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.