X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Books

Z, by Therese Anne Fowler, Beautiful Fools, by R. Clifton Spargo, Careless People, by Sarah Churchill - review

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald Therese Anne Fowler

Two Roads, pp.376, £17.99

Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald R. Clifton Spargo

Duckworth, pp.366, £16.99

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby Sarah Churchwell

Virago, pp.438, £16.99

The Great Gatsby is one of those great works of literature, like Pride and Prejudice, that appeals as much to the general reader as to the literary bod. It’ll always be around, if not as a movie (there have been five since its publication in 1926) then as an opera or a ballet. Last year a staged reading ran for weeks in the West End, to critical acclaim.

It is a short book — a long short story really — about wealth and sex and hope and disillusion and partying. These are the themes, too, of the lives of its author and his wife Zelda. Theirs was a relationship that continues to fascinate as powerfully as any fiction, and so has produced fictions to investigate it. After all, as Fitzgerald told his biographer Malcolm Cowley: ‘Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.’

There have always been Fitz novels (the first was Bud Schulberg’s The Disenchanted in 1950) and there are more to come this year. So what is the attraction? Well, there is something (for the novelist) providentially structured in the Fitzgeralds’ story, an inviting series of dualities and polarities. It takes place over two greatly contrasting decades, bookended by Scott’s own This Side of Paradise (1920) and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). What begins with Flappers, yellow automobiles, champagne and jazz ends in bums, freight cars, ruin and war.

The fate and fortune of the Fitzgeralds mirror this division, as they mirror each other, he dissolving into alcoholism, she into psychiatric chaos. Then there is the small-town America they both came from as against New York and Paris. And in Scott Fitzgerald himself there is the desire for fame and wealth and a self-disgust that accompanies that desire.

And they plainly really were in love.Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is a biography disguised as fictional autobiography. The point of books like this is hard to discern. If your skills as a novelist do not extend much beyond the ‘and then and then’, plus heavily plonked bits of exposition, why not simply write a straight biography? Possibly because Zelda’s life has already been done well enough by Nancy Milford.


Some of Fowler’s dialogue is downright embarrassing, a cocktail of ersatz romance and what might be termed fem lite: ‘Does he love you — and I mean genuinely, for the special person you are and not just some idealised feminine object?’ It is impossible to imagine Zelda Fitzgerald having patience with such a dull if earnest friend.

Fiction allows (indeed encourages) the lie, so in Fowler’s book Zelda can emerge as an heroic, brilliant woman done down by a repressive patriarchy represented by her husband. It is more likely that Zelda Sayre, however beautiful, spirited or independent-minded she was, would have been unknown to the wider world had she not married a great novelist.

R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools, subtitled ‘The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’, is the work of a genuine literary talent. The author’s interest in his subject is more intimate, more a forensic exploration of the nature of dysfunctional love.

His well-evoked mise-en-scène is the steamy Cuba of April 1939, where Scott and Zelda spent their last days together. Scott had become a boring alcoholic and Zelda had spent much of the previous decade in lunatic asylums. Spargo’s characters transcend reality and become rich and fictional, and the novel, in the form’s paradoxical brilliance (at its best, as often here) speaks truth through invention. Spargo’s Fitzgeralds come alive.

Much of Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People, has been done before, by Ronald Berman, but not quite so enjoyably. Churchwell is the engagingly enthusiastic American academic who appears on the BBC’s Review programme. She is not right about everything (and quite wrong about Tom Wolfe’s latest masterpiece) but she does make you listen, and her writing has a similar jauntiness.

This is quite a feat, given the complex structure she has imposed on her book. Careless People weaves together three narratives, mixing ‘explication with intimation’ in its reading of The Great Gatsby. Written in nine chapters, each addressing themes arising in the nine chapters of the novel, Churchwell at the same time probes a real-life murder she believes inspired Fitzgerald’s plot. In and around this she has written a social history of New York in the four months at the end of 1922, the year in which Gatsby is set, the year of the murder, and the year in which Scott and Zelda lived in Great Neck, the setting of the novel. It sounds overwrought, but actually the result properly illuminates the now distant world of Fitzgerald’s little masterpiece.

Occasionally she is carried away by the born researcher’s desire to note every conceivable coincidence she comes upon. In her own defence, she quotes Fitzgerald telling his editor, ‘I insist on reading meanings into things’, and admits that her own book takes this ‘as an article of faith’.

There is, for example, the green light. Jay Gatsby has bought a house facing across Long Island Sound, opposite the home of Daisy Buchanan, the woman in whom all his hopes and dreams are gathered. The first time the reader sees him he is staring at a green light marking Daisy’s jetty. He is trembling. Much has been made of the green light. What does it symbolise? Hope? Jealousy? Yes? No?

Sarah Churchwell doesn’t explicitly say so but she spends a good deal of time suggesting that the new traffic-light system installed in Manhattan during the course of 1922 may have inspired this ambiguity of meaning. Green apparently sometimes meant ‘stop’ and sometimes ‘go’. There is an extraordinary picture of one of these traffic lights. It resembles a guillotine. A stretched point, but intriguing.

Neither of the novels reviewed here will increase the reader’s enjoyment of Fitzgerald’s books. Sarah Churchwell’s will. And before (or after) you see the movie, re-read The Great Gatsby.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close