Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R Clifton Spargo
Maybe we're all a bunch of Gatsbys, trying to repeat the past. In nonfiction, we're in the age of memoir just as fiction is turning historical. A spate of recently published historical fiction based upon literary and cultural figures includes Jennie Fields's The Age of Desire (Edith Wharton), Paula McLain's The Paris Wife (about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson), Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone (Louise Brooks), Erika Robuck's Hemingway's Girl; and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (Richard Burton). Earlier this year, two novels about the couple of the Jazz Age, the Fitzgeralds, joined the list: Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and R. Clifton Spargo's Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
When Spargo -- whose novel details the Fitzgeralds' final trip and the last time they were together -- was asked in a Newcity interview, "Why Cuba?" he explained: "You can read everything about Scott and Zelda and you can't find anything about this trip to Cuba, not more than maybe two sentences, and it's the last time the two of them would ever spend together."
Case in point: these lines from Fowler's Z, which appear in the novel's penultimate chapter: "During a catastrophic trip we took to Cuba in April last year -- he got so sick and so drunk that I had to take him to the hospital in New York afterward -- the saddest eyes I'd ever seen except in my mirror. 'I'll never leave you, Zelda,' he said."
Whereas Fowler offers a first-person account of Zelda from her girlhood in Montgomery, Alabama in 1918 to the night in December 1941 when she heard the news of Scott's death, Spargo zooms his Fitzgeraldian lens on those last days in 1939 and 1940, when the couple flew to Cuba on a trip they believed might redeem the gin-soaked path of their past. Forever dismissing the warning Hemingway offered in The Sun Also Rises, "You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There's nothing to that." So to Cuba, which was to be the adventure that would take them away from themselves as they were and back to what they had once been. As if any of us can do that or, for that matter, accurately remember who that was in the past and recreate it with who we are in the present. Remember when Gatsby tries to reconcile the Daisy he remembers with the one who stands before him? "Give me a hero," Fitzgerald wrote, "and I'll write you a tragedy." Life and art, Mr. Fitzgerald, life and art.
As Spargo writes in Beautiful Fools, "Everything had been so aimless in the Village in the Twenties, the parties so free and licentious; some men never righted themselves afterwards." For "some men," read F. Scott Fitzgerald. Spargo's opening chapters offer a dismal, disturbing scenario: Scott's struggle to get through the night without emptying another gin bottle (there are already several empties hidden in a drawer), his duty to Zelda over his desire for Sheila Graham, and Zelda's insecure words written from Highland Hospital, "I am always brave if the plane plunges into the ocean and you are there at my side." It's a desperate, riveting opening, and their "escape" (see Hemingway above) to Cuba equally desperate.
Fowler and Spargo had distinct motivations for writing their respective imaginings of this troubled Jazz Age duo. "For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott's life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda's," writes Fowler in her author's note. In an interview with NPR, she explained, "The more I learned [about Zelda], the more compelled I was to set the record straight -- it became kind of a mission." Thus, Fowler allows readers to read the Fitzgeralds from Zelda's perspective, thereby imbuing her impulsive behavior with foundation rather than fancy. Even when Zelda shimmies off her black silk-and-lace panties and tosses them on the dinner table as an impromptu farewell gift for Andrew Woollcott, Fowler offers two-and-a-half pages tracing Zelda's thought process from ennui to outrage to insistence, "Now, I saw how a woman might sometime want to steer her own course rather than trail her husband like a favored dog." For Fowler has not only delved into the complexities and frustrations of a couple trying to survive themselves and each other, she has also portrayed a strong-willed woman who constantly considered where she stood within the contexts and the contests of the burgeoning feminist movement. "Whose life is this, anyway?" her Zelda asks.
"There is good reason to defend [Zelda]," claims Spargo in the Newcity interview. "But my goal was different in that I'm defending the relationship." Spargo interprets the Fitzgerald's Cuban excursion as one of bravery in the face of adversity. He explains his approach with Beautiful Fools this way: "I could reinvent them as they might have wished to be on this last holiday, I could allow them one last attempt at reinventing themselves."
Spargo does so via a third-person account that reads at once intense yet removed, strained, but it's an apt voice for his material. The exchanges, many in rapid dialogue, are reminiscent of Hemingway's The Garden of Eden, the story of a writer and his wife on a trip that ends in separation after his infidelity. Here's an excerpt from that novel:
"Now will you try to be polite and not interfere when someone is trying to work out what's best for everyone?"
"I'm going to swim," David said.
The girl got up and followed him outside the cove. While they treaded water, she said, "She's crazy."
"So don't blame her."
"But what are you going to do?"
"Finish the story and start another."
"So what do you and I do?"
"What we can."
While reading both Spargo's novel and Hemingway's, I felt (guiltily) privy to the private conversations and consternations of a couple inside their locked hotel room. Or rather, inside a plunging plane. The pattern established above -- the man's insistence, the woman's pleas, the man's departure, his return and their resolve to keep at it -- is firmly established in Beautiful Fools, yet accompanied by Scott's nighttime escapades with and without (mostly without) Zelda. One of the strongest and most haunting segments is Spargo's poignant yet graphic depiction of Scott jumping into the middle of a cockfight to spare a wounded, dying bird. Interestingly enough, Fowler's Zelda makes this comment in Z: "[Scott] had no stomach for bullfights or for anything gritty or brutal."
Distinct from Fowler, however, is Spargo's refusal to cast blame on either Scott or Zelda; rather, he churns the dynamics of a relationship in ruins (or even beyond the ruins) to rummage through what has piled up from years of Scott's disease and what doctors now recognize as Zelda's bipolar disorder.
Fowler explains that in her research she often felt as if she'd been "dropped into a raging argument between... Team Zelda and Team Scott." Spargo's portrayal of this couple in crisis sets up those teams in a relentless tug-of-war and offers two people not so much against each other as against the world. Spargo has applied a favorite Bob Dylan lyric to the dynamic: "Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content." Perhaps he didn't want to use a Dylan line as an epigraph (there isn't one, by the way), but it certainly encapsulates the conflict and the compass of Beautiful Fools. If there is a moment when Fowler echoes this duality-in-destruction, it's when Zelda confesses, "[Scott] would... twist it around in some way that would make him the victim and me the villain. I couldn't say what I knew: that I was the villain, too." To return to Spargo, "He drank too much and neglected her. She distracted him while he was working."
A note to readers interested in the behind-the-scenes of some of their favorite works of literature: Fowler offers insight into the process of the writing, the madness of the pre-publication, and the painful (hold on, Scott, posterity's coming!) reception of The Great Gatsby, whereas Spargo focuses on Scott's struggle to write with Zelda around against his unwillingness to allow her to go out without him, and he highlights the conflict by recounting Scott's writing of "Babylon Revisited." After reading a draft of the story, Spargo's Zelda asks, "What was it like with me gone, once and for all?" Read either of these books, and you'll feel the weight of that question.
Both Fowler and Spargo -- through their dedicated research; vivid prose; and imaginative, yet true, renderings -- make us feel the loss of and for Scott and Zelda. By the final, beautiful closing passages of both Z and Beautiful Fools, it's clear why we continue to be borne back ceaselessly into the past of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo