F. Scott Fitzgerald: A wondrous prosateur
In the roaring 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were for a time the golden couple of New York’s high society. Twenty years later, Fitzgerald was dead from a second heart attack while Zelda was in and out of mental institutions where she eventually died in a fire in 1948. Their slow but steady descent toward ruin was documented – as skilfully dramatised fiction – in several of Fitzgerald’s books all of which have recently been published in lavish paperbacks by Alma Classics. The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) was the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a fictionalised portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch, wife to Fitzgerald’s Anthony Patch, a louche and sybaritic heir apparent. The story of man’s obsession with power, money and love was retold again and for the final time in Fitzgerald’s last completed work, Tender Is the Night (1934). The book relays the tale of Dick and Nicole Driver, their tempestuous marriage and gradual undoing. Fitzgerald was one of the most autobiographical and luculent writers with a wondrous binary proficiency to tell a story of a man and his times. A quality so rare yet organic his one-time friend Ernest Hemingway said it was “as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings”. Indeed, one cannot help but agree with Hemingway for there is something spellbinding about Fitzgerald’s prose; its decadence, its verisimilitude, its fatalism, which captured the dazzling milieu of the Jazz Age with masterly foresight and vision.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life paralleled the trajectory of his generation. It boomed in the hedonistic 20s – defined by a wave of liberated women and bootleg booze – and floundered with the advent of the Great Crash when both he and Zelda buckled under the pressures of excess and financial profligacy. Fitzgerald’s fiction echoed the national mood, his insight and personal experience formed the basis of all his work, reflecting the glamour and the strain of living the American Dream. Their story, an embodiment of the triumph and tragedy that afflicted their decade, began in 1918 when Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where he met 18 year old Zelda Sayre, youngest daughter of a wealthy Alabama Supreme Court judge. The couple quickly became engaged but due to Fitzgerald’s lowly financial prospects Zelda broke it off in 1919. In that same year, Fitzgerald began work on his first novel This Side of Paradise, the early prototype which was to set the precedent for all his later works. The book tells the story of a “sophisticated and quite charming – but delicate” young man by the name of Amory Blaine, his professional aspirations and romantic travails. While working on it, Fitzgerald also began a career as a prosateur for mass-circulation magazines. His moneymaking prospects were further improved by the publication of This Side of Paradise on 26th March 1920, which made the 24 year old Fitzgerald an overnight success. A mere week later, he and Zelda were married and swung full-force into a bustling life of parties, power-play and intrigue.
The realisation of Fitzgerald’s plan to get the girl, however, came at a price, which engendered in him “an abiding distrust” and “an animosity, towards the leisure class”. This enmity echoes stridently in all his works, particularly in the young, handsome and ostensibly successful male protagonists (Anthony Patch, Dick Driver) riddled with a financial and social sense of inferiority, which manifests itself most notably in relation to other mostly female characters. Zelda’s penchant for throwing Gatsbyesque parties, champagne and mink meant the couple were almost always broke, despite Fitzgerald writing profusely in between novels. But neither this nor the questionable start to their affinal life stopped the couple from creating their carefully crafted yet seemingly carefree public personas, which contributed greatly to their overall mythmaking. Both Zelda and Fitzgerald were highly conscious of their media image and kept scrapbooks of press cuttings detailing their professional and personal exploits. Almost from the start, following the success of This Side of Paradise the couple began their courtship with the national press, which they monopolised to up their popular appeal and keep their star ever present in the nation’s imagination. The Fitzgeralds were often featured in newspaper gossip columns as the happily married power-couple having a riotous time in their 27 bedroom mansion. In truth, by the early 1930s Fitzgerald was increasingly turning to alcohol to placate his personal insecurities while Zelda’s ditzy-Southern-belle act had become trite and taxing. The gradual collapse of their marriage and the emotional upheaval that preceded and followed is probably most discernible in Tender Is the Night, which seems to be one of Fitzgerald’s most divisive works. Praised for its literary prowess but condemned for its ostentatious show of overindulgence at the time of austerity and ration it received highly mixed reviews.
The book was conceived and written during a particularly grim period in Fitzgerald’s life, around Zelda’s breakdown and hospitalisation for schizophrenia in 1932. Dick and Nicole Diver were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and separation – seem more closely allied to that of the Fitzgeralds. At one point in the novel writing of Dick, Fitzgerald notes that he “had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love” which he always returned with “carnivals of affection” yet upon which he looked back “as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust”. Fitzgerald writes of love here with exsanguinating fatalism and with an intimacy of knowledge which can only be forged through familiarity, through lived experience. The same acutely autobiographical aesthetic runs through The Beautiful and the Damned, which explores the dissolution of another couple, Anthony and Gloria Patch. Speaking of the fictional wife, also stricken with schizophrenia, Fitzgerald seems to be describing his own, a beautiful but merciless party girl who rebels with “incessant guerrilla warfare” against “organised dullness” . Zelda like Gloria was notorious for her contumacious behaviour such as riding on top of taxis, dancing on kitchen tables at the Waldorf and greeting guest from her bathtub.
There is a sad irony to their story, a story which Fitzgerald spent almost two decades writing about. He must have prevised the tragic end before it approached but if so he did nothing to stop it perhaps because by that point he was no longer able to distinguish between his life and his fiction, speaking of which he once confessed: “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” And yet before the blurring of the line and their subsequent troubles, their story was one of intense if deeply flawed love, which provided Fitzgerald with the necessary material for his greatest works. Writing of their relationship in response to criticism from Hemingway and other contemporaries, Fitzgerald retorted: “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be…I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” For her part, Zelda’s grandiose shows of affection and her devotion to him never wavered even if her loyalty did. There is little doubt that theirs was a passionate and enduring love, just as there is little doubt that their abject ends were precipitated by mutual proclivity for self-destruction, drinking and artistic rivalry. The capping crisis of their marriage was offset by Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), which used exactly the same autobiographical material as Fitzgerald was incorporating into Tender is the Night. Outraged by Zelda’s audacity Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher Max Perkins forbidding publication. Eventually, however, after stipulating a number of changes and cuts he allowed it to go ahead, which it did two years before his own complete final book. The great romance of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald has been dissected, disputed and debated many times over, with blame shifted onto one and the other, but perhaps in the end they were just two people in love who sadly couldn’t live either apart or together.
Publisher: Alma Classics
Publication Date: September 2012
Paperback: 320 pages