I have wanted to read Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz for years now, and truly have no reason as to why I have only just got around to it. However, my lapse seems to have worked out nicely; as well as being an entry upon my Classics Club list, it is also a perfect choice for my American Literature Month.
First published in 1932, Save Me the Waltz is a highly autobiographical novel, written by the fascinating wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The pair ‘grew increasingly erratic’ after the 1920s, and Zelda ‘became schizophrenic’; rather, her schizophrenia was recognised and defined. During her first ‘mental crisis’ in 1930, she produced three short stories, as well as a libretto for a ballet. After a period of partial recovery, she became seriously disturbed once more, and wrote Save Me the Waltz, her only novel, in just six weeks. This was much to the envy of her husband, who had been working on the novel’s parallel, Tender is the Night, for over five years. Of Save Me the Waltz, F. Scott said, ‘It is a good novel now; perhaps a very good novel – I am too close to tell’.
Southern Belle Alabama Beggs, the protagonist of the piece, is based upon Zelda, and her husband, a ‘promising artist’ named David Knight, finds his origins within F. Scott. The history of the Beggs family is set out immediately, and is incredibly thorough: ‘”Those girls,” people said, “think they can do anything and get away with it”. This was because of the sense of security they felt in their father. He was a living fortress… Inadequately equipped by his own father, Austin Beggs worked night and day in his cerebral laboratory to better provide for those who were his… Austin loved Millie’s children with that detached tenderness and introspection peculiar to important men when confronting some relief of their youth, some memory of the days before they elected to be the instruments of their experience and not its result… Austin might have borne a closer relation to his family had he not lost his boy in infancy’.
A lot of the situations which manifest themselves within the novel – Alabama’s belated efforts to succeed as a ballet dancer, for instance – have truth within the history of the real-life couple. The introduction of the Penguin Modern Classics edition which I read states that: ‘Zelda Fitzgerald’s book emerges as much more than a document of spite. It is a forceful, truthful picture of legendary marriage in a fabulous age: one of the most shattering self-portraits of a woman ever committed to paper’. In F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait, Henry Dan Piper echoes this sentiment; he believes that writing this book was a ‘desperate and moving attempt to give order to her confused memories. It was also a bitter attack on Fitzgerald, who was thinly disguised in her manuscript as “Amory Blaine” [the Fitzgerald-like hero of This Side of Paradise]’.
Whilst Save Me the Waltz was criticised on its initial publication in the United States, British reviewers in 1953 ‘greeted it with enthusiasm’. In terms of viewing it as a complementary volume of sorts to Tender is the Night, the introduction says: ‘Readers of both books will notice parallels between points of fiction, especially in the Riviera scenes; and it is of absorbing interest to note the differences between the husband’s and the wife’s version of what was happening’.
Zelda’s writing is stunning, particularly with regard to her descriptions: ‘… insects swarm to the golden holocaust of the hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated maps soaking its oblivion back to the black heat whence it evolved’. Gorgeous observations are made about her characters: ‘He verified himself in the mirror – pale hair like eighteenth-century moonlight and eyes like grottoes, the blue grotto, the green grotto, stalactites and malachites hanging about the dark pupil – as if he had taken an inventory of himself before leaving and was pleased to find himself complete’. Our first glimpse of Alabama, too, is striking: ‘The girl had been filled with no interpretation of herself, having been born so late in the life of parents that humanity had already disassociated itself from their intimate consciousness and childhood became more of a concept than the child… It was much later that the child, Alabama, came to realise that the bones of her father could indicate only her limitations’.
The way in which Zelda builds the relationship between Alabama and David is wonderful, and the entire novel is beautifully constructed. There are some lovely, thought-provoking scenes and comments within it, and the whole is just as memorable as any of her husband’s more famous works. Save Me the Waltz is poignant and sensual, as well as sensitively and understandingly wrought, and it is all the more fascinating when one keeps Tender is the Night in mind.