In the wake of Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation and the convenient tables displaying the latest in F. Scott editions, I’ve been swept up in a wave of renewed expatriate interest this summer. And as I was in desperate need of a theme to narrow the window of beach reading possibility, I didn’t exert the effort to beat back ceaselessly against the current. The fact that no bookstore on Sanibel Island seems to stock the first book of Game of Thrones finally confirmed my decision in favor of Fitzgerald-centric literature: Theresa Anne Fowler’s fictional reconstruction of Zelda Fitzgerald, Z, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own words in a recently compiled collection of personal essays, A Short Autobiography.
Despite the assumption that writing often reflects personal experience and sentiment, this delving beyond fictional facades created by one of my literary idols both enlightened and sobered my imaginings. For one, I can no longer believe in the jaunty, beautifully monogamous couple portrayed in Midnight in Paris as giggling over bathtub gin and shimmying fringe one moment and teetering on the brink of a suicidal plunge into the Seine the next, which is certainly a shame. For another, I’ve emerged with some fascinating facts and a deep sympathy for each one’s unique narrative.
Theresa Anne Fowler’s Z contains all the promise of romantic vibrancy and the appeal of an illusion cooperative enough to be labeled as such. With simple prose infused with a Southern drawl, Fowler presents a creation foreign to the modern imagination, coloring in her verbally constructed borders with an insight and empathy astonishing in its power to devastate. Opening the covers with premonitions of unadulterated romance, viewing the world through champagne colored glasses, the vivid and startling contradictions startled me all the more. Although claiming the habitual artistic license granted by fiction, this novel is a welcome, sobering, and entertaining presentation of Zelda’s alter ego that I’ve yet to encounter in allegedly more accurate narratives.
Following Zelda full circle from her Southern childhood to the brink of her mental collapse to Scott’s death at 40, Fowler conceptualizes a unique portrayal of mental illness as a state of unfulfilled potential. Her schizophrenia itself becomes a metaphor of conflicted identity: as an American conservation Southern belle and an expatriate feminist, as a professionally talented dancer struggling against the physical agonies of colitis, as a voluntary wife and a mother ill content with the constraints of domesticity, as a writer forced to establish a voice alongside or underneath the name of her husband in order to pay off his debts, as a woman passionately in love with a brilliant, indolent, alcoholic husband. Directly contradicting Zelda’s prominently publicized and assumed façade as the heartless flapper, Daisy, or the slowly declining madwoman of Tender is the Night, Fowler paints her heroine with more intricacy and attention than the careless, shallow femme fatales of Fitzgerald’s construction. Akin to Jay Gatsby, this Zelda exhibits an astonishing capacity faith in a dream long past and an unwavering hope in opportunities perpetually denied.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Short Autobiography, rather than delineating an oppositional tale of success and squander, offers the only truly successful defense of character, an unquestioning self-portrait. Containing essays previously published in The New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Esquire, as well as a handful of other magazines popular back in the day, Fitzgerald’s autobiography consists of scattered personal opinions from the fate of his generation to his financial troubles, from flappers to literary giants, offering a glimpse into the great man’s view of himself and his situation. My timing in reading this particular selection immediately following Fowler’s rather unflattering portrait was impeccable, saving my carefully enshrined image with the unfailing truth that it is impossible to truly hate someone once you’ve discovered them as they see themselves.
The collection spans a varied, yet always articulate, array of personalities. While “One Hundred False Starts,” “Afternoon of an Author,” and “My Generation” glisten with his infamous dewdrops of literary prowess and disillusionment, his jubilant sarcasm infuse others such as “What I Think and Feel at 25” and “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” with a delightfully simultaneous insecurity and self-assurance. Fitzgerald’s voice rings with sheer, verbose joy as he utters pithy statements such as “And now I will stop pretending to be a pleasant young fellow and disclose my real nature…I do not like old people. They are always talking about their “experience”- and very few of them have any” as well as one of my personal favorites, “For America is composed not of two sorts of people, but of two frames of mind- the first engaged in doing what it would like to do, the second pretending that such things do not exist.” However, traces of the well-imagined flaws of the Jazz Age’s golden boy emerge in assertions that post-war men, such as himself, had been “reduced in the great national matriarchy to love-making animals” and other similar declarations that primitive, hilarious, and condemned by their own absurdity.
At once self-deprecating and arrogant, hilarious and saddening, conventional and misogynistically maddening, each brief window into F. Scott will make you glad you stumbled across these lesser known works, much more revealing in their anonymity. The intimidating shimmer of his prose thinly veils the simple truth that genius coexists alongside humanity, that Fitzgerald, even with all his wisdom, lovingly maintained some illusions of his own.