Profanes (Actes Sud, 2013) by Jeanne Benameur is a story about long-standing grief, and how it transforms a person, transforms a life. The book involves one very important grief situation and then around that is clustered a raft of smaller ones. Wrapped around and mixed in with this are other smaller stories about how desire works within this context. I think it’s fitting to put these two situations side by side, since grief and desire are essentially forms of longing with vastly different modes of expression.
Structurally, the book is multi-voiced and richly-layered—a favorite of mine. The story opens in the first person voice of a 90 year old man, Octave Lassalle, a retired surgeon, and all we learn is that he has assembled four people to “assist” him in an unspecified project. We are then introduced to the four people—three women and one man. Each person is given a room in Lassalle’s house and a portion of the day: Marc will come in the morning and work in the garden, Hélène (painter) will come in the afternoon to complete a painting at Lassalle’s request, Yolande will come in the early evening to prepare supper and sort through the house’s many rooms and attic, and Béatrice (who is a young nursing student) will come to sleep, to be a presence in the house if Lassalle needs someone in the night.
This premise of strangers coming together in quest of an unspecified goal is one that I really enjoyed. There is something slightly unbelievable about it (especially in today’s world, I think) but then it all felt very old-fashioned and natural. It makes sense that an elderly man of his position would need help to maintain his estate and house, and Lassalle is presented with a certain benevolent (and quiet) eccentricity that makes it easy to accept that he would prefer to create the situation on his own terms instead of finding himself in a medicalized and sterile environment.
Lassalle doesn’t really explain what he is really after—mostly because he doesn’t know it himself. He’s selected Marc, Hélène, Yolande and Béatrice quite carefully, this he makes very clear. But the only part of the project that is concrete is the painting that Hélène is meant to create, a portrait of the daughter that Lassalle lost about forty years before. It becomes very clear that the daughter’s death (and all that happened just after) is a situation that Lassalle cannot seem to move away from, despite how many years have passed. He has gone on living and working, but his life has essentially been an empty one. He doesn’t even really have any memories of this time. Forty years is a long time to efface oneself, and this becomes the central question of Profanes—how did this happen, and can it be undone?
That makes it sound like the book is about trying to “live” again when one has lost the verve for life, but that isn’t right at all. Benameur doesn’t work the reader toward any grand epiphany or attempt to “unefface” Lassalle – except in a very gentle, sideways kind of way. There are subtle evolutions as Lassalle’s story evolves and connects with the individual stories of the four, and there is a general (although muted) movement toward a kind of closure. As the situation deepens (with a kind of mystery at its center—although I think some readers will find the mystery a little superflous), Benameur wrestles with questions of grief and desire more than she propels the reader toward any answers. It is carefully done.
The book’s title is an interesting one: Profanes. This word—and what it means in the context of the novel—has a double meaning. As in English, profane describes something that is outside the realm of religion (opposite to sacred). But here it is being used as in a person who is uninitiated to something. You can say in French, un profane en philosophie, meaning that you haven’t studied it, know nothing of the subject, have not yet experienced it. I am fascinated by this title because within the context of the story, it essentially refers to the idea of being un profane de la mort, a person who does not yet know death. And Benameur plays with this idea (while brushing up against its other meaning of religious/nonreligious) again and again—confirming it, rejecting it, subverting it.
Finally, there is a lot of poetry in Profanes. Lassalle is a great admirer of Haiku and he attributes one of his favorite verses to each of the people who come to the house. These verses change sometimes, or become images that Benameur plays with as we learn more about each character. One of my favorite passages about the meaning and importance of poetry is here:
A l’intérieur de lui, une terre arasée. Il a besoin de poésie, c’est tout. Il a besoin à nouveau du calme des haïkus. Tout ce blanc entre les mots, tout ce vide qu’on ne comblera jamais. Et puis un mot, un seul, et le monde qui bat, fragile, éphémère, tenu par un seul mot.
I’ve made two different translations of these lines—one that plays with the rhythm of the words in English and a couple word choices. I can’t decide between the two.
Within him, a flattened terrain. He needs poetry, that’s all. He needs again the calm of a haiku. All that white space between the words, all that emptiness that can never be filled. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.
A razed landscape inside of him. What he needs is poetry. What he needs now is the calm of a haiku. All that whitespace between the words, all that emptiness that can never be made full. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.
I’m not happy with the word order of that last sentence – putting all the adjectives together isn’t as pretty as the French original, but to keep it more literal (and the world that beats) doesn’t show that the “bat” here is like wingbeats or heartbeats. So I fear I’d have to do something like: …and the beating world—fragile and ephemeral—held by a single word. Maybe that’s the best solution.
Benameur is a new discovery for me (and I can’t see that any of her work has been translated into English) and I’m eager to read more.
My first experience with Anne Carson was two weeks ago and it has placed her firmly on my shelf of must-read-everything-ever-wrote writers. Everything I am going to say about her has undoubtedly been said before, by people with a better education in both the classics and poetry, but here is my pale attempt to write about my own experience of reading her for the first time. And it is somewhat incomplete because I am still thinking about this book, and will continue to think about it until I’ve read more of her work.
I’m not going to write much about the story of The Autobiography of Red, not least of all because I am finding basic plot discussions a bit tedious these days. I just want to dive into the questions and the way the writing worked to affect me, and I’m going to assume that anyone with a computer can look up the basics if necessary.
But the premise of The Autobiography of Red, as explained by Carson in the book’s first section, is worth noting because it helps situate the reader inside Carson’s unique vision. The novel/poem is a re-imagining of an ancient story called “The Geryoneis” (the killing of a red monster named Geryon by Herakles) as told by Stesichoros (a Greek poet whose “words were collected in twenty-six books of which there remain to us a dozen or so titles and several collections of fragments.”)
Carson writes: “…the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.”
Which is essentially what Carson then does. She shakes. She imagines. She re-creates. She conducts us through a handsomely imagined landscape that is bound to the unorthodox approach that Stesichoros took of positioning his poetic viewpoint behind the weaker character (Geryon the monster) instead of the victorious one (Herakles the hero).
It seems intuitive to us, modern readers, that Geryon’s story is the more interesting one, but I wonder if this was not the case for Stesichoros’s contemporary readers. And so I also wonder if Carson’s choice to dance around that notion of “killing” (How many different ways can you “kill” someone?) and turn Geryon and Herakles into lovers was a nod in that direction. The story is provocative and profound because of this choice. Any re-imagining is bound to take immense liberties with the original—almost always for the best—but Carson’s vision is particularly daring. (And yet, surprisingly somehow, so easily imaginable.)
The novel is a poem, so that’s something you have to engage with right away and it makes for a different kind of reading. Poetic narrative is often about the continual gesture toward something that is exceptionally pointed emotionally, but maybe hard to understand (at least this is how poetry works for me) and then shifting the emphasis to unexpected objects and motions. Throughout The Autobiography of Red there is this kind of movement
Something that I found very curious, but also really effective (this is a love story, isn’t it? And love stories, even tragedies, can be really cheesy), is the way she allows the poem to be funny—in a lot of different ways, smart and ironic but also just giggle-worthy—and even a little corny sometimes:
…Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.
The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice…
It’s a little silly, that “opposite of blindness” but I love it all the same. This is adolescent love we’re talking about here.
Then there are moments that the emotional pitch of a line is so incredibly spot-on, so chillingly clever, like this moment when Geryon (who might be dreaming?) is in a bar with a woman facing him. They banter back and forth, it’s both funny and profound and then this:
She studied him a few moments then said slowly—but the gnome gave the piano
a shove against the wall
and Geryon almost missed it—Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said it looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.
It doesn’t resonate very well taken out like this, but that line, “Who can a monster blame for being red?” brought chills to me while reading. And there are so many moments like this, which I think stand out all the more because of the first kind of writing I mention, the silly writing, the slightly tongue-in-cheek and unafraid-to-dance-with-cliché kind of writing.
The book moves forward in a linear way, following the relationship between Herakles and Geryon and eventually a third person, Ancash. It is truly nothing more than a simple love triangle but there is so much going on in Carson’s seemingly-easy lines. Questions on nostalgia for old relationships, on desire, on power dynamics, on how people (even strangers) affect one another:
…. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud.
Geryon knew he must not go back into the cloud. Desire is no light thing.
Finally, I love the way she places the story as far from a Greek setting as possible. And she doesn’t make it anonymous in that shift away from its origins, she names places, she makes it contemporary and specific and manages—wonderfully, incredibly—to not only hold onto the essence of the original, a kind of “classical” feel but to engage with questions of desire as we are exploring and asking them today. It seems like this might be easy, but I don’t think it is, and that mixture of the ancient and the modern is especially compelling.
Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs came out last year and there’s been quite a bit of discussion about it. I really like Messud’s writing (I’ve read her two novellas, The Hunters and A Simple Tale, as well as her big novel, The Emperor’s Children), mostly because she is a fiercely intelligent and intellectual writer, but also because of the way she works carefully at thorny emotional questions in her books. She can do social satire as well as intimate personal/domestic – so I was quite curious to read The Woman Upstairs and now that I’ve finished it, it’s exactly the kind of book I’d really like to discuss.
Briefly, the book is about a fortyish woman named Nora. And the book is, at least on the surface, about her anger at what life has dealt her, but also at the overall outcome of her choices and a long-chain of events that has led her to a certain moment—in this are family situations (the death of her mother being the most important, but also her childhood and her self-conception as having developed from her particular family with its specific emotional currents) and professional situations (her work as a 3rd grade teacher, her years-earlier decision to give up her dream of becoming a professional artist). Nora narrates the book, and she focuses her narrative on a single relationship, an odd kind of intense love triangle between herself and three others: Sirena, Skandar and Reza Shahid. The Shahids are a family (Reza is their young son and Nora is his teacher), and Nora and Sirena become friends and artistic collaborators (of a kind).
In the way that I have come to admire, Messud takes up a number of difficult questions in the story—namely, the particular solitude of a single childless woman in contemporary American society, the compromises a person makes in terms of fulfilling artistic dreams, the strange pull of female friendships, and also essential notions of desire and attraction and love. There is really a lot going on in the book, and she doesn’t work at these questions perfunctorily but instead she spends a lot of time on them, revisiting them in different situations and with different characters. It makes for the kind of book you can read forward and backward, slowly. Messud invites a kind of conscious reflection on Nora’s explanations and judgments, on her opinions and decisions, and so I often found myself asking – Is that true? Does it really feel like that? Do people feel that way? Do I feel that way?
I like a book that solicits this kind of engagement from me. And I love the scale of Messud’s social commentary. She can do satire (The Emperor’s Children) but in The Woman Upstairs she is decidedly never making fun of Nora Eldridge, even if the book can be funny at times. Instead, she is taking Nora very seriously—even when Nora might be difficult, or pathetic—and I found the seriousness of Messud’s project quite touching. Really, the book is a dissection of an individual’s unhappiness. Of a woman’s unhappiness. I think the distinction is important, and I think Messud makes it overtly.
One thing that struck me, however, was that the book’s emphasis on self-reflection and its choice to have Nora speak directly to the reader means that it also involves a tension between direct scene and thought-based exposition. Or, put another way, the book relies more heavily on Nora’s thinking than it does on Nora’s behavior. What she does is obviously there, but what she thinks is always and consistently forefronted. She is, quite literally, almost always “telling.” I found this a curious choice simply because the book is so much about Nora’s anger and the kind of person it has made her. Now, Nora is dealing with a simmering anger, a kind of just-barely controlled resentment—and so much of the book’s tension is wrapped up in waiting to see when she might lose control. I was surprised, in fact, at how little she does. I don’t mean big overwhelming eruptions, because I think that Messud is making a point that unless Nora intends to self-destruct (the option at one end of the anger spectrum – and something she will not ever do) she will internalize and hold it together no matter what. But Nora doesn’t ever really slip up. Not even little things. I’ll admit that because of this, it was sometimes easy to lose sight of her anger.
Finally, something else that struck me as interesting was the way the book is structured. It opens at a present-tense point, Nora in the here and now, and in this here and now she is furiously angry. At her life in general, but also because of something very specific. She then moves backward four years to begin the story of that very specific thing. And then the entire story rolls out – nearly 300 pages of it, all of it in that four years earlier time period, briefly interrupted by even earlier flashbacks. It isn’t until only a few pages from the end that we catch up to that first present-day period and where, essentially, we can now deal directly with Nora’s anger and its consequences. But it’s strange because Messud doesn’t do very much with this—she addresses it, of course, and in an intriguing (even a courageous way, I would say) way, but it is extremely brief. It surprised me. And I say courageous because Messud uses this story of Nora’s anger and what it might do/become as a launching off point into a future we cannot (or may not be able to) easily envision – if Nora can transform herself, in some way transcend the anger that has characterized her, it is only through the reader’s determination to agree with this possibility, really it is only through a trick of the reader’s imagination. That’s a fascinating idea – and one I’m still thinking about.
I read Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé (Open Letter Books, 2010) at some point over the end-of-year holidays, staying up late to finish it despite the ongoing problems I am having with my eyes (a frustrating kind of eye fatigue). I bring this up only because the book is printed in a lovely but very small typeface called Bembo that, while pretty, made me want to throw the book across the room on several occasions as I squinted in the light of my reading lamp and rubbed at my smarting eyelids.
Eyes are very important to this book, or rather, “seeing” is important. There is a lot of scanning the landscape, watching other people to guess at their decisions and motives, studying the natural world, examining faces, being a witness to both words and acts, and even—in one special instance—the experience of a ghostly vision, a visitation.
Even the narrative perspective that Winterbach uses becomes a kind of “seeing.” The story is told through a close focus on one character, Reitz—he is the only man whose thoughts we are given. But he is watching the others so closely it often feels like an omniscient perspective. What Reitz notices and evaluates and worries at, so the reader does too.
To Hell With Cronjé is a historical novel set during the Boer War in South Africa. While the book is very much about this moment in history, I found myself much more drawn to the elements of the novel that spoke far beyond this particular setting and time. Not that I wasn’t curious to learn about it, but I think the success of the book is particularly related to how much the story operates outside its historical anchor. It is a book of wandering and of friendship forged in war, a book of longing, of fragile and fleeting connections. It is about the dangerous tension between belief and knowledge, and how people navigate that tension when they stand at opposite ends of that spectrum.
While reading To Hell With Cronjé, I found myself thinking often of Cormac McCarthy. The journey that Winterbach lays out for her two main characters—Reitz and Ben—felt very similar to the one experienced by McCarthy’s young hero in All the Pretty Horses. This comes, I think, from the juxtaposition of human-centered violence with a deep study of natural beauty and solitary thought. In many ways the book felt very masculine (perhaps I only noticed this because Winterbach is a woman?), and I know this comes from its focus on war, and on these men living out in the camps and in nature. So I am curious to read her other novels—only one other is translated into English, The Book of Happenstance—to see if she repeats this aesthetic or does something else entirely.
I haven’t said much about the story itself: the basic premise is that Reitz and Ben (and two other soldiers) leave their commando unit in order to return a traumatized young soldier to his mother. These men, some more consciously than others, are flirting with desertion. They end up getting picked up/captured by another commando unit, a band of wounded men and misfits left to survey a small area, and are in danger of being killed for having left their unit. They must prove (to the others and themselves) that they were not deserting.
Behind all of this are the little stories that make the book into such a quietly intense read: the war tales the men share around the campfire at night, Reitz’s attempts to commune with the ghost of his dead wife, Ben and Reitz’s scientific studies of the natural world, the power relationships between the men, the lack/loss of women because of the war, the variations and struggles with racism… the list goes on – with everything interconnected and related. It is neatly done.
Perhaps what I loved best about the book (and how it differed the most from, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel) was how it resisted any grand heroics and how quietly it resolved itself. Its resolution is not neat, nor was it without very serious complications. But it is very human. It asks the reader to be satisfied with something rather messy and a situation that feels both fitting but also quite sad. On top of all of this, the last line is pure genius.
My review of the Icelandic novel The Greenhouse (by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated by Brian FitzGibbon) is published this week at Necessary Fiction. This was an intriguing book – the kind of writing and story that grows on you as you work through its pages and story. By the end, I loved it. Here is a little of what I had to say about it:
As signaled to the reader in the very first pages when Lobbi and his father, in the midst of preparing his farewell dinner, go back and forth about his leaving, about his accidental fatherhood and what it means to be going away from his child and the child’s mother, and with the subtext of Lobbi’s mother’s death between them at every moment, the biggest question in The Greenhouse revolves around the possibility of meaning in coincidence:
Dad doesn’t believe in coincidences, or at least not when it comes to major events in life such as birth and death. A life doesn’t start or end out of pure chance, he says. […] Dad looks on these things differently; the world is a cluster of numbers that hang together, making up the innermost core of creation, and the interpretation of dates can yield profound truths and beauty.
Words like coincidence and accident fill the book, as do the possible examples of each: Lobbi’s mother dies in a car accident, Lobbi’s child is conceived accidentally after a party, and even the least important story, of Lobbi’s damaged twin brother, gently re-phrases this same question of the coincidence or destiny of someone’s birth.
Interestingly, Ólafsdóttir works these questions through the narrative while keeping the reader in the shadow of the monastery. There are no overt religious discussions—no direct wondering at God’s hand in all these accidents—but instead there is place, there is the infrequent glimpse of a monk in his robes, there are moments of wonder inside a church.
You can read the rest of my review of The Greenhouse here.
Ólafsdóttir has a more recent book out in English translation, Butterflies in November, (this time with Pushkin Press), that sounds very good as well.
Thinking about it, she might be the first Icelandic author that I’ve read – is that possible? It seems I should have read something Icelandic somewhere along the way… There were a few things I wanted to write in my review about how the language felt, but without having read more examples of Icelandic in English translation, I didn’t feel confident making any real statements. Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that I would like to read Sjón, since so many people whose reading tastes I trust have spoken so highly of his work. But who else should I be adding to my list?
Have had the pleasure of reviewing two wonderful books lately for Necessary Fiction. The first is Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës—and this title tells you nearly all you need to know, except how absolutely excellent the writing is in this collection. Unthank Books and Editor A.J. Ashworth put together an incredible list of contributors, and each writer seemed to have had their fun with the idea of re-envisioning, re-writing, or working through Brontë inspiration:
Here is a little of what I had to say about the collection:
There are also stories that engage with the melancholy of the Brontës, like David Rose’s beautiful “Brontesaurus” and Carys Davies “Bonnet.” The first is an elegant story of loneliness and academic solace, a piece that worries away at words like grief and drear in first a strictly literal manner and then a more emotional, more metaphorically delicate way. In “Bonnet” we are back to contemplating the real Charlotte Brontë in an imagined scene that quite possibly could have taken place and that gets at the heart of Charlotte’s conflicting personality: the passionate writer, the careful lover.
The range of subject and theme in the other stories is quite impressive: the deceptions of a modern-day governess, the death of a loved one, a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance, a hike on the moors invoking Sherlock Holmes and much Brontë lore, and even fictional letters between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre. As a purely selfish wish, I would have enjoyed a bit of direct engagement with Anne Brontë, she seems so often overlooked and yet her works are as powerful and complex as her two more studied sisters. And it is fun to speculate what a story inspired by Branwell or the Brontë children’s fantasy worlds of Angria or Gondal might have added, but this is not to say that Red Room feels incomplete, only a little Charlotte-heavy. As a whole, Red Room is a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology. It is clear that the authors featured here took to their task with both application and admiration.
You can read the whole review here.
Next, I read a début novel by an American writer, Elizabeth Gentry, called Housebound, which was quite simply excellent. If you are a fan of Barbara Comyns (and I know many of you are), you will want to go right out and get this book.
“They” are a peculiar family—nine children, two parents—living in a large house on the outskirts of a small city. In many respects, they are an experiment, a utopia created by the parents according to very specific rules. The greatest of which is their near complete isolation from anyone else excepting a weekly trip to the library. This excludes the father who works every day in the city—and his difference from the rest of the family is an important element of Gentry’s narrative structure. Now, if this house and family is a utopia, it is one without a moving force; it has turned inward and become frozen. And even when the story’s action begins with Maggie, the oldest child, deciding to leave the family and take a job in town, this feeling of being perched and poised continues. As Maggie begins her preparations for leaving and, suddenly relieved of her role as child-minder for the first time, begins to wander about the property and visit the neighbors, there is a sense of the family holding its breath. And this psychological stillness begs the question—what is everyone waiting for? That tension stretches on, and gently but powerfully becomes the novel’s focus.
I have nothing but high praise for this unique story and Gentry’s descriptions and careful storytelling. It is quite dark in some ways, but thoughtful and beautifully written, and more interested in complicated salvation than any kind of long drawn-out portrayal of gorgeous failure. That sentence may need some explaining, but I hope it is clear that I mean this book does not focus on making something horrible seem beautiful nor on ending on some trite feeling of redemption. The book has a wonderful mood to it and I’m really looking forward to anything else that Gentry will write.
You can read the whole review here.
Also, I’ll sneak two mentions of my own writings in this post. I have a short poem in the Fall issue of the Ann Arbor Review. A tiny thing, some thoughts about the word proof.
Lately, I’ve been working to write fiction from photographs again, and it was nice to think about the very first time I did this and ended up with “St. Tropez.”
Finally, I started reading Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (tr. Anne Born) the other day. What a beautiful book—I am sad it has taken me so long to get to his work. (Of course I could say this about so many authors-the panic of someone who would like to read it all.) Reading this book has me also thinking about John Pistelli’s list of books he’d put into a category he is calling Penitential Realism. I am very drawn to this idea, and I would definitely put Out Stealing Horses on this list. His essay on this idea of Penitential Realism (HT: Anthony at Time’s Flow) has been circulating around in my brain for the last week or so.
Something I am really enjoying in Out Stealing Horses are the narrator’s tangents—how odd, or slightly off-topic, but always somehow organic they seem to be. Like this one, which addresses a supposed coincidence in the story, but ends up commenting on life and fiction in general, but also addresses something Pistelli mentions in his essay about the books on his list and their “resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of coincidence…”
I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I’ve read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again. A consolation, maybe, or a protest against a world gone off the rails, but it is not like that anymore, my world is not like that, and I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.
Reading Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz was not an ideal reading experience. It was difficult for me to get through this book and consider it on its own—its story is too enmeshed with the history of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and the ways in which both writers cannibalized their real lives to write their novels. Mostly, it was difficult for me to separate Alabama Knight, the heroine of Save Me the Waltz, from what I know of Zelda Fitzgerald, and this irritates me because I want to think about her as a creation. I assume that even if Zelda had been drawing on her own life for inspiration, Alabama was her creation—not a stand-in or a mouthpiece or even an example, an ideal, an apology.
This is how I always assume that fiction is written, and how the book deserves to be considered. A university professor named Harry T. Moore writes the introduction (in 1966) to my Vintage copy of Save Me the Waltz and he considers the book not much more than a footnote to Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. He spends most of his introduction talking about Scott instead of Zelda, and he dismisses Alabama Knight’s story in the same way he dismisses Zelda as a writer – asserting that her attempts to create art were based on jealousy of her husband. Even with the handful of kind words he does give this novel and its author, I cannot conceive of a more condescending and dishonest introduction to a work of literature.
Matthew Bruccoli’s Note on the Text tells me that Scott acted as an advisor to Zelda’s revisions to the novel but that it does not seem likely that he actually re-wrote the manuscript. So, I think, readers are safe to assume that the novel is mostly her own work. But we can also assume—sadly, frustratingly—that any editing Zelda may have needed or benefitted from (by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner and from Scott Fitzgerald) did not honestly take the book on its own terms, but took it already at that time as an amendment to Scott’s work.
Because of all of this background, before I say anything else about the book, I want to say this: Save Me the Waltz is a novel in its own right. A novel that stands up as a story without the reader knowing anything about its writer or her marriage or her life. It is a novel with an intriguing (if a bit lopsided) structure and form. A novel that suits its time period—with modernist language patterns and a distinctly modernist mood.
Something that struck me right away about Save Me the Waltz is how it reminded me of Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor – that dark southern gothic feel and something about the way the mysterious and brooding interior life of the female character is written. How she reacts-emotionally-to the world around her. And then I had to check dates because, contrary to what I was expecting, Zelda Fitzgerald wrote this novel ten years before Carson McCullers would publish her first novel and twenty years before Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. It is even earlier than Eudora Welty’s first short story publication. So I think we need to be very careful about ever using the word “derivative” when talking about Zelda Fitzgerald.
There are four parts to Save Me the Waltz: Alabama’s late adolescence, her marriage to David Knight and their life in Europe, her ballet obsession, and then her injury and return to extended family. It is extremely interesting that the book opens and closes with Alabama’s family in the United States, with discussions of tradition and inter-generational observations. That mirroring of sections invites a wonderful discussion about how Zelda reflects upon some of the questions raised within the middle parts of the novel’s structure—especially in terms of marriage and how a life is to be lived.
Superficially, this is the story of an American couple who travel to Europe and what happens to them while they are there. But the story is much more interior than it is about “event”; indeed, there are few events in the story. A first significant event would be Alabama’s unexpected infatuation with a Frenchman she meets during one of their first stops in Europe, when the teeth of a dangerous boredom have begun to nip at her already. This “event” creates a fissure in the relationship façade that Alabama and David have created both publically and privately. A first question is raised about personal freedom and exclusivity in love—which the Knights do not address head-on, instead they avoid each other and themselves in constant partying and an empty life of friends and high-living. Anything to keep boredom at bay. Especially for Alabama, who has nothing to do but party. No role for her except wife to her painter husband and mother to a young child. Without a passion of her own, these are her only two choices. Some time later, they have a brief exchange about their tumultuous life and David says, offhand, that he “needs new emotional stimulus.”
Alabama looked at him coldly.
“I see.” She realized that she had sacrificed forever her right to be hurt on the glory of a Provençal summer.
It is a brief moment, but the tone of the novel swings dramatically after this point. Alabama becomes bitter as David looks at other women and eventually begins an affair with a French actress. The way Alabama thinks about herself after this—in comparison to other women or the ways in which she refers to her body or her self—changes, becomes at first fidgety, and then dark. She is interested in David’s infidelity, but also in her own reaction, in her own desires. In the space of a few short pages, the reader witnesses a surprising loss of confidence, which eventually fuels the novel’s greatest “event”—Alabama’s obsession with ballet.
But just before this are a few of Alabama’s more curious & thoughtful reflections:
In response to an offhand comment about the possibility of her learning to dance:
Alabama went secretly over her body. It was rigid, like a lighthouse. “It might do,” she mumbled, the words rising through her elation like a swimmer coming up from a deep dive.
In response to David’s infidelity:
Men, she thought, never seem to become the things they do, like women, but belong to their own philosophic interpretations of their actions.
And finally, in one of the last paragraphs before she makes the decision to become a dancer:
The macabre who lived through the war have a story they love to tell about the soldiers of the Foreign Legion giving a ball in the expanses around Verdun and dancing with the corpses. Alabama’s continued brewing of the poisoned filter for a semiconscious banquet table, her insistence on the magic and glamor of life when she was already feeling its pulse like the throbbing of an amputated leg, had something of the same sinister quality.
The next section of the novel is my favorite. An intense 65 pages in which all of the novel’s difficult questions reside. Alabama becomes a dancer. She abandons her husband and her child—slowly at first, then openly when a position opens in an Italian ballet company—and she experiences something that makes her feel alive in a way that nothing up to this point in her life has ever done. And of course this feeling comes with an equally intense sacrifice. Because to feel this way, she must be alone. She cannot have this feeling and have her family at the same time.
Interestingly, the prose in this section of the novel is dramatically different than the other sections. Smoother, cleaner. Very vivid. The narrator’s sensitivity has turned from emotional to physical, and then, every once in a while, connects the two in a dramatic way:
He exhibited her to his friends as if she were one of his pictures.
“Feel her muscle,” he said. Her body was almost their only point of contact.
Isn’t that rather devastating?
I won’t ruin the ending of this book by saying anything else about it except that the story of Alabama and David comes full circle in an interesting way. The last few pages reconnect with the beginning of the book, but also draw a line straight out from patterns created in the middle. And the mood created by the ending is both curious and frighteningly bleak.
All of this is to say that I think Save Me the Waltz—its structure and especially its creation of a character like Alabama Knight—deserves much more consideration than Mr. Harry T. Moore ever thought to give it. Not to mention those involved in the book’s original publication. I’m guessing the academic world has done this or is starting to, and I hope there will be more discussions of her work on its own terms. Whatever the similarities to Zelda’s real life and despite the small ways the writing may falter from to time (ZF has trouble with metaphors and, a bit less often, with narrative consistency), this is not a book that should be dismissed so quickly. Or lauded only for its contribution to an understanding of Scott Fitzgerald’s work. It has a life of its own, it raises questions absolutely unrelated to anyone’s biography, and the writing is interesting for its fragmentation, unusual descriptions and pacing. It is the kind of book that makes me wish the author had had a chance to write again, to write differently, to finish with this story (which perhaps she needed to tell), and try her hand at another.