Monday, 30 June 2014

Historical Fiction

This is my first attempt at literary criticism where I've not written with a sense of intense admiration for my subjects.  I must ask myself why I've jumped in the deep end of the pool with little swimming ability.  I hope to stay afloat.

‘Z’ by Therese Anne Fowler – a small critique

There is a danger in reading historical fiction.  A danger that the words you read will become the truth, your truth, in spite of the fact that you know that the bones of the story are all that is real and even they are often porous. I distrust this construction and the writer who is trying to convince me that the words put into the mouths of once living beings are alive when I know they are only attempts at breathing life into something that once was. ‘Did she really say that?’ I think. ‘He wouldn't have written that!  What gives this writer the right to speak for these people?’  I become unreasonable.

Unless the writer is exceptionally gifted at taking me to a place where the writing is good enough to convince me that this story, however untruthful, is worth paying attention to and giving it due admiration for itself, I feel nothing but annoyance. 

If the subject being written about has lived a life that draws you to its particulars, a well researched biography without too much authorial commentary is for me, much preferable. 

Of course now I am thinking of historical fiction I have enjoyed.  Rose Tremain’s ‘Restoration’ and ‘Music and Silence’ which informed a period I knew little about and was peopled with some fictional characters that added to the tenor of the times, created a feeling of acceptance for me about the whole book.  Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ is another example.  Am I less critical, more detached, looking down the long lens of history?

But let’s talk about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald as they appear in ‘Z’.  So much has been written about these two, who became myths of the Jazz Age, that they have become trapped in what we want to make of them. We follow them through from their meeting to their early tragic deaths and along the way touch on acquired friendships.  Interesting people all, and I think further reading about Sara and Gerald Murphy, Gertrude Stein, Earnest Hemingway, Ezra Pound etc, for those of you interested in this period and these people, would be better spent than what is on offer here.

Ms Fowler has attempted in ‘Z’ to reveal what she feels is Zelda’s neglected side of the story.  The warning bells sounded for me from the get go.  We read a letter written to Scott, only to discover that this was not a real letter but only one that Ms Fowler thought Zelda might have written.  Knowing that much of their correspondence exists, I was off to a bad start. I kept waiting for Zelda to become the person history knows her to have been but instead had to do with a woman who presented with flippant banality. I winced at some of the anachronistic dialogue and waited for better to come.

 We know that beneath these superficialities were beating hearts and creative ideas waiting to be born. Their triumph is that many were. In a book of this sort, context and point of view are victims of the truth.    Fowler writes that Zelda urged Scott to trade on his popularity and not to try and create art.  After all, what’s wrong with people liking what you do?  And while we’re at it, ‘Would anyone like to dance?’  I think the real Zelda would not recognize herself here.  Or at least I hope not. Their creative work exists for us to judge, but unless we have explored it, this book that is so short on depth, leaves that creativity in the shallows.

Yes, I know that there were too many bottles of champagne – Scott consuming more than his share and that Zelda did contribute to the content of his writing, but the genius of that writing was all his own.  Her own creative leanings did suffer because of her mental instability and the social milieu they moved in but this book, which has a tendency towards gossip and general belittling, sells both Zelda and Scott short and the essence of both these people is sadly missing. They deserve better.

Therese Anne Fowler should be credited with crafting a story that moves along briskly and as an introduction, if you’re willing to not try and separate fact from fiction, you may spend an enjoyable few days.


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