Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (audio)

zThis is a fictionalization of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The main events of their lives are fairly well-known: married in 1920, Fitzgerald was a professional writer who never saw the success in his own lifetime that his friend Hemingway did; the couple lived back-and-forth in France and the US; Zelda was “the first flapper” according to Scott; they were famously wild partiers, alcoholics, and rather nut jobs; Zelda was eventually institutionalized, and died in a mental hospital. They had one daughter. These main events are followed in the novel, which is told first-person by Zelda herself.

It started well. I really did love Zelda’s voice – as written by Fowler, and as read by Jenna Lamia. She’s spunky and irreverent, and likeable. She reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara from the very beginning, which is both a compliment and a caution: is she entirely original? I enjoyed what Fowler created in her fictionalized Zelda Fitzgerald, but I worried that she was overly informed by hindsight. Scott talks like he writes; Zelda speaks as if aware of her audience, aware of the legacy she’ll leave behind – which she wouldn’t have been, regardless of her faith in her husband, because his fame as we know it today came largely after both their deaths.

Ernest Hemingway likewise speaks in a caricatured version of one of his own heroes. This is a common technique when writing Hemingway into fiction: I recognize it from Midnight in Paris. I’m comfortable with people criticizing, even despising Hemingway; he’s my hero, but I certainly see his flaws. But I wish they wouldn’t make him into a cartoon, because that, I think, he wasn’t. He could be ridiculous, and he definitely overdid the machismo, but he was a complex human being, troubled, tortured, insecure, boastful and antagonistic; wouldn’t it be more fun, and more satisfying for a novelist, to write him as a full person than as a cartoon version of his own fiction? Ah well.

Expand this concept to apply to Scott Fitzgerald, too. I’m less qualified to speak about his life, having read much less about him than I have about Hemingway. However, I feel confident that neither Scott nor Zelda could have been as black-and-white as Fowler’s fictional characters are here. Scott Fitzgerald is a monster in this novel! Despicable, horrendous, a nightmare. I suspect that in life, he was, like Hemingway, capable of monstrosities, but also a full human being, with likeable bits alongside the flaws. Such a well-loved and artistically accomplished alcoholic would seem to have to be conflicted, ambiguous, and – importantly – multi-facted. Fowler’s characters lack facets. Similarly, though I have read still less about Zelda, my general understanding of her was that her dissipated party-girl period lasted well out of her early 20’s. The fictional Zelda we meet here becomes rather saintly after giving birth to her daughter. She is the squeaky-clean foil to Scott’s ogre; and I suspect that the one is as realistic as the other.

In contrast to this novel, I am simultaneously reading the yet-to-be-published The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing. Z suffers by comparison; Laing’s (nonfiction) work is very well researched, beautifully written (although I’ll try not to turn this into a review of her book!), and, to my point here, respects the dueling forces for good and evil in her subjects, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And Hemingway.) Possibly I would have appreciated Z more if it were presented not as historical fiction but as alternate history, since I am increasingly concerned that it’s not true to the history of the Fitzgeralds as we know it. Even then, however, fully developed characters should have complexity rather than read as saints and devils, so my concern remains.

The net effect of having read this book in the end is that I feel the need to go read up on Zelda a little more thoroughly; I’ll be looking for a biography next. She always struck me peripherally as a colorful, conflicted character: just the kind I like, that is. I’m always most interested in those individuals who offer both sympathetic and distasteful qualities in the same package; they’re so engrossing that way. One of Fowler’s major flaws, then, would be in having omitted my favorite character feature: ambiguity.

I began by enjoying this book, and Zelda’s voice and personality. Much of the middle troubled me, as the black-and-whiteness of the characters emerged. Scott was such a terrible husband that I was just frustrated and angry with him; and while these can be useful emotions to evoke in your reader, Fowler didn’t take me anywhere interesting or cathartic or instructive with them. Zelda briefly considers leaving Scott (because she is, after all, a saint and a martyr) and then realizes she can’t afford to support herself as a single woman, so she decides to stay. Very cut and dried, you see. Towards the end, when the couple is separated by Zelda’s incarceration in various mental institutions, I liked it a little better again; maybe removing the hateful Scott cheered me. But then it was disappointing to end with Scott’s death – Zelda lived another 8 years! but those years are handled only in an epilogue. Why couldn’t she have continued to speak in her own voice until she died? Perhaps this novel should have been called Z: A Novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald told through the eyes of Zelda. Hmph.

In closing, clearly, my concerns were many. I credit Fowler for entertaining me (at least early and late) with a likeable Zelda in a spunky Southern drawl, well read by narrator Lamia. But I was dissatisfied with many aspects of the art of the novel as executed here. Subjects like the Fitzgeralds offered so much opportunity for nuance, and catharsis, and analysis, that was not undertaken. Complex characters were flattened into single dimensions. And my limited knowledge of their lives makes me hesitant, but I worry about the historical accuracy, and I wish more information were given to indicate where the fiction begins. Several letters from Zelda to Scott and other friends are quoted; are these real letters? I don’t know; and I’d like to know. Credit Fowler with inspiring some further reading; but this experience in itself was less than satisfying. I can’t recommend that you spend your time on this book. There are lots of books written about the Fitzgeralds; start elsewhere. Me, I’m considering Tennessee Williams’s play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel.


Rating: 4 fingers.

hemingWay of the Day: as an archivist

Oh my word, Liz does it again. Never was there an article more designed to make me sigh and daydream. From PRI’s The World comes

This came to me from Liz, who got it in turn from Jessamyn West (blogtwitter). A solid pedigree right there. I swoon; this is my dream job.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 17-25; conclusions

(See my first two reviews: lectures 1-7 and lectures 8-16.)

First I’d like to share another example of something that I wished to debate with this professor. The discussion below contains spoilers regarding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my very favorite book ever ever (possibly competing with The Odyssey and The Jungle), so if you haven’t read it, you might skip this part of my review.


Spoiler begins

At about 32 minutes into lecture 19 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Part IV), regarding the scene late in the novel when Robert Jordan’s leg is broken and Pablo is going to lead his small band onward without him:

The symmetry here is between Robert having a broken leg and Pablo having much head. He is the brainy one. This is the ultimate rewriting of the power dynamics in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We’ve been going along with the assumption that it’s the person with the knowledge and the technology, the person with the knowledge of the world, the person that speaks several languages, we’ve been going under the assumption that that person is going to be on top, that the future belongs to him. The ultimate irony of this novel is that in fact this is the person who’s going to lose out, who’s going to have no future at all.

While I see her point about the disruption of power between the educated, foreign-empowered Robert and the rather much maligned and dissipated Pablo, I couldn’t disagree more about the disruption of the reader’s expectations. I realize I can only speak for myself, but I think I can find some Hemingway to back up my impressions.

When I read this book for the first time (in a beach camp in the little town of Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico), I had a strong sense of foreboding about Robert’s fate, and indeed, the fate of Pablo, Pilar, and the rest. Robert’s daydreaming of his life together with Maria in other times and places – in Paris, in the United States, as the wife of a professor entertaining undergraduate students – has a tone of wistfulness, as if Robert suspects this will not come to pass. He likewise daydreams about suicide – his father’s, and the avoidance of his own – and is increasingly pessimistic about the fate of this band of guerrillas. The end of El Sordo has an air of doom about it, which reflects further than those who die on the hilltop; the odds are admittedly against a little guerrilla group in these mountains. When I read this book without knowledge of the ending, I felt sure that Robert and Maria wouldn’t make it out of these hills together and alive; I suspected Robert’s demise specifically, and worried for the rest of them as well. And while I know this is just one person’s reading, I think there’s evidence that Hemingway directed me toward these suspicions. So I’m not sure Dimock has grasped it when she says she’s turned all our expectations on their head. Hemingway has disrupted the power dynamic, yes, but intentionally and with foreshadowing; I’d argue that one of the messages of this novel lies in his statement on war and the value of military technologies, in the way that Dimock shows, but he didn’t surprise us with it so much as build us steadily towards this ending.


Spoiler ends

I am arguing with Dimock here not because I think she’s unintelligent or anything, but because I enjoy debating literature I love. I just wish I could be there and ask my questions and make my points, engage the prof and my classmates. In other words, I would like to be back in school again. What else is new.

I both enjoyed very much, and was very frustrated (see above) by Dimock’s study of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think this is natural. Next we studied Tender is the Night, which I reacted to similarly but less strongly; that’s a book I’ve read, though not recently, and I feel less strongly about it than I do FWTBT; it might be my least favorite Fitzgerald (I thought The Last Tycoon, for example, was better), but ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this semester of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: for me personally, did this class help me understand and enjoy Faulkner, or make me want to read more of him? And to that, a resounding “no.” I am discouraged by Dimock’s repeated confession that he is difficult, makes little or no sense, that she often does not understand what he’s up to. I was turned off by the other two works discussed in this course, and the final four lectures on Light in August shed precious little (wait for it…) light.

I now want to go back to school and study more literature; and I want to avoid William Faulkner from here on out. Those of you who enjoy him are welcome to your enjoyment and I’m happy for you. I’ll be over here.

As for Wai Chee Dimock’s course: I think she fails to articulate her thoughts sometimes; also, I disagree with some of them, but respectfully. I would certainly be happy to take courses from her if I were going back to school. As for this course via iTunes U, however, I give the combination of Dimock’s speaking style and the poor audio recording quality a C-, at best. However, I listened to all 25 lectures at ~50 minutes apiece. If you’re interested, they’re out there, and for that I’m grateful. We’ll see if I have any success with iTunes U in the future.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 8-16

Well, compared to my earlier review of lectures 1-7, I confess I’m a little less enthused with this second set of lectures. (By the way, for clarity’s sake, I downloaded all 25 lectures at once with no indicated break. These breaks for review purposes are random and my own.) I continue to find some audio issues – volume variations, breathiness, background noise – distracting and a little frustrating; I can better understand other users’ complaints as I go on and as this annoyance builds. And I have decided I do not want to read any more Faulkner. It’s not encouraging to have this professor repeatedly confirm that he is difficult; and what I’m learning about the two studied works I haven’t read (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) is not motivating. I am perplexed by Dimock’s characterization of As I Lay Dying as “Faulkner’s version of To Have and Have Not” (this is at 15:00 or 14:55 of lecture 16, if you want to hear more). I confess listening to Dimock acknowledge Faulkner’s esoteric nature, combined with being thrilled to hear Hemingway discussed, is only serving to cement me further in my feelings about these two men. And that’s not really the purpose of academia, is it! I wish I could attend this class with classmates and participate in the study sections she refers to; I’d love to write papers as assigned and get feedback on them; maybe one day I’ll still go back to school and do these things, but for now, listening to these lectures is… still worthwhile, but sometimes frustrating. I hear things I don’t agree with, or need further explained, and there’s no platform for that. I could criticize and pick apart Dimock’s thoughts here, but it doesn’t feel entirely fair. I’d feel much better about doing it in the format intended: class discussion. Besides that, it’s difficult to articulate my arguments for you here, in front of this keyboard, after having listened to the lectures while driving my car and thus not taking adequate notes! These are the limitations of “study” under these terms as a busy professional. I’m still listening. But part of what I’m getting out of these lectures is just more regret that I’m not a full-time grad student!

I will choose one concept to argue here. It struck me hard enough that I made a note and went back to listen to this quick bit at home so I could share with you.

