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Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Save Me the Waltz. Zelda Fitzgerald. Introduction by Erin E. Templeton. Bath: Handheld Press, 2019. Pp. xxviii + 268. £12.99 (paper).

Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz has gone in and out of print since it was first published by Charles Scribner’s & Sons in 1932. It was brought back in 1967 by Southern Illinois Press, and it appeared later in the Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, edited by Matthew Bruccoli and with an introduction by Mary Gordon, from University of Alabama Press in 1991. Handheld Press’s reprint comes at just the right time, following a great flourishing of works—from biographies to a streaming television series—interested in the reconception of Zelda Fitzgerald for a twenty-first-century audience. The newly founded Handheld Press is committed to the recovery of lesser-known and forgotten modernist and Victorian works. Their reprint of Save Me the Waltz includes an introduction by Erin E. Templeton and notes by Kate Macdonald and H. L. Marsh; the volume is part of the press’s Classics series, which includes works by Una L. Silberrad, John Buchan, Ernest Bramah, Gerald O’Donovan, and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

It may seem strange to think of Zelda Fitzgerald as in any way lost or forgotten: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald are icons of American culture, and their extravagant lifestyle and tumultuous relationship are the stuff of legend. Yet Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing has been examined—to its detriment—almost exclusively in the context of that self-created and -perpetuated legend. Particularly during the period in which she was writing and revising Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald strove for validation as a writer. Scott angrily tried to keep Zelda from writing her novel and was furious when she sent it directly to his publisher. As Templeton explains in her introduction, he believed its “mixture of fact + fiction [was] calculated to ruin [Scott and Zelda] both,” and insisted editor Max Perkins return it so that he could help her to revise it (xiv). Not surprisingly, the original draft has not survived. When it was brought back into print in 1968, Bruccoli, Scott Fitzgerald’s biographer, set up the lens through which generations of scholars would read the novel. In his “Afterword” to that edition, Bruccoli wrote: “Save Me the Waltz is worth reading partly because anything that illuminates the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald is worth reading” (xxiii). In fact, it is the context of F. Scott Fitzgerald as husband, collaborator, and writer from which Save Me the Waltz needs to be “recovered.”

As Scott Fitzgerald struggled to write a novel about the problems of their marriage (which would eventually become Tender is the Night [1934]), Zelda wrote the autobiographical Save Me the Waltz in less than two months in 1932, while hospitalized at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. The novel tells the story of Alabama Beggs, the southern belle daughter of a judge with a Confederate pedigree who marries painter David Knight. Her husband’s success as an artist and the couple’s flamboyant lifestyle make them celebrities. After daughter Bonnie is born, they expatriate to France, where David paints and Alabama studies ballet. Her promising career as a ballerina is cut short when she suffers a foot infection while touring alone in Italy. After an extended illness, Alabama returns to her husband and child in France, where she decides to dedicate herself to the role of wife and mother. The family return briefly to the American South, in time to attend Judge Beggs’s final illness, death, and funeral; in the end, Alabama and David relapse into the dissolute New York social life characteristic of their early marriage.

The speed and purpose with which Fitzgerald wrote Save Me the Waltz suggest it was a story she felt driven to tell. The novel draws heavily on autobiographical details including the broad strokes of many of the problems that contributed to her mental breakdown in 1930—a dysfunctional marriage, incipient alcoholism, exhausting ballet practice—and we may speculate that the analysis and self-reflection she had undertaken as part of her psychiatric treatment made what she viewed to be critical details of her childhood and life fresh in her mind. Ultimately, though, Save Me the Waltz is not the story of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage. Absent from it, for example, are the kinds of questions about her own and her husband’s sexuality that pervaded both Zelda’s thinking at the time and Scott’s throughout his life, as is documented in the couple’s letters, the archives at Princeton, and even in Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published A Moveable Feast (1964). Gone, too, are the queer contexts of their expatriate experience (including the gay community surrounding Gerald Murphy in the South of France and Natalie Clifford Barney’s lesbian circle). Rather, this is the story her husband allowed her to tell, and it does little, likely by Scott’s design and despite Bruccoli’s suggestion, to illuminate Scott Fitzgerald’s career or life. For that reason—because David Knight is not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alabama’s marriage is not Zelda’s—it is more interesting to read the novel apart from the contexts of F. Scott Fitzgerald Studies and comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing.

There has always been a sense that there is a story about Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald that has not yet been told and deserves to be. Amidst the Second Wave of feminism, Zelda Fitzgerald’s childhood friend Sara Mayfield provided a perspective sympathetic to Zelda in Exiles from Paradise: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (1974), while Nancy Milford, author of the groundbreaking Zelda (1970) clashed with the Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Scottie, who resisted both Mayfield’s and Milford’s depictions of her mother, which contrasted so greatly with her father’s narrative of her childhood. Most recently, biographies by Linda Wagner-Martin and Sally Cline have examined Zelda’s life from different perspectives, Wagner-Martin reading her as an “American Woman,” and Sally Cline as a visual artist. In the wake of the success of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (2011), a best-selling novel depicting the 1920s expatriate scene from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson, Therese Ann Fowler drew on recent Zelda Fitzgerald biographies for her novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (2013), which served as the basis for the Amazon series Z: The Beginning of Everything.

Templeton’s introduction to the current reprint illuminates the novel by providing an overview of the Fitzgeralds’ lives together and the period during which the novel was written, relying on the literary assessment of Zelda Fitzgerald by Matthew Bruccoli and Mary Gordon, as well as on Nancy Milford’s 1970 biography. The notes provide useful translations and definitions of the novel’s pervasive literary and cultural references, southern plant life, and ballet terms. They serve as a useful glossary, but scholars will want to explore heretofore unremarked connections to the Fitzgeralds’ lives and investigate their possible significance. “Hitchy-Koo,” for example, is identified as “a Cole Porter revue of 1919” (255), but it would interest readers to know that Cole and Linda Porter were among those in the Fitzgeralds’ expatriate community on the French Riviera in the summer of 1925, a period central to the narrative of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage.

Something about Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s life and experience continues to resonate, as is apparent in the recent proliferation and success of biographies and depictions of her in popular culture. She had the extraordinary, if not unique, experience of having been raised as a southern belle in the early days of the Jim Crow South, and then living among an expatriate community in Europe in the 1920s—and writing out of that experience. Recent biographies—and Handheld’s reprint of the novel—pave the way for a new wave of literary studies of Zelda Fitzgerald’s work. Deborah Pike recently published The Subversive Art of Zelda Fitzgerald (2017), the first book-length study of Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing, examining closely not only the fiction, but also Fitzgerald’s letters and diary, yet Pike’s work still situates Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing within Fitzgerald Studies and in relation to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own writing (for example, the chapter in which she treats Save Me the Waltz is devoted to the familiar comparison of the novel to Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night). The next step in developing an appreciation of Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing will be to view it in the more productive contexts of southern and modernist literature by women.