Zelda Fitzgerald’s sad, wasted life seemed to have been buried beneath the ground, covered over by the desperate violets of Scott Fitzgerald’s memories. It had gone by, we thought, interred in the mournful, expensive defeat of Fitzgerald’s last years. “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitariums,” he wrote. And why dig it up again? For it is a more than twice-told tale, capped by Ernest Hemingway’s contemptuous epitaph in A Moveable Feast. There had always been about Zelda’s collapse, even her death at last in a fire at a nursing home in North Carolina—“her body was identified by a charred slipper lying beneath it”—something of a reckoning, the price to be paid for recklessness beyond endurance, for drink and arrogance and carelessness with one’s own life and that of those nearest. Or, perhaps, the reckoning, which was breakdown, insanity, was merely mysteriously there, compelling the earlier transgressions and excesses.
As persons, the Fitzgeralds were not, in my view, especially appealing. Their story has a sort of corruption clinging to it, the quality of a decadent fairy tale, some overgrown lushness and deformation. They seem, most of all, like incestuous brother and sister, brilliant, perverse, selfish, their handsome, self-loving faces melting into a mask. Sometimes they make one feel it is almost a deprivation to live without the correcting education of those common marital oppositions of temperament and taste.
In this couple defects were multiplied, as if by a dangerous doubling; weakness fed upon itself without a counter-strength and they were trapped; defaults, mutually committed, left holes everywhere in their lives. When you read their letters to each other it is often necessary to consult the signature in order to be sure which one has done the writing. Their tone about themselves, their mood is the fatal one of nostalgia—a passive, consuming, repetitive poetry. Sometimes one feels even its most felicitous and melodious moments are fixed, rigid in expression, and that their feelings have gradually merged with their manner, fallen under the domination of style. Even in their suffering, so deep and beyond relief, their tonal memory controls the words, shaping them into the Fitzgerald tune, always so regretful, regressive, and touched with a doleful beauty.
In nostalgia there is the pressure of ennui and even the Fitzgerald youth, extraordinary, successful, special, so often seemed threatened by this backward-looking boredom and emptiness. This, along with evil circumstances and crippling vices, made the very existence of Fitzgerald’s brilliant novels and stories a miracle. It was only at the end of his life, when he was composing the fascinating novel, The Last Tycoon, when he was tired and despondent but somehow, if only by time and fatigue and distance, free from the self-pity of his unproductive years, that he could subdue the half of himself that was Zelda. The mood of this novel, not necessarily more interesting than the others by any means, was at least new and one felt a severing had been accomplished,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.