When Zelda Sayre married F. Scott Fitzgerald, the couple instantly became New York celebrities. They were young, glamorous – and very much in love. But in private, their marriage was falling apart. Scott was an alcoholic, and had numerous affairs.
The strain on Zelda was tremendous. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Zelda spent time at a residential clinic. There, alone, over the course of six weeks, she wrote her first and only novel: Save Me The Waltz.
When he found out Zelda was muscling in on what he considered to be his territory, her husband was furious. Even more so when he discovered that his wife’s novel was based largely on their private lives…the same private lives he was using as material in his novel, Tender is the Night, which he’d been working on for years. Hellooo, double standards…
Before Save Me The Waltz was published, Fitzgerald edited the text himself, changing things he didn’t like. Not surprisingly, Zelda’s original manuscript has been lost, so we’ll never see this novel as she intended.
Reading about Zelda’s life, I really respect her, not only as a writer, but as a woman. Everyone was convinced she was out of her mind, and every attempt she made to express herself artistically was met with intense criticism.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a story with a happy ending. Zelda was later admitted to an institution, this time permanently, where she died in a fire. Her voice was silenced forever.
As a novel, Save Me The Waltz is inseparable from its context – which makes it rather difficult to review. But I’m not going to let that stop me. Here’s my feeble, flailing attempt…
Save Me The Waltz
by Zelda Fitzgerald
Published in 1932
The amount of sheer snobbery surrounding Save Me The Waltz is astounding.
As I opened my Vintage edition of Save Me The Waltz for the first time and began to read, I found that even the novel’s outdated preface, written in 1966 (!) was laced with an air of haughty, bemused scepticism. Its author, Harry T. Moore seems to regard Save Me The Waltz as interesting solely because it provides us with a different view of The Great F. Scott Fitzgerald. He refers to the novel he’s meant to be introducing as a “literary curio”, like a pretty, cheap souvenir. Charming. Begrudgingly, he concludes, through the written equivalent of gritted teeth, that “Save Me The Waltz…can be read for its own sake”. How magnanimous.
After such an unflattering preface, I wasn’t expecting much at all from Save Me The Waltz.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Save Me The Waltz is far from perfect, but it’s not the unmitigated disaster Moore’s preface makes it out to be, either. It’s tinged with pure, undeniable soul. Zelda’s writing is unusual and sensuous, and her strong, leading lady, Alabama, is brought to life with startling realism – the kind of realism that only experience can afford.
Alabama Beggs grows up as the youngest of three sisters in America’s sultry south. As a teenager, she learns that fame is nothing compared to infamy, and establishes her shady reputation with consummate ease.
When Alabama meets David Knight, a handsome, young painter, everything is different – she falls in love. On their first meeting, he carves their names to mark the occasion:
“‘I’m going to lay a tablet to the scene of our first meeting.” he said.
Taking out his knife he carved in the door post:
‘David,’ the legend read, ‘David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Miss Alabama Nobody'” (p. 36)
In a time when monogamy was out of style, David and Alabama marry, and live a life of luxury in New York, attending wild parties and existing in a constant state of elegant squalor. But boredom sets in with the birth of their first child, and Alabama and David take their already strained marriage to France for an extended European vacation.
In France, Alabama falls for a beautiful French airman, who is equally besotted with her. When he sees them sitting together, David flies into a fit of jealous rage, and the airman leaves Alabama forever. In an act of revenge, David shamelessly sleeps with another woman.
In the novel’s following act, Alabama decides to become a ballerina. But at twenty-seven, everyone considers her too old to learn to dance. Everyone except for Alabama. For the first time in her life, Alabama knows what she wants. She’s determined to show them they’re all wrong.
Plotwise, Save Me The Waltz has a few pacing problems – especially in the beginning. The opening act, which deals with Alabama’s youth, tends to ramble quite a bit. There’s a dream-like quality about this section that appealed to me, but it seemed to lack a specific focus. To my mind, this section of the novel lasted far too long, while other stages of Alabama’s life, in which I’d preferred to have lingered a little longer, seemed over in the blink of an eye. Because Save Me The Waltz is based so heavily on real events, the novel lacks traditional structure. The narrative wanders from scene to scene, leaving the reader with absolutely no clue as to where the novel is headed. At first, I found this a little disorienting, but as the novel moved forward, somehow it ceased to bother me so much.
Luckily, after such a lethargic opening, things pick up quite suddenly. When the couple set sail for France, the novel’s atmosphere changes for the better. As Alabama falls in love with her beautiful French aviator, the sexual tension between the three becomes stiflingly thick. It reaches fever pitch when David, blatantly, awkwardly, propositions another woman in front of Alabama. Alabama goes to the ballet while her husband makes love to a stranger – she’s expected to just accept this as a man’s right. The tension of this passage is so perfectly portrayed, you can feel it in your bones.
For a novel where sex is only dealt with indirectly, there’s something undeniably sexy about Save Me The Waltz.
The intense atmosphere of this phase of the novel doesn’t last. The novel’s tone turns immediately frosty when Alabama resolves to learn ballet – but it’s not a disappointment. In fact, this is probably the novel’s most rewarding act. Defiantly, Alabama takes her body away from David, and turns towards her own artistic desires. The intense training Alabama puts her body through is almost like a form of self-abuse, but it’s in this act that Alabama finds her freedom – an artistic expression of her own that’s completely separate to that of her husband. The power balance of the couple shifts.
As for the novel’s conclusion? At the time, it felt flat and uninspired. After the energy of the rest of the novel, it might seem this way…but, looking back, I’m beginning to appreciate the grace of the novel’s final moments. I’ll reserve my judgment for now.
Then, there’s Zelda’s writing. There are moments when she speaks with such a beautifully lucid clarity:
“White things gleam in the dark – white flowers and paving-stones. The moon on the window panes careens to the garden and ripples the succulent exhalations of the earth like a silver paddle. (…) There is a brightness and bloom over things; she inspects life proudly, as if she walked in a garden forced by herself to grow in the least hospitable of soils.” (p. 5)
Her short, simple observations are pure genius:
“The talk pelted her consciousness like the sound of hoofs on a pavement” (p.216)
“The sun bled to death in a red and purple haemorrhage” (p. 100)
“The [ballet] classes swayed to the movements of her arms like an anchored buoy to the tides” (p. 154)
Here and there, Zelda’s voice jumps forth from the page and announces the author’s genius. Her descriptions of her ballet studio are so perfect – you can almost feel the texture of the bar; smell the heady scent of lemon and roses rising from the floor. However, there are other times when Zelda’s expression isn’t so clear. The novel’s opening few pages, for instance, seem to have been written with the express purpose of sending fainthearted readers running for the hills. And honestly, I wouldn’t blame them. Zelda’s dialogue seems clumsy at times, and there are moments where her phrasing seems bizarre; her choice of words doesn’t quite make sense.
There’s a lot to like about Save Me The Waltz, but at times, it feels like a first draft – albeit a brilliant first draft. Save Me The Waltz has a few gaping flaws, but with a little editing, a little nurturing care – think of what this novel could have been.
In spite of its flaws, there’s something you can’t deny about Save Me The Waltz – it has a certain way about it, a defiant charm that you can’t fail to respect. Even though it didn’t always work, Zelda’s style was entirely her own. In her own right, Zelda Fitzgerald was a novelist, and deserves to be recognised as such, rather than merely a famous novelist’s “crazy” wife.
Don’t read this book because you want to find out more about Zelda’s husband. Read Save Me The Waltz for Zelda herself. Her voice was so unique. It’s about time someone listened.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. Zelda’s story needs to be read and appreciated. Don’t let the beginning put you off – once the style settles down a little, Save Me The Waltz is quite readable.
In a word: