Archive for October 17, 2010

“From the day I first saw him, I never stopped waiting. And enduring, for him, with him, against him”

October 17, 2010 5 comments

Alabama Song by Gilles Leroy, read by Fanny Ardant.

At the library, the idea of spending 90 minutes listening to Fanny Ardant’s mesmerizing voice was a pull strong enough to retrieve the CD of Alabama Song from the rack and borrow it. Back home, I realized it was not the entire book but excerpts and I was disappointed. But it was Fanny Ardant and she was worth an abridged text.

Alabama Song is a first person narrative, in which Zelda, Scott Fitzgerald’s wife relates her life.

Some people hide to steal, to kill, to betray, to love, to come. I had to hide to write. I was only 20 when I fell under the influence – the spell – of a man who was barely older than me, who wanted to determine my life and went about it in the wrong way.”  

Fanny Ardant’s voice filled the room. 1940. Zelda is in a mental hospital. She’s talking to a “doctor”. She explains who she is, what her life has been. Sentence after sentence, she gives her version of her life. She starts in 1918, when she meets Scott Fitzgerald in Montgomery, Alabama. He is beautiful, graceful, delicate, Yankee. Definitely different from her local suitors.

 “The Yankee lieutenant, like I said, has no sweat. He only smells clean, a good smell of new and fine clothes. This man is a plant, one would think, rain on his skin is like a sentimental dew”

The narrative shifts back and forth from memories to present time. She’s telling her life to doctors who always change, she calls one of them “a child”.  It’s not a biography, it’s a novel. Part of the story is real. Part of it is made up. I didn’t search in Scott Fitzgerald’s biography to know which were the invented parts. I didn’t search because it doesn’t matter that Fitzgerald is her last name. This is the story of a free woman born in 1900, a wrong time for a woman to be liberated. That’s why I shall call them Scott and Zelda. They could be anyone.

Is she insane ? One of the doctors points out inconsistencies in her speech. We can’t know, there is no other point of view on the events. She sounds perfectly sane. She describes her poisonous relationship with Scott, how they are symbiotic beings, with a perfect clarity. They need each other to feel alive. She depicts love, fame, alcohol, jealousy, violence. First Scott smothered her with kisses and attention and then, as love vanished, just smothered her. Her family disapproved of her wedding, she married him anayway, without their attending the ceremony. She turned her back to Alabama, to herself.

Zelda is an independent mind who has been restrained by male domination, first by an uptight father, then by a vampirizing husband. He sucked the life out of her. Imprisoned minds escape. That’s what common people and embarrassed husbands call insanity or nervous breakdowns. I thought of Camille Claudel, oppressed by Rodin and her brother Paul. It reminded me of Sylvia Plath and her novel The Bell Jar. They wanted to create. They had to live in the shadow of their lover.

They needed to get married to leave their parent’s house. Zelda says “ If I were a man – if I weren’t bound as a woman to go through it to have a place in society – if I were a guy, I wouldn’t get married”  But getting married meant to free from a father to be attached to a husband. Society expected her to be a wife, a mother and nothing else.  

Zelda’s voice is magnetic through Fanny Ardant’s vocal cords. Her throaty voice is so well matched to Zelda’s broken voice. For she must have had a broken voice: a physical voice damaged by cigarettes and alcohol and a mental voice smashed by her unhealthy relationship with Scott.

This novel got Gilles Leroy the Prix Goncourt in 2007. This could reconcile me with reading literary prize winning books. He writes well, short, imaged, sensual and powerful sentences. His prose is wonderfully served by Fanny Ardant’s reading. 

It is a strange thing to be in your kitchen, pealing and slicing vegetables, preparing apple crêpes in a peaceful domestic bliss and at the same time to hear a woman tell her violent life and its terrifying intimate details. I felt double, one me, guided by an automatic pilot, was making dinner; the other me was there, with her, in this hospital. I was totally absorbed by this story and I think it’s worth reading. 

 PS : I borrowed the book afterwards. The text on the CD is not as abridged as I feared.

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