If ever a couple crossed the boundaries of representation and became an era, it was F Scott Fitzgerald and his glamorous "flapper" wife, Zelda. They were the Jazz Age. But in closing the gap between representation and "being", they found themselves without the necessary distance to remain whole. Scott would die an alcoholic at 40; Zelda would be incinerated in a fire at a sanatorium.
This question of representation is crucial for Therese Anne Fowler's often superb novel. She makes excellent use of Zelda's biographical details, and pays close attention to the different arguments about Zelda's life with Scott: did she, as Hemingway always insisted, bring her husband down? Or was she, as recent biographers claim, the victim of a controlling husband jealous of her artistic talents?
Fowler's Zelda begins sassy and sure in her home town of Montgomery, where she is the star attraction, never short of boyfriends. Yankee soldier Scott sees her dancing and asks her out. But their courtship is not without problems, partly because her father disapproves and partly because Scott is an unsuccessful writer, unable to support her.
The publication of This Side of Paradise changes all that. Money flowed in and the endless round of wild parties began. Fowler attributes the ceaseless socialising to Scott's need to make friends with the world. But Zelda begins to quieten down and look for something to do, especially after the birth of their daughter, Scottie. She takes art and ballet lessons; writes short stories that get published under Scott's name. We witness Scott's slow descent into drunkenness, and Zelda, bored and isolated, having an affair. Then comes the slide into madness.
At this point, though, the novel weakens. Anyone who has read Zelda's letters and prose will be aware of the jaggedness in her soul – this woman was a handful; she wasn't just playing when she slid down banisters or jumped into fountains. There's a desperation and an edge which can render her unsympathetic. But Fowler's Zelda is largely shorn of these trickier psychological aspects. She gives us Zelda at her best, as a beautiful young thing who becomes aware of women's issues; who is confident, strong and funny. Her mental collapse and her later years are minimised.
Fowler has peeked behind the curtain, but she prefers the show. The difference between the two is slight, but it is real and it is important.
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