Some heavier sensitive reality

paris was yesterdayParis was Yesterday: 1925–1939
Janet Flanner

I chose this book as my next read for the Classics Club on the back of an article Siân Norris wrote last year on For Books’ Sake about the women of the Left Bank. I’m one more of the many people fascinated by Paris of the early twentieth century but I’m also a feminist, so the idea of finding out more about the women writers and artists of that time greatly appeals to me.

Janet Flanner was an American journalist who moved to Paris in 1922 with her lover, actress Solita Solano. In 1925 she began writing the Letter From Paris column for the New Yorker, under the pen name Genêt. This book is a selection from the first 15 years of those columns. It’s a combination of gossip, reviews, obituaries and day-to-day reporting. It’s an at times uneven mix and I don’t know if that’s an accurate reflection of the column or the way this book has been edited.

The book starts strongly, really making me feel the setting and wish I could have experienced it. Flanner clearly wasted no time in getting to the centre of social life in Paris, recounting a series of breathless parties and still-notable first performances. She was there for the première of the Stravinsky ballet Oedipus Rex, with lyrics by Cocteau and costumes by Picasso – can you imagine?

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Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out

Z

Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler

In case you missed me effusing on Twitter, I loved this book. A lot. I picked it up on a whim in a bookshop, having heard nothing about it and with no idea what to expect. I only knew that I was interested in the subject matter, but of course that was no guarantee. It was a good whim: I was engrossed and tore through it, then regretted having read so fast.

This is a work of fiction, but Fowler did a lot of research, reading diaries, letters, articles and interviews from Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald and their friends, in order to reach her own interpretation of Zelda’s character. What she came up with was a character I felt I had a lot in common with – I know, I’m not an obvious comparison to the original flapper and embodiment of the jazz age, but such is the skill of a good writer!

The story follows Zelda from the day she first met Scott until her death, and the life they led was pretty exciting and event-filled, so on reflection a lot has been squeezed into these 350 or so pages, but it never felt rushed or crammed at all. Fowler has somehow given Zelda space to reflect and reminisce rather than just telling her story event by event, and by doing this the character comes truly alive.

“Before Scott’s success, before people everywhere had been ravaged by war and flu, there’d been little glamour in the literary world. To be a writer then was to be a drab little mole who thought big thoughts and methodically committed them to paper…With this group, though…and the postwar push for life, for fun, for all the things Scott and I were seeking and embodying, the literary world put its foot into the circle of the entertainment world’s spotlight.”

First of all, this is a story about true love. Although their marriage was far from perfect (in fact, arguably they were destructive for each other), Scott and Zelda were unusual among the circles they moved in, in that they were indisputably the love of each other’s life. This is backed up by the fact that, though this is a book in Zelda’s voice and very clearly on Zelda’s side, so that at times Scott is the bad guy, for the most part he is also a warm, relatable character, albeit one with a long long list of flaws! But then the portrait of Zelda acknowledges her flaws too. Until her health problems slowed her down, her drinking and partying was as out of control as Scott’s. They both struggled psychologically with feelings of inadequacy and failure – though for Scott this alternated with him being convinced he was a genius.

As those who know Zelda’s story will already be aware, it is psychological problems that give her and Scott an air of tragedy. She clearly suffered with mental health issues, but, from this novel at least, it seems that perfectly manageable issues were blown up into huge problems by a combination of stigma, prejudice, misdiagnosis and outdated treatments. Add to this Scott’s alcoholism and the intense jealousy that both felt, and you have a situation that was never going to end well.

“There’s a word for people who move from place to place, never seeming to be able to settle down for long: peripatetic. And there’s a word for people who can’t seem to stay out of trouble—well, there are a lot of words for such types…Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out—become expert at some of it, even, so much so that I’ve come to wonder whether artists in particular seek out hard times the way flowers turn their faces toward the sun.”

But for a while there, Scott and Zelda were on top of the world. They were very young when fame hit – they married when Zelda was 20 and Scott 23, and were hitting the headlines and gossip columns pretty much immediately. Fowler does a good job of showing the glamorous, romantic side of fame and the jazz age while acknowledging that Scott and Zelda were never truly as happy or carefree as they seemed to the outside world. She also acknowledges the very many famous names the Fitzgeralds befriended, without it ever feeling like namedropping.

Certainly, I am pre-disposed to like stories about all those artists in Paris in the 1920s, but that’s actually quite a small part of the overall story. What really gripped me most of all was Zelda’s aspiration to be an artist herself, independent of Scott. She was a writer, painter and ballerina, and dearly wished to fully become one or all of those things, but Scott never properly gave her his support. Time and again he would stop her from doing something she loved either in the name of her health or in the name of being a wife and mother. Admittedly, this is Fowler’s interpretation of the situation, but to me it felt that Zelda was a woman born 50 years too soon. Of course there were women in the 1920s (and long before that) working as writers, artists and dancers, but they had to be willing to completely split from conventionality, and Zelda loved Scott too much to risk losing him by doing something he so thoroughly disproved of.

“Imagine your body is youthful, firm, a pleasure to live inside of—and you’re wise enough already to know that this is fleeting, this body and its condition. It won’t last. None of it will last. And because it won’t, you allow the beautiful person who seeks you out to become as much a part of your day, a part of this place, as the poppies that grow beside the rocky path…You let it happen because all of it is illusory anyway.”

Fowler has done a wonderful job of giving Zelda a lyrical, living voice that transported me in time, place and emotions. Her Zelda is difficult and destructive but also wonderful and alive, so that her story is all the more heartbreaking.

So aside from the clunky and possibly misleading subtitle (is it just me or could that be interpreted as “a novel by Zelda Fitzgerald”?) I loved this book thoroughly and recommend it heartily. Predictably it has made me want to read Zelda’s own fiction and indeed more of Scott’s work too. And it’s made me feel a lot better about finding Hemingway mostly too brash and macho!

Published 2013 by Two Roads, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

All that succession and repetition of massed humanity

Vile Bodies
by Evelyn Waugh

Why oh why have I never read Waugh before? How has this happened? He was clever and funny and acerbic and fun and catty. Can you tell I enjoyed this book?

The novel follows a short time in the lives of the “bright young things”, the high, fast-paced society of 1920s London. From the first page the caustic comic tone is set. No-one escapes a vicious lashing. There are no real heroes, though a case might be made for Adam Fenwick-Symes being the centrepiece. He is certainly the butt of the longest joke: his relationship with lovely but frankly flighty Nina.

The story is really a series of parties and other social engagements. As Adam remarks at one point:

“…’Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.
(Masked parties, Savage parties, Russian parties, Circus parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. Those vile bodies…)”

For all the wit and the lack of getting inside anyone’s head, the characters are not entirely caricatures. There is an element of that certainly, but there are complexities too. When at one point Adam encounters a dressmaker’s dummy, the narration adds:

“…there had been one of these in Adam’s home which they used to call ‘Jemima’ – one day he stabbed ‘Jemima’ with a chisel and scattered stuffing over the nursery floor and was punished. A more enlightened age would have seen a complex in this action and worried accordingly…”

While the goings-on are quite lighthearted and romping, there is the occasional event that you feel ought to be being taken more seriously. But then when I got to the ironically titled final chapter “Happy ending”, I realised that that was the whole point. Without wishing to give anything away, Waugh neatly provides the excuse for all this living to excess, while maintaining his pessimistic tone.

The satire of society does come at a price. Emotion is limited or absent completely, despite the central love story of Adam and Nina, not to mention some other serious goings-on that might demand an emotional response. And politicians are present and roundly mocked but their politics not dealt with at all. I suppose it is quite a small book and to keep its momentum it had to have a narrow focus.

One subject that does muscle its way into the narrative is tabloid journalism, in particular the gossip columns. This was handled so amusingly that I particularly want to read Waugh’s novel Scoop soon.

First published 1930 by Chapman & Hall.

The silence that anaesthetises shame

The Light Between Oceans
by M L Stedman

This is a beautifully written account of people facing terrible circumstances and decisions. It didn’t move me the way I thought it would (or should) but it got me thinking about love, in all its forms. I can see why this debut novel has already attracted a lot of interest.

The story is set in Western Australia in the 1920s, primarily on a tiny island far off the coast occupied only by the lighthouse keeper and his family. After serving in World War I, Tom is looking for a quiet, useful life when he signs up to “the lights”. He expects to live out his days alone and has accepted that when, on shore leave in the small town of Partageuse, he meets Isabel. She is young, sparkling, headstrong and quick to fall in love.

Izzy has to persuade Tom that she can deal with the life on the island. Shore leave is every three years, with the only other contact with people being a quarterly supply boat. In emergencies a signal can be sent out but otherwise they are quite alone with the lighthouse, cottage, vegetable patch, chickens and goats, at the forefront of every weather front and surrounded by the tempestuous meeting point of two oceans. It is a tough life but Izzy seems up to the task.

The novel begins with the pivotal event before going back to fill in all these details. One day a boat washes up on the island containing a dead body and a crying baby. Izzy has just lost her third child in stillbirth and is out of her mind with grief. The baby appears like a gift from God. But they can’t possibly keep it and not report it, can they?

The story explores grief, truth, lies and choices, sometimes slightly too obviously but at other times very effectively: “History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on – protected by the silence that anaesthetises shame.”

It’s a hugely emotional story quietly told. I actually thought it was written by a man until I read Stedman’s bio because it is largely viewed from Tom’s perspective. He is stoic, dependable and brave – essentially a good man – where Izzy is impetuous, subject to mood swings and bears grudges. Perhaps this perspective prevented the story from becoming melodramatic or schmaltzy, which is some achievement considering the subject matter, but it also distanced me enough from events that I was not moved by things that I think should have moved me. I should have cried reading this story, or at least come close, but I did not. In fact at times I found it too slow, though it picked up a lot in the third act.

The characters are very well created and I was eager to know what would happen to them. I liked how Tom turned to his duty, becoming more efficient, more clean and tidy, when life got hard. But the best part was the setting. The descriptions of the sea and the weather are stunning: “There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger”. Beautiful.

This book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 26 April 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Books.