Monday, May 27, 2013

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald byt Therese Anne Fowler

Having just reread The Great Gatsby, seen the new screen adaptation by Baz Lurhrmann, it was most fitting to read an account of Zelda, Fitzgerald's wife. It also further fuels my fascination with the "Lost Generation" and the creative genius that emerged from it.  Reading Z also was a parallel to The Paris Wife, the novel about Hemingway's first wife, Hadley. 

There have been numerous biographies of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, but this is strictly a novel and it reads like one. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald meet in her hometown in Alabama as she is performing in a dance recital. Their courtship is unorthodox, to say the least, much like Hadley and Ernest Hemingway. She rushes off to marry him in a small ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 1920. Fitzgerald had just published his first novel and it was met with much acclaim. From there the novel explores and exposes the glamour and tribulation that their lives together endured. The reader sees Zelda as a woman wanting to burst from the cocoon of her strangling husband, a woman who has so much to offer on her own, but unsure of how to balance what a wife should be and what her life would be. Fitzgerald is portrayed as a domineering alcoholic who more often than not becomes a pawn of Ernest Hemingway. When Zelda and Scott's daughter, Scottie,  is born, there is an instant where the reader thinks that history can be rewritten and he will be that sober and loving husband and father.  But it isn't and the maelstrom that drags the couple down is inevitable. 

All of the supporting characters of the time make and appearance in the novel. There are the salons in Paris, the relationship of Gertrude and Alice, H.L. Mencken and his influence, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and of course Hadley and Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer. was a quick read. Upon reflection, I think this was because it seemed to be only a caricature of the woman that was Zelda Fitzgerald. The deep exploration of Zelda is not present. I kept wishing for more than a cursory look at her and her relationship with Scott. He is portrayed almost without redeeming value as he refused to acknowledge her talents and desire for a full and satisfying life. They both question why they remained married and cast aside the idea of divorce. I do think they truly loved each other.

I am fascinated by Zelda and so will put on my reading list the most acclaimed biography of her: Zelda  by Nancy Milford. It will be interesting to contrast the two perspectives.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rereading The Great Gatsby as an adult, far removed from those high school days, was a real eye-opener. I know this was one of those books read in a Sunday afternoon (we didn't have NFL football on TV back in the day) to get it done quickly. How sad that such a wonderful book may not be appreciated by youth. Fitzgerald's command of the English language, the symbolism, and understanding of human drama are so wonderfully crafted in this "American Novel."

The plot line is one known to almost all who have passed through high school English classes and those who have seen the numerous screen adaptations. It is Nick Carraway's description of lives of Tom and Daisy Buchannan, Myrtle and Tom Wilson, Jordan Baker, and Jay Gatsby. The novel affords a look at the contrasting lives of the noveau riche, the old money, life in the ash heap and the transformative powers as the characters interact with one another. Gatsby, in love with Daisy since before her marriage to Tom, is intent on living the American Dream that will include wealth, prestige, and Daisy.  However, in a time of decadence and opulence, this dream becomes unattainable. Fitzgerald decries what easy money has done to the once esteemed individualism and morality that was America. He embeds symbolism in the book that, upon careful reading, clearly defines what life in America has become - the green light at the end of the Buchannan dock, the valley of ashes, and the ever-present eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg. 

Maybe I understood at the time the importance of The Great Gatsby, or at least enough to be able to use it as I wrote and AP exam, but a life's worth experiences certainly brings a deeper understanding to it. Fitzgerald was 28 when he penned this book, but he writes as if much older and leaves us with one of the most memorable closing lines in all of literature. 
 “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

It's amazing how hearing an author speak about a book can enhance a reader's experience of that book. I must admit that Caleb's Crossing was a bit tedious for me as I began it an was trying to wade through the Native American names and vocabulary. However, after hearing Geraldine Brooks speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series, I had a renewed interest and could understand the high praise that the book garnered.

Set in 1660, Caleb's Crossing is the story of Bethia Mayfield and her family, her father a Puritan minister,  who have broken away from mainland Massachusetts to the island of Martha's Vineyard. The title character is Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag, the first Native American graduate of Harvard University. His transition from his Indian life to that of an learned member of the colony is the crossing that Bethia describes in her journals. Tasked with keeping her family together after her mother's death, Bethia befriends Caleb and the two become students with her brother Makepeace, learning classical languages and the language of each other.  When the time comes for the boys to continue their education in a more formal setting, Bethia joins them as an indentured girl in the house of Master Corlett, head of the grammar school that will prepare them for Harvard. She observes his "crossing" while developing her own independence and personality. Finally, we see Bethia as an old woman, reflecting on her life and the influences of the Christian world, the Indian culture, and the classical tenets on it. 

Geraldine Brooks has an amazing way with language and and with that she immerses her readers into a culture that seems foreign, yet connected. She has perfected the prose of the colonial era and has given Bethia a credible voice. For all the servitude that she endures, she is really a feminist and her thoughts and actions show her to be true to that spirit. At the same time she is still a captive to the society and must walk that fine line. I found the second part of the novel more satisfying than the first and really still am puzzled with Brooks' titling of the book Caleb's Crossing.  As Bethia grows and changes in three phases of her life, she remains the protagonist and the journey is hers. It was a good read that gives insight into an almost forgotten time and place in American history.