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Of all the members of the Lost Generation, the one who claimed the biggest piece of hearts of certain readers of a certain age was Zelda Fitzgerald. After Zelda, Nancy Milford's biography was published in 1970, F. Scott Fitzgerald's denounced wife regained sympathy and, for some, admiration for surviving Fitzgerald's alcoholism and decline while she battled mental illness and the inability to care for her daughter, Scottie.

Therese Anne Fowler, like your diarist, is one of those readers. And she's taken that restoration of Zelda's image to the next step by imagining her life in a new novel, Z.

The prologue, set in the year before she dies, is one of the strongest sections in the novel. She posts a letter from her hometown of Montgomery, where she has gone after hospital stays, to her husband, who is in Hollywood once again chasing the end of the rainbow, and wishes she could mail herself as well.

If I could fit myself into this mail slot, here, I'd follow my letter all the way to Hollywood, all the way to Scott, right up to the door of our next future. We have always had a next one, after all, and there's no good reason we shouldn't start this one now. If only people could travel as easily as words. Wouldn't that be something? If only we could be so easily revised.
Zelda, or at least her life, underwent revisions after she met Scott near the end of WWI in Montgomery. He was dashing, she was swept off her feet, she did not want a conventional, staid life. In that respect, she got her wish. She and one of her sisters took the train to New York City, where she and Scott married, and they began the live the lives of the unconventional. They partied, they drank, they danced. Scott wrote short stories that paid a fortune that they used to party, drink and dance.

Off and on over the years, Zelda wrote as well. But much of her work was either published under both their names or even Scott's.

And while Fitzgerald practically invented the unconventional flapper, he was as staid and conventional as any patriarch in Fowler's novel. He wanted Zelda to worship him, to emotionally support him, to back him whatever he wanted to do, whether it was write, party all night, go meet friends or not put up with resistance when he mentored Ernest Hemingway or starlets, or slept with other people. When Zelda develops a serious crush that she mistakes for love with another man, and plans to run away, Fitzgerald embarrasses her, brings her back and takes her back.

The relationship with Hemingway is fascinating in both reality -- even considering what we don't know and what Papa may not have reliably reported (such as a certain incident that Hemingway relates took place in a restroom and involved Fitzgerald's anatomy) -- and in fiction.

Hemingway's charisma is related in full force in this novel. Zelda's distrust of him is brought in quietly and carefully. She doesn't come across as a shrew or unreliable or mentally unstable. Fowler creates an incident in which the origins of Hemingway's turning against first Zelda, then Scott, could be explained. It's an all-to-human incident in which a man who either thinks a lot of himself or who overcompensates because he doubts himself so greatly (both of which I've thought about Hemingway at times) could initiate. And take revenge for when he doesn't get his way.

Later, it is intimated that Zelda may have evidence that Scott and Hemingway slept together.

All of this sent me down rabbitholes of Google and unresolved determination as to what may or may not have happened.

And then it hit me: Is that not part of what literary fiction might do? Consider possibilities that fit with human nature? Is this a reasonable way to puzzle through what certain real people or any person might do? Is a novel a reasonable way to think through how a person with certain characteristics might respond to certain situations?

These questions are a breakthrough for me as a reader, because I've long held an animus against real people being featured in fiction. For this alone, I'm grateful to Fowler for her ideas as she's expressed them in Z.

The novel is far from perfect. The middle section drags after the Fitzgeralds marry, and there isn't enough of Zelda, even from a first-person point of view, to get a good read on her mental and health problems. There's gauze separating the reader from the person telling this story. But there are plenty of things to think about -- the Jazz Age celebrity who wanted a good little wife, the artist who tried to get lost in her writing or painting because she was not the good little wife kind, the damaged interloper who wanted one or both of them and then tried to ruin their reputations. But the reader has to construct too much or fill in too many blanks. This isn't a case of show v. tell (the great writing that lets a reader fill in the blanks). It's more a case of not following through on potential themes.

But even so, I am glad to have read the novel because of my own breakthrough regarding real people in fiction. And I'm itching to return to the work of those Lost Generation titans.

For another recent conversation on Hemingway, including the Fitzgeralds, please see Brecht's Books Go Boom! Hemingway on Writing.

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 11:30 AM Political Book Club Susan from 29
Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29, michelewln
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month - on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 6:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Apr 02, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Next week's diary will focus on (11+ / 0-)

    The Yellow Birds, the Iraq novel by Kevin Powers, and the following week's diary will be on Louise Erdrich's National Book Award-winning The Round House.

  •  For another example of this... (10+ / 0-)

    The Last Nude by Ellis Avery also features Hemingway (under a different name, but instantly recognizable to anyone who knows about his time in Paris) in a fictionalized setting. I liked it a lot even though I, too, usually don't like use of real historical figures in fiction.

    Certaines personnes disent qu'il y a une femme à blâmer, Mais je sais que c'est ma faute sacrément.

    by RamblinDave on Tue Apr 02, 2013 at 07:33:13 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for the diary! (11+ / 0-)

    I read the Milford story many years ago and did feel differently about Zelda after.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Apr 02, 2013 at 07:43:18 PM PDT

  •  Loving Frank novelized the love affair between (7+ / 0-)

    Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Llyod Wright. Nancy Horan did a good job of reaching across the century to make these real people feel alive as they tussled with love and sacrifice.

    Consider possibilities that fit with human nature? Is this a reasonable way to puzzle through what certain real people or any person might do? Is a novel a reasonable way to think through how a person with certain characteristics might respond to certain situations
    That was very true in Loving Frank.

    I remember reading Zelda, years ago, during my Fitzgerald days, but haven't read Z yet.

    We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty - Edward R. Murrow

    by Susan Grigsby on Tue Apr 02, 2013 at 08:05:35 PM PDT

  •  thank you for answering my questions about real (7+ / 0-)

    people in novels. I like the way E.L. Doctorow does it in Ragtime, and I have been doing it in the novel I'm writing but was worried about not just if I could carry it off, but even if it was okay to do. I have been very careful to make sure the things I'm using fit the Judy Tenuta definition: "It could happen!"

  •  I Suffer No Anathema (8+ / 0-)

    to reading biographical novels.  In fact, I lust after them (hint hint).

    Can I just let drop Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as the best fictionalized bio I've ever read?  Without which Thomas Cromwell seems just another dull bureaucrat of the Tudor Court.

    One of my best reads of 2013 is The Indian Clerk, a fascinating look at the relationship between two brilliant mathematicians of the early 20th C.,  G. H. Hardy and Ramanujan.  While no sesual tension exists between them, even though Hardy was homosexual, plenty of professional tension does.

    Then there's Julian Barnes' Arthur and George that speculates on the factual incident of Arthur Conan Doyle's interest and involvement in the legal case ( a miscarriage of justice) of George Edalji.  Doyle  championed his case for a pardon in the newspapers and in parliament, and it was the only case in which he ever participated in his own Shelockian investigation.  At times, plodding -- as only Barnes can be -- it's still an absorbing novel.

    Stretching the parameters of your thesis a bit, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer winning novel, The Hours is one third fictionalized biography of Virginia Woolf.  And it's a jewel of a novel.

    For absolute fun, I recommend two small novels: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, speculative fictionalized bio of the "Little General's" return to Europe after he escapes St. Helena.  The second is the delightful The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett in which QEII discovers a love of reading when she happens to wander inside the bookmobile parked outside the palace's kitchen.

    And to return more directly to your topic, I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain about the tempestuous marriage of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in which we get a look at the young writer from his wife's eyes.  And it ain't purty.

    Oh!  I just remembered a dreadful example of why you should regard this non-genre genre of books like they're poison.  It's Paganini's Fire by Ann Abelson.  DON'T  READ IT!  Gak!

    But don't let that last put you off reading fictionalized biographies.  Some of the most thrilling are about painters (see first para) -- Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Susan Vreeland's works, included.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 04:51:34 AM PDT

    •  Thanks for the rec on the Indian Clerk (6+ / 0-)

      I had not heard about it and will add to my "to read" list. I enjoy historical fiction, and look forward to reading Z as well.

      If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. - President John F. Kennedy

      by laurel g 15942 on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 05:29:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  The Hours is a beautiful book (5+ / 0-)

      and walk-ons by real people in novels never bothered me. Cunningham's book, with the alternating narratives, was more of an extension and tribute to Woolf's work than a retelling of her life (even with that heart-wrenching scene before she filled her pockets).

      Although much of the book concerned itself with Mrs. Dalloway, it was that moment that brought something from To The Lighthouse to life which completely captured me. Utterly brilliant.

      I didn't always have this feeling about fictionalized biographies. In junior high, Irving Stone's romances were my main reading fare. (Well, along with Jules Verne, Margaret Mitchell, Tolkien and Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel trilogy.)

      Perhaps it's just as well I can't recall the book that put me off this genre. So thank you for naming so many that represent the better part of it.

    •  Wolf Hall and The Hours both on my bests list (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I judge a book partly by whether it is easy to put down. Both The Hours and Wolf Hall were absolutely uninterruptable.

      I liked The Paris Wife but it was not on the same level.

  •  I am deep into rereading "The Great Gatsby" (6+ / 0-)

    right now and stumbling upon your diary hits the spot!  

    Wish I could share your enthusiasm for the biographical fiction, but I am not a fan.  What I like to read are novels and I like to read them cold; that is, with no knowledge of the writer or the backstory.  I don't even read the author's own forward.  Greedily, I jump into the novel and, with luck, savor it to the end.

    This allows me to appreciate the text as a work of art (or not), and to judge it on its own merits.  After I have done that,  there is plenty of time to dip into the author's life or a study of the period.  However,  this nearly always changes how I feel about the novel and I often wish I had spared myself the knowledge.  

    It's like learning how the sausage is made and it usually isn't pretty.  On the other hand, if you are going to be knowledgable about sausage you need to know what goes into it...

    Of course, you can't really know Fitzgerald without knowing about his life with Zelda.  He used her diaries as a direct inspiration for his novels, and he frequently used her as a model.  God knows, they were interesting people.  Sad, but interesting.  

    It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

    by Radiowalla on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 09:04:47 AM PDT

    •  Reading Gatsby again has been on (4+ / 0-)

      my "I mean to do this" list for far too long.  How is it proceeding?

      Although I do believe each work has to stand or fail on its own merits, I also am one of those who loves to make connections and using those to add to my ability to understand and enjoy each new work read.

      This can go too far. Using amateur psychology about the bare basics of an author's life as a way to deconstruct his writing is shallow at best.

      It's the difference between wondering how deeply Hemingway was hurt by his mother's treatment when encountering his female characters and if that had anything to do with an individual character, and deciding, for example, he hates females because of the way his mother treated him and therefore his female characters demonstrate his hatred for all women.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

      •  It is proceeding very well, thank you. (4+ / 0-)

        I made the mistake of reading some biographical materials at the same time and I found it was spoiling the experience.  What is so extraordinary about this novel is the language, the amazing lyrical rushes that pop up and then disappear.  I found that the biographical stuff began to intrude on my enjoyment so I set it down.  Only when I have finished will I go back and consider how his life influenced his writing.  

        (as an aside since someone mentioned Hemingway, I read that Hemingway advised Fitzgerald to dump Zelda before she became entirely insane.  I can't find the quote and have to go out now, but if I can dig it up, I'll post it.  Imagine Hemingway giving advice on marriage!  Wow!)

        It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

        by Radiowalla on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 10:41:08 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  My philosophy and methods of reading are just like (4+ / 0-)


      What I like to read are novels and I like to read them cold; that is, with no knowledge of the writer or the backstory.  I don't even read the author's own forward.  Greedily, I jump into the novel and, with luck, savor it to the end.

      This allows me to appreciate the text as a work of art (or not), and to judge it on its own merits.

      I agree, and I hate spoilers, too. I figure any part of the story worth telling, the author can tell better than a review can. I try to turn half my brain off, when I read (or watch a movie), so that I'm just immersed in the work of art. If it's good, I'll be full of questions and eager to learn more once I'm through.

      Until recently, I basically never reread books. There were so many more completely fresh ones waiting for me! But two years ago, I reread The Great Gatsby . . .

      which Fitzgerald was very proud of, for all the craft he packed into it.

      When I first read it, it was an enjoyable and easy read. But I came back to it with much more experience and knowledge of books. The second time, I saw about four times as much there - but 3/4 of the book is implicit: in characters' life histories that are sketched but not filled in, unless you really watch for every clue; in the different characters' levels of awareness, what some pick up on and others miss; in the tragic undercurrents of all the romance; and in the symbols and myths and American dreams which jump out at an experienced reader.

      That deeper second read of The Great Gatsby got me thinking about all the levels and richness in books, and how hard and long we might have to dig to find it. I mean, I wasn't digging at that one text, but I spent a couple of decades reading widely, learning more about novels and language, America and human nature. Then I came back to the book, and found much more there.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 11:33:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think "Gatsby" is just the kind of book (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, helpImdrowning

        that rewards the reader, over and over again.  As you say, each reading has new levels to discover.  
        For me, the gift of "Gatsby" is the language, rather than the plot which is rather improbable.  I am always drawn to the youthful narrator and his journey of disappointment.

        I'm glad to know I'm not alone in my reading style!

        It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

        by Radiowalla on Thu Apr 04, 2013 at 08:46:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for (6+ / 0-)

    this review.  I had not been aware of this novel.  I am very interested in the "rehabilitation" of Zelda, which I think is often poorly balanced (some, like their daughter, simply dismiss her as insane, and others, some feminist writers, insist she had no emotional illnesses at all, which seem to defy reason).  I wish there was a good novel written on their compatriots, the Gerald Murphys.  I know "Tender is the Night" was somewhat based on them but only in part.

    Justice For Will Will spent his brief, courageous life fighting for the rights we all take for granted. Please share his story to support the fight!

    by KibbutzAmiad on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 09:25:50 AM PDT

  •  A true story. (7+ / 0-)

    In 1983 a friend of my first wife visited our home and mentioned that she was going to take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) in an attempt enter graduate school in psychology. She was worried about her performance since she had been out of college for a decade and no longer considered herself well-read enough to do well on the English portion of the test.  Since she knew that I had read about 10% of the Library of Congress she asked me what she should be reading to refresh her vocabulary.

    I told her to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially Tender is the Night, because, I said, she would read words like “sybaritic” and it would expose her to vocabulary she would not get elsewhere.

    Weeks passed and one Saturday night the woman came back to our house. It was the day of the GRE test, and our friend just had to tell me that one of the questions on the exam was……. to define the term……. “sybaritic.” She said that during the exam she literally pumped her first in the air and said “I know that one!”

    She now has her PhD in Pyschology, and loves Fitzgerald.

    "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home." John Stuart Mill

    by kuvasz on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 12:07:42 PM PDT

  •  Hello bookgirl. It was kind and thoughtful of you (5+ / 0-)

    to link to my Hemingway diary. I am abashed at taking 27 hours to comment in your diary. I've been using my computer time diving down rabbit-holes, learning about Russian Novels.

    Shouldn't book diaries be week-long conversations? Well, I'll go read the comments above me in a moment.

    And then it hit me: Is that not part of what literary fiction might do? Consider possibilities that fit with human nature? Is this a reasonable way to puzzle through what certain real people or any person might do?
    For me, the fascinating heart of fiction is where four of my favorite interests intersect: language, story, humanity and imagination. Once the writer has a strong grasp of those four, they can throw in whatever other shiny things they like (science, travel, pets, recipes, puns, conspiracies . . ). So this exploration of human nature is right at the crux - it makes for the most universal stories, and it stretches out into all the lands and heavens of the imagination.

    Hmm. I got a bit purple there. I'm thinking of how a writer balances particular details with larger resonance. For example, how Dickens can zero in on two or three dashes of color or feature or gesture, and give you the impression of a living individual. The Old Testament, too, and Dante, are brilliant at showing a few specks, and implying a whole scene.

    The nice thing about writing, as in Z, from a story that really happened, is you have an awful lot of specks to work from. The tricky thing is, you can't retread dry history, you must throw your own imagination at the specks, you must bring your own insight of the human story to life.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 10:49:12 PM PDT

    •  That's one kind of balance. The second balancing, (5+ / 0-)

      which any good writer must face, is creating a story of their own, but leaving space for their readers to bring their own wonderment to the page.

      It sounds like Therese Anne Fowler hasn't quite finessed that:

      The novel is far from perfect. . . . the reader has to construct too much or fill in too many blanks. This isn't a case of show v. tell (the great writing that lets a reader fill in the blanks). It's more a case of not following through on potential themes.
      Well, it's one of the hardest things in fiction, especially working from a story we already partly know - do you take liberties, or show off your research and grasp of the facts? She started from a good story. We're all attracted and intrigued by glittering fallen angels.

      The Fitzgeralds, like Hemingway, had their own charisma. Papa had a more domineering will, from what I know. But all of them created these rock'n'roll personae, and then got trapped trying to live up to them.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 10:59:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I love the idea of an ongoing (4+ / 0-)

      conversation, especially within the medium of something both as ephemeral and as lasting as an online diary. (And I am delighted you stopped by, whenever that time was available to you.)

      Fiction is the ongoing examination, celebration and mourning of the human condition. Perhaps that's why Dickens was so successful at his craft. He brings the humanity into his stories of the human condition. That's something that not every writer actually does. Some are so removed from their characters that, while they may work as commentary on the human condition, the characters themselves do not resemble full-fledged humans.

      •  "examination, celebration and mourning" - nice. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Most authors show certain removes from their characters, if you can spot the gaps. It seems to me that most male authors create very few fully realized women in their books. You get your cerebral authors - like Huxley, or Henry James much of the time - who seem to be holding their characters at arm's length, to get a clear view of them. You can often spot authors laughing at their characters, instead of with them.

        The authors who make us feel at home in the world of their creations are usually the ones like Dickens, Austen or Twain, who resonate somewhat even with their more objectionable creations. They always keep hold of the humanity there. Shakespeare was a master at finding warmth, or at least a magnetic brightness, in the darkest of his monsters.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 12:04:48 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Oh, for a new book on Stefan Zweig and his wives, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    helpImdrowning, RiveroftheWest

    Friderike Maria von Winternitz and Lotte Altman.   IMHO, Zweig was a far more interesting, important and better writer than the Fitzgeralds....

    From Beware of Pity as an example:

    There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.
    From his suicide note in 1942 (he and Lotte committed suicide together):
    Every day I learned to love this country [Brazil] more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself...

    “But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth.

    “I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.

    To be free and just depends on us. Victor Hugo.

    by dizzydean on Thu Apr 04, 2013 at 02:42:53 PM PDT

  •  Thank you for this very enjoyable diary. n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." - John F. Kennedy -7.8., -6.6

    by helpImdrowning on Thu Apr 04, 2013 at 04:08:55 PM PDT

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