Zelda Fitzgerald's partisans insist that her literary career was thwarted by her husband, Scott. In the 1920s he was her wary mentor, encouraging her to write, but he sold her first stories under his name because it brought a better price. Later they shared the credit for her work, but that left her still a junior partner. When finally she wrote independently about their marriage, notably in her novel Save Me the Waltz, he claimed she was stealing material that was rightly his. Chronic mental illness weakened her case, so her writing received little serious attention until, decades after her death, feminist critics took her up.
Those who know that story may recall Zelda when they read "Envy," a remarkable essay by Kathryn Chetkovich in the current issue of Granta. A writer with one little-known book behind her, Chetkovich has lived for years with Jonathan Franzen. She was with him as he worked on a difficult novel about a troubled family, she was there when finally his narrative began to flow, and she endured (there's no better word for it) the astounding success of The Corrections, two million copies sold in hardcover.
Franzen was frustrated and struggling when they became a couple; she tells us that men in that position attract her. They struggled together for a while, till she realized with dismay that his struggles were leading somewhere and hers were not. He piled up several hundred pages of his novel, while she produced a 15-page story, a short play and part of an inadequate screenplay. As for the quality of his work, "It was, alas, good."
Put plainly, she couldn't bear it. They separated for a while, then reconciled. They appear to be together now, though in Granta she doesn't mention his name (several publications, from the Times Literary Supplement to her hometown Santa Cruz Sentinel, have identified him, as she knew they would).
She tells us that envy infected every corner of their lives. "Maybe it was no coincidence that when I was feeling most outstripped by the man's success and talent ... I responded by withholding from him the gift of myself." And what did that mean? "That if I could not be happy I was ready to make us both miserable ... He had his book to make the world love him, and I had my sex with which to take my revenge."
She's not pleased with herself. She goes so far as to tell us that when the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, briefly eclipsed discussion of The Corrections, she was actually relieved: "That was the place envy had delivered me to." This is one essay that no one will hesitate to call confessional.
While written with persuasive intensity, it carries a faint smell of student work. A reader may feel like the recipient of a private letter written by an exceptionally clever student working on her MFA in creative writing. Chetkovich never sounds like the 45-year-old she is, mainly because she can't yet distance herself from this peculiar (though not unique) literary experience.
She represents an extreme case, but similar feelings must at least nibble at the edge of any two people who write fiction side by side. Two novelists working under the same roof would be less than human if rivalry never touched their relationship. Readers of "Envy" may look with new respect on those fiction writers who dare to live together -- Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding. Non-writers who choose partners in their own profession also run risks, but the intense emotions involved in making fiction (not to mention the shared experiences that may or may not find their way into print) add exceptional dangers.
In the nature of things, one partner usually succeeds more than the other. Or they may succeed at different times, so that literary reputation shifts within the marriage. A famous case involves two writers from Canada, Margaret and Ken Millar, who met as students at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate in Ontario around 1930, married in 1938 and eventually settled down as crime novelists in California. Margaret Millar published first and became a queen of the genre, with 26 books in many languages; that was long before anyone even heard of her husband. In the 1940s the Millar family income was $35,000, of which Ken (to his discomfort) contributed only $5,000.
He wrote under several names, with indifferent success. Finally, after choosing one pen name, Ross Macdonald, and one hero, Lew Archer, he began stretching the detective novel to accommodate the sensitive and personal material of literary fiction. Finally, he was recognized.
In 1969 William Goldman, reviewing The Goodbye Look on the front of the New York Times book section, called the Archer novels "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." Between that point and the onset of Alzheimer's disease in 1980, Macdonald could read discussions of himself as a major figure in American fiction, comparable to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, perhaps superior to both (an opinion now heard less often).
Meanwhile, Margaret Millar, once considered "doyenne of the genre," later named a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America, found herself the second most important writer in their family. As Tom Nolan wrote four years ago in Ross Macdonald: A Biography, "The question of Margaret's career was a somewhat delicate one, with her once ascendant star now standing still while her husband's soared." When the phone rang, it was now an offer for Ken, not Margaret. They had always been fierce marital combatants, and this provided fresh fodder for arguments. On the subject of his success, she grew surly. Soon she stopped writing and began remarking that she had had her say.
As for Kathryn Chetkovich, she sometimes feels she's adjusting, getting over it all. "But who am I kidding? ... When I step into a bookstore and see that stack on the new-book table, I can sometimes feel my heart rattling the bars of its cage." She acknowledges that she has encountered circumstances that are larger than her capacity to be gracious. "I have come up against the limits of my goodness." What to do? "I might as well work."
Meanwhile, she declines to answer journalists' questions about her essay. Believe it or not, she now says she values her privacy.