working at becoming a dancer harder than she’s worked at anything in her life.

Zelda Fitzgerald

There is a lot to admire in Alabama Beggs, especially early in the novel. Witty and self-assured, her dialogue is a pleasure to read:

‘Little lady, do you think you could live on five thousand a year?’ he asked benevolently. ‘To start with,’ he added, on second thought.

‘I could, but I don’t want to.’

‘Then why did you kiss me?’

‘I had never kissed a man with a moustache before.’

‘That’s hardly a reason-‘

‘No. But it’s as good a reason as many would have to offer for going into convents.’

Unfortunately, her youthful confidence leaves her all too quickly once David comes on the scene. David is not a detestable character; his affection for his daughter is sweet, and his manner, generally charming. His devotion to his work is admirable, but proves also hypocritical when Alabama begins to pursue her own creative interests. Despite them both pursuing the arts, Alabama’s dancing is never considered as equally important as David’s painting. The exploration of these double standards, which, no doubt are telling of the time the book was written, is amongst its most compelling qualities. That, along with its power to transport the reader so effectively with its vivid descriptions to another time and way of living – a time of champagne, summers on the Riviera and parties that last for days – make it a captivating read.

Despite Save Me the Waltz being published in 1932, it does feel contemporary. Marriage and relationships still present their own challenges: resentment, anger, helplessness and the struggle to assert oneself independently of one’s partner. These are human trials and Zelda’s presentation of them reads as honest and genuine.

Unfortunately, her prose occasionally dilutes the impact:

 ‘Most people hew the battlements of life from compromise, erecting their impregnable keeps from judicious submissions, fabricating their philosophical drawbridges from emotional retractions and scalding marauders in the boiling oil of sour grapes.’

Thankfully, flowery sentences such as the above become less frequent as the novel progresses, replaced with more succinct and easy to process metaphors and similes. Unfortunately, these become quite heavy-handed, especially nearing the end of the book, occasionally distracting from an otherwise engrossing story.

Save Me the Waltz is not without its faults. Zelda’s prose occasionally reads as a desperate attempt to prove her literary prowess and worth as a creative human being. Flourish is favoured over comprehensibility, but given the feelings she expresses through Alabama regarding the success of her husband, Zelda’s deep-seated desire to assert herself is understandable. Piper suggests that Save Me the Waltz was published partly because Zelda’s physicians believed it would be good for her shattered ego. The patronising attitudes that surrounded both Zelda and Alabama regarding their capacity to create meaningful art is shocking and yet, believable and disheartening.

Rather than be crippled by these views, Zelda wrote a novel in six short weeks. A novel that’s still fascinating readers 80 years on. I’d say that indicates something a bit more substantial than a “literary curio”.

 

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