This is in lecture 16, covering For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the record, my favorite Hemingway novel). Dimock reads briefly from a conversation between Robert Jordan and Anselmo (whose name, inexplicably, she pronounces more like Ensalmo; it drives me nuts) in which Anselmo says of the gypsies,

To them it is not a sin to kill outside the tribe. They deny this but it is true.

Dimock comments.

Usually, for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period, right? So there’s just no qualifying after that… [but for the gypsies] outside your tribe you’re free to kill anyone. That’s an incredible charge to level against the gypsies.

She continues on to argue that this accusation, that gypsies lack some moral rectitude that the rest of us possess, is a statement that Anselmo is making about the gypsies’ inferiority; she goes on to discuss Robert Jordan’s apparent ignorance of Spanish culture & history based on a comment that he makes about the Moors. Well, I’m not so sure that Robert Jordan is all that ignorant, but that’s another argument. I think Dimock missed a key piece of irony in that statement about gypsies killing outside their tribe. What struck me about Dimock’s response was her dismissively clear-cut understanding of “our” rules about killing: “the injunction is again killing, period.” First of all, the groups that Anselmo and Robert Jordan belong to (the Abraham Lincoln brigade; guerrillas; Spanish republicans) certainly don’t have a universal injunction against killing people: they kill fascists, don’t they? In other words, depending on how you define one’s tribe, they also feel that it’s permissible or justifiable to kill outside the tribe. Or let’s take this a step further: nowhere does Anselmo, or Dimock, note that it’s okay or not okay to kill humans outside one’s tribe. No, she states that “for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. People kill sentient beings by the billion: to eat them, to take their habitats, as collateral damage during our search for fossil fuels, on and on. To take a more modern approach, we as a society not only kill all nonhuman things as a matter of course and without a second thought; we also seem to accept under certain circumstances that it’s justifiable, at the very least, to kill nonwhites, or non-Americans, or non-Christians; in the post-9/11 United States, there was (is) a certain acceptance of our right to kill Muslims or brown people who live in certain countries! Now, Hemingway didn’t live to see 9/11, but this brand of ethnocentrism is not unique to my generation’s experience. I believe that Hemingway, unlike Dimock – and likely Robert Jordan too – saw and intended the irony in Anselmo’s statement about gypsies killing outside the tribe. It’s all a matter of how you define one’s tribe. Dimock herself pointed out in an earlier lecture that Hemingway’s work is simply dripping, saturated, with irony. I think she missed a fine example here.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 1-7

This is a series of 25 lectures – a semester course, presumably – available on iTunes U here. The description provided says…

This course examines major works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, exploring their interconnections on three analytic scales: the macro history of the United States and the world; the formal and stylistic innovations of modernism; and the small details of sensory input and psychic life.

Some of the user comments/reviews on iTunes U accuse Professor Dimock of being difficult to understand; I’d like to speak to that first. These are not ideal audio recordings, it’s true. She’s a little faint, as if the mike was not pinned to her lapel but in the room somewhere (students coughing and rustling are audible); or maybe sometimes she has it too close to her mouth, and we get unnecessary breathiness. I had to crank my volume way up, and Dimock has some (natural, I think) variations of volume that had me making adjustments and occasionally jumping when she speaks up. And she does have an accent. And she does use “ums” and pauses; but again, I think most of us do. While she is not the most articulate, professional speaker I’ve ever encountered, I think she’s plenty fair for a college professor. (They don’t get to be professors by being professional speakers, kids, in case you didn’t know.) And the recording quality is partly to blame for the minor difficulties I had understanding these lectures. All that said, I found it entirely possible to turn up the volume, concentrate, and receive what Dimock had to say; and it was well worth it.

Now on to the content.

In the early episodes, I can’t say that Dimock presented any ideas that were wholly new to me. Here’s where I’ll take some credit for having read at least a little Faulkner, a medium-sized chunk of Fitzgerald, and most of Hemingway (repeatedly), and read similar proportions of biographical material on each, and studied literary criticism in the past. However, I haven’t tried to think in such academic interpretive terms in some time, and this warming up (if you will) of that part of my brain was useful and welcome. It felt really good to think in academic terms again.

I have to say that I couldn’t get on board with all of Dimock’s concepts. For example, her conflation of the “vagueness” of The Great Gatsby (that was, I believe, Maxwell Perkins’s word) with her “counterrealism” of same is problematic to me. I think you could be vague in your portrayal of realism, and I think you could be precise and use clear outlines in representing counterrealism; so I don’t think it works to substitute the one for the other. In addition, I’m 90% confident that in discussing Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp, she first asserts that childbirth is a manmade event (because it takes a man’s action to bring it on, of course) rather than a natural one; and then later comes around and asserts that it is as natural as rain (which I am much closer to agreeing with than the first assertion, by the way). I don’t always agree with her concepts, then, and I don’t always think that she is all that consistent or puts her arguments together all that well. However, all that aside, I’ve really enjoyed having these parts of my brain stretched out again, and I would very much enjoy being in this class to argue these points with her. So my disagreements and criticisms wouldn’t have me pulling out of this class, in other words, and I won’t stop listening now, either.

One big hope I had for these lectures was that they would help me to work my way through my difficulties with Faulkner. In that respect, they’ve been moderately successful. On the one hand, I am vindicated by Dimock’s saying that The Sound and the Fury is really difficult to understand! Now, I began that book at one point, years ago, and I don’t think I made it 15 pages; but already things are illuminated. So perhaps, as I suspected, Faulkner would become comprehensible to me if I had a good teacher looking over my shoulder and consulting page-by-page. I still don’t think I’m going to try The Sound and the Fury again anytime soon. But I look forward to hearing about my recent read, Light in August.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sections on Hemingway so far haven’t given me anything I didn’t know. I suspect I’m fairly well-informed, for an amateur, on that subject.

So in a nutshell, I’m feeling stimulated and am enjoying these lectures very much so far, and will be continuing through all 25.

hemingWay of the Day: on sadness

A profound and, I think, true – but not particularly uplifting – thought for the day today courtesy of Papa:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

From what I think might be an underappreciated and understudied Hemingway novel: The Garden of Evil. I know one person who I love very much who I think might be just too smart and wise to be happy. These words ring true. But hopefully also, intelligence can help us map a path through this quite depressing world we inhabit, towards happiness despite it all. That’s one of the things I really enjoyed about Derrick Jensen: his ability to show us how f*ed up everything is, and still find things to smile at.

Of course, these words about a dearth of happiness sound especially poignant coming from a man who ended his own life with a shotgun. Or maybe we’re thinking too hard; he put this line into the mouth of a character rather than his own…

What do you think?

hemingWay of the Day: on being drunk


I am hoping to pick up some Hemingway next week while I’m on vacation. It’s been a while since I’ve read any, and I miss him. To inspire myself (and maybe you?) I have chosen a rather classic few lines from my favorite of his books, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“No,” Pablo said, dipping up another cup. “I am drunk, seest thou? When I am not drunk I do not talk. You have never heard me talk much. But an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools.”

“Go and obscenity in the milk of thy cowardice,” Pilar said to him.

This is classic Papa because 1. it involves drunkenness; 2. it includes that oh-so-quotable line, “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (which I picture as one of those I’m-with-stupid t-shirts, but the literary version); and 3. Pilar’s line is on the one hand crass and on the other hand, linguistically interesting. Hemingway has used the word “obscenity” in place of a presumed (ahem) obscenity, like bleeping it out; and “thy” translates the Spanish “tu.” For Whom the Bell Tolls also features some interesting Spanish-language word order, to emphasize the feeling that these Spaniards’ dialogue has been translated for our benefit. I like the flavor that that adds to the book.

That’s our short taste of Hemingway today. Hopefully I’ll have more to tell you about soon!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 379 other followers

%d bloggers like this: