Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Call Me Zelda

I have a confession:  When I was 19, I read Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, and I wanted so badly to *be* Zelda.  Not mad, broken-down Zelda, but badass, unpredictable, crazy-brilliant Jazz Age Zelda.  I wasn't always successful.  More cringeworthy than captivating, I'm sorry to say. I ended up irritating one boyfriend clean away with my antics but he was no F. Scott Fitzgerald, so no loss.

Even when I was older and knew better, I still had Zelda flashes.  The last one was in 2008, at a party in Seoul.  I had a train ticket to go back, but I was having so much fun and enjoying the company so much that I decided to be madcap and make a flamboyant gesture and burn my train ticket, right there at the table.  I announced my intentions as I set the ticket ablaze.







 Fail again.  Everyone just thought I was stupid.  "You could have refunded that ticket for another train," one woman explained.  She made her words insultingly slow.

"It's a gesture!"  I insisted.  "A large, stupid drunken gesture -- haven't you ever done anything like that?"

Silence at the table.  "You didn't need to burn your ticket," the same woman insisted.  She would be throwing up in and around a squat toilet in a few short hours; nothing dashing or madcap about that.

I looked down at the ashes of my ticket.  "I think I'm allowed one stupid drunken gesture a year," I finally said in a small voice.

Damn!  I could understand how my annoying boyfriend of long ago had missed the point, but these people were expats, and they didn't get the hilarity of it all.  In one fell swoop, I realized that I could never pull off Zelda and expats were nothing magical anymore.  Had they ever been?   I wanted my train ticket back.

***

Fast-forward a few years.  My attraction to Zelda has stayed intact, and that led me to Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck, published late in 2013.  This novel is set in  the years after the Fitzgeralds made the 20s roar both in the United States and abroad.  Zelda started showing signs of mental illness.  A (fictional) nurse, Anna Howard, with her own troubled past, is hired to care for Zelda and becomes her friend and confidante.

Anna sees Zelda's brilliance and resents Scott's efforts to curtail it and appropriate the best parts of her life for himself.  Anna's view of Scott reminded me of a Zelda biography I read almost ten years ago called Sometimes Madness is Wisdom.

Call Me Zelda is like an English major's best fever dream.  What litgirl (or litboy, for that matter) worth his or her salt hasn't dreamed of fully appreciating and ultimately rescuing their lost literary legend?

Because of Robuck's excellent research, the novel crackles with brilliance whenever Zelda and/or Scott (and Scottie, too!) are present.  Anna's own story was heartbreaking, but I didn't feel as fully drawn in, although I did wonder while reading if she was a real person or a creation.

One thing that kept distracting me was that when Anna and her family talk together, their speech has an early 21st century cadence to it.  The second part of the novel involves a quest Anna is determined to fulfill for Zelda.  It was difficult for me to suspend my disbelief in some places, but at the same time, the plot appealed strongly to my English-major-as-literary-savior fantasies.

Erika Robuck has either got my number, or we have identical literary longings.  Her next novel is about Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I immediately got a poetry earworm:  Love is not all:  It is not meat nor drink/Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain...

I never wanted to be Millay, but I can hardly wait.

6 comments:

Lark said...

I know what you mean about being fascinated with Zelda Fitzgerald. There's just something about her. I haven't read Call Me Zelda yet, but I just finished reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Fowler. It was a good historical fiction novel about her life with Scott.

Susan Bybee said...

Lark,
I've been circling Z in the bookstores, reading bits here and there.

Vasilly said...

I love love love this post! Now I want to read about Zelda. Any recommendations for nonfiction about her?

Susan Bybee said...

Vasilly,
Sometimes Madness is Wisdom and Zelda by Nancy Milford are 2 that I have read and enjoyed.

Unruly Reader said...

You burned that ticket with panache!

Care said...

OH man, crazy antics aside, it is just not fair that some people can pull off 'madcap' and some, alas, cannot. I guess? But I loved the write up.