WAS she a talented writer whose gifts were overshadowed by her husband's celebrity - or a dilettante whose efforts would never have been noticed at all if she hadn't been the wife of a famous man? In the first couple of decades following her death in 1948, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, was generally consigned to the category of dilettante: a bright, glamorous flapper at best; at worst, a spoiled neurotic whose mental breakdowns were an added strain on her husband's already attenuated spirits. With the rise of feminist criticism, however, Zelda's status was due for a reevaluation. A full-scale biography by Nancy Milford appeared in 1971; but not until now has there been an "official" edition of her writings, edited by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli. "Why do we feel that if he's the real thing, she can't be?" asks novelist and essayist Mary Gordon in her introduction. "Why do we feel as if we can belong to only one of two armed camps, the camp that sees her as a formless, scattershot nothing who made a great writer's last days miserable with her pretensions and demands, or the camp that is sure she wrote his best work, and blames him for her disintegration?" The Fitzgeralds' daughter, Scottie, goes on the record saying that she believes her father generally encouraged her mother's various artistic pursuits: writing, painting, and a quixotic attempt to master ballet at the late age of 27, which led to her physical and emotional collapse. "It was my mother's misfortune to be born with the ability to write, to dance, and to paint, and then never to have acquired the discipline to make her talent work for, rather than against, her," wrote Scottie in an introduct ion to an exhibition catalog of Zelda's paintings in 1974. Ms. Gordon rightly points out the absurdity of feeling forced to "choose" between husband and wife. But the defense/ appreciation she offers of Zelda's art is less than convincing. She is on very shaky ground when she suggests that Zelda's failure to produce coherent work should be viewed in the context of "great revolutionary modernists" like James Joyce. This is not to say that Zelda's writing has nothing but the glamour of Jazz Age legend to recommend it. There is clearly a clever and original mind at work, which this collection gives readers the opportunity to discover. It includes a dozen light articles for popular magazines on topics like "What Became of the Flappers?" and "Who Can Fall in Love after Thirty?"; 11 very Jazz Age short stories, some of which were originally published under her husband's byline, because his name commanded a higher fee; h er irreverent play, "Scandalabra," billed as a "farce fantasy"; and her one completed novel, "Save Me the Waltz," which covers some of the same autobiographical material that F. Scott Fitzgerald used in his novel "Tender Is the Night." The collection concludes with a handful of letters from Zelda to Scott, some written during their courtship, the remainder from the period of her hospitalization after her breakdown in 1930. Rebecca West once said that the much-touted novelties and innovations of the 1920s were little more than a repeat of the "decadent" 1890s. Whether or not this is true, those of us who experienced the 1960s firsthand will, in our turn, find the 1920s strangely familiar. There is certainly an Oscar Wildean flavor about Zelda's work, whether it's the preposterous premise of "Scandalabra a wholesome young couple pretending to be decadent in order to satisfy the prescriptions of a rich uncle's will - or the w itty, arch repartee captured in "Save Me the Waltz." But there are reports about that you two have made a success of your marriage, remarks a shipboard acquaintance of the young couple, Alabama and David Knight, the Fitzgeralds' fictional counterparts. We are going to present it to the Louvre, Alabama corroborates. It's been accepted already by the French government. Written at the time of her breakdown in 1932, "Save Me the Waltz" recounts the story of a rebellious, overly indulged Southern girl called Alabama, who marries a handsome Northerner stationed in her hometown just after World War I. David Knight soon wins fame and fortune as an artist, and the couple are the toast of transatlantic cafe society. But they are living beyond their emotional means. Alabama, like Zelda, tries to give her life focus and discipline by subjecting herself to the grueling regimen of the ballet. In the end, it proves to be her undoing, taking her further away from her husband and little daughter and bringing on a physical and emotional collapse. Zelda Fitzgerald's glittering, frenetic prose style brilliantly conveys the brittle, insouciant elegance of the Jazz Age. Epigrammatic, yet lushly descriptive, witty, yet sometimes confused, occasionally self-indulgent, but remarkably free from self-pity or self-justification, her voice bristles with an arresting blend of nervous energy and taut control: " 'I mean,' he pursued, 'if somebody would come along to remind us about how we felt about things when we felt the way they remind us of, maybe it would refresh us.' " To read "Save Me the Waltz" and other of Zelda Fitzgerald's writings is to revisit a world in which people had a hard time keeping up the pace that they had set for themselves.
Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.