movie: Genius (2016)

I have had a book on my shelf for years called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, sadly. But you know I was thrilled to see this movie come out. Genius is based on the book: it’s about Max Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house, who shepherded the careers of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among many others.

geniusThis movie is about Perkins’s relationship with Thomas Wolfe (although Fitzgerald and Hemingway make brief appearances). I knew almost nothing about Wolfe when I came to the film, and my impressions of Perkins were hazy, based on what I know of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: I understood him to be a decent, humble, kind man, well-suited to handle such stormy personalities and expert at doing so. He is known to be both a very fine editor and a very fine guardian and guide to the difficult men who were his three most famous writers.

These impressions were held up by the film. Perkins (Colin Firth) is quiet and modest and professional. Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is wild: noisy, passionate, emotive. Talented, but unrestrained in several senses. He sought a father and Perkins sought a son, and their relationship is characterized as such. Together they produced Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Wolfe’s lover and patron Aline Bernstein, played by Nicole Kidman, is an especially tragic character. The couple’s threats and fights add pathos and drama to that already provided by Perkins’s conflicts with his own wife (he is perhaps overly committed to his work) and the fiery, explosive talent Wolfe sprays across his life and Perkins’s offices. The acting is great – to be expected from such a cast.

Following closely on my viewing of Papa, I saw parallels. Literary talents can be oh so dramatic, and their lives can be woeful, tragic and (again) dramatic. I enjoyed both movies very much, but I confess they often hit the same emotional notes. This strikes me as accurate; but I can see where a viewer less invested than I am could perhaps get a little weary. These are the risks of loving characters like Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

For fans of these writers, their work and their community, not to be missed. Very fine acting & production and a fine film all around.


Rating: 8 marks.

movie: Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015)

YARI-PAOS-01_27x40_031816.inddI’m afraid I’m quite late in writing this review: it has been at least a month since I saw this movie at a local theatre. I was really hoping for a reprise so I could take Husband to see it, and see it a second time for myself, but no luck. I recall my impressions, though, and will share them here.

The story is that of a young Miami reporter who idolizes Hemingway. In the film he is Ed Myers; in real life he was Denne Bart Peticlerc, who wrote the screenplay. Myers, played by Giovanni Ribisi (who I really like), writes Hemingway an adoring letter which he does not mean to send. His girlfriend sends it on, which results in a phone call from Papa himself, and an invitation to visit the Finca Vigía, the Hemingway home in Havana. A friendship develops between Myers, Hemingway and Hemingway’s 4th wife Mary.

This is also the first U.S./Hollywood filming to take place in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, an interesting factoid and one that should cue us to look closely at setting and extras.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba has been criticized. Some reviewers find it lacking in background introduction to Hemingway’s story (no problem for this viewer, but okay, noted), or poorly acted, or melodramatic. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but I’ll allow that my fascination (not to say obsession) with the subject may have helped.

It is hard to watch Hemingway and Mary fight, and watch Hemingway struggle with depression and mental illness. It is melodramatic; but so, I think, was his life. It was actually rather painful to see it portrayed, but I do think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal. There were some hilarious as well as pathos-ridden, and very apt, scenes involving Hemingway’s performances in life–because his life was a performance–and Myers’s obvious discomfort. I was occasionally uncomfortable, too. I think Hemingway had that effect on people.

Adrian Sparks plays Papa, rather uncannily, I’d say.

The backdrop was most interesting, especially when I think about how filming took place. There were a few wide-angle shots of streets filled with gleaming, colorful 1950’s American cars: I imagine it took a little looking to find such mint-condition specimens (shot in 2014 but to match a late-50’s setting), but of course these are the cars still largely piloting Havana today. I wondered about the extras, such as musicians playing in bars. How were they hired? How did they approach this project? What a weird, meta-meditation on the persistent issues with U.S.-Cuban relations today. All of which does belong in any story about Hemingway.

In a nod to the Chicago Sun-Times review linked above, I will recommend this movie to viewers with a certain familiarity with the Hemingway story. And be prepared for sad, disturbing scenes. But the one presupposes the other: Hemingway’s life was indeed filled with scenes like these.


Rating: 7 skinny dips.

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

This study of the creation of The Sun Also Rises illuminates both the compelling story and Hemingway’s complex and not entirely likable personality and behavior.

everybody behaves badly

Many books have been written about Hemingway, but it seems there is still more to be learned. Lesley M.M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly zooms in on the creation of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel and the one that firmly established his reputations, literary and otherwise. As her subtitle promises, Blume seeks the true story: in this case, the real men and women whose lives inspired Hemingway’s fiction, which some claimed was not really fiction at all.

Everybody Behaves Badly is not a biography of Hemingway; it skips his childhood to open with his marriage to Hadley Richardson, and the couple’s move to Paris in pursuit of cheap living and a storied expat community. Blume portrays a devilishly charismatic young writer, ambitious and confident, who easily collected mentors and admirers. She follows that young writer to Pamplona with a group of friends in 1925, and through the weeks after in which he wrote feverishly. Unflatteringly immortalized, one of the people Hemingway transformed into a character spoke of lives divided into B.S. and A.S.: before Sun, and after. Blume’s study concludes as Hemingway’s career expands, his first marriage ends and his second begins.

A biography of a novel, then, Everybody Behaves Badly is itself an engrossing and varied tale: raucous and dissipated, pitiable and serious. Blume’s research offers new detail to a well-studied story, and her narrative style is as entertaining as the original. Obviously required for Hemingway fans, this engaging work of nonfiction will also please a broad audience.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 slight changes.

book beginnings on Friday: Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

book beginnings

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Guess what brought me to this one. It’s been a while since I read The Sun Also Rises (first discovered in Mrs. Smith’s English class in high school, which began my Hemingway admiration). I wonder if I’ll find time for a reread…

everybody behaves badly

I think these opening lines set the scene nicely – or the atmosphere of Hemingway’s life and fame, if you will.

In March 1934, Vanity Fair ran a mischievous editorial: a page of Ernest Hemingway paper dolls, featuring cutouts of various famous Hemingway personas. On display: Hemingway as a toreador, clinging to a severed bull’s head; Hemingway as a brooding, café-dwelling writer (four wine bottles adorn his table, and a waiter is seen toting three more in his direction); Hemingway as a bloodied war veteran.

I wonder how much that page of paper dolls would be worth now!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Portrait of Hemingway by Lillian Ross

Portrait of HemingwayLillian Ross originally wrote her ‘Profile’ of Ernest Hemingway for The New Yorker, where it was published on May 13, 1950. In book form, it becomes a ‘Portrait,’ and other than the addition of a delightful preface, I’m not sure what the difference is; the opening pages of my first edition note that Portrait originated as Profile, but there is no indication that the text of both is not the same.

The dust cover offers context.

When Miss Ross wrote this Profile, she made several literary innovations, one of which was to compose a portrait entirely in terms of action… She attempted to put down only what she had seen and heard, and not to comment on the facts or express any opinions or pass any judgments… In her writing for The New Yorker she has raised this severely objective method to an art.

We’ll examine that premise shortly.

The Portrait runs 42 pages: long for a magazine article, but perfectly lovely as a brief glimpse in this format. Let me start where the book does, though. I date the preface to 1961: that is the publication date of this first edition printing; the preface does refer to the reception to her Profile in the magazine, and it refers to Hemingway’s death of July 2 of that year. In it, Ross explains how she got to know Ernest Hemingway and his fourth and final wife, Mary, how they corresponded with each other as friends, and how the profile came about: on a brief stay in New York City on his way to Italy, Hemingway invited Ross to come and hang around with him on various errands, over the course of three days. She wrote up those experiences, and gave Mr. and Mrs. H. the chance to mark up her manuscript before she submitted it. She then describes the responses to her profile. Most readers loved it, she said, but some “reacted violently, and in a very complicated fashion.” Some of these disliked Hemingway’s personality (not an uncommon reaction to the man) and thought the piece backed up their views. Others didn’t like the man as represented in the piece (also understandable), and thought “either Hemingway had not been portrayed as he was or, if he was that way, [Ross] shouldn’t have written about him at all.” She assumes that Hemingway’s death has corrected some of these disapproving interpretations, which I found a little odd, but no matter. Finally, she continues the work of profiling Hem by describing the kind of letter-writer and friend he was. The preface introduces the profile nicely because it gives context to the relationship between writer and character.

And the profile (portrait) itself is indeed wonderful, and as promised, follows Hemingway closely: from arriving at the airport, to the airport bar, to the hotel, where the Hemingways order up caviar, champagne and Marlene Dietrich, who visits with photos and stories of her grandbaby. Then it is late in the next morning, and Ross is awakened by an antsy Hemingway who demands she come over and listen to him talk; more champagne, and she accompanies him on his errands while Mary goes on hers. They buy Papa a coat and other small items at Abercrombie & Fitch. The next morning again, Patrick (the middle Hemingway son) has joined the party, which goes to the Met to “look at pictures” for a few hours, followed by lunch back at the hotel with Charles Scribner (Hemingway’s longtime editor). The story ends mid-lunch.

Ross relates this series of anecdotes as scenes, blow by blow, in real time. It is true, as promised, that this is a portrait “in terms of action,” but I wouldn’t call it “severely objective.” For starters, there is the question of what you put in and what you leave out – because obviously Ross didn’t report every cough and sigh and rustle of a pant leg that took place in three days. She writes, “Patrick told me that he’d just as soon spend the whole day looking at pictures.” And a couple of pages later, Hem gets tired and asks Patrick, “don’t you think two hours is a long time looking at pictures?” and “everybody agreed” and the party moved on. Choosing to put in these contradicting statements says a lot about both Hem and Patrick, and I don’t believe for a moment that that was a mistake.

Too, word choice is always telling, I think. In the nature of this excellent piece my mother sent me the other day, consider the sentence: “He moved in and took the room.” Who can objectively say that Hemingway took the room? No, Lillian Ross is communicating something outside of objectively observable events here. I’m not saying I don’t like it: I do, in fact, very much. But I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to claim that the author is not present in her work – here, or ever.

That’s just a quibble with the dust jacket, though. This vignette is packed with great representative moments. I’ve already shared a few (here, here). Or how about this for a Hemingway speech:

…I was ashamed because I had not written any novels. So I wrote ‘The Sun’ when I was twenty-seven, and I wrote it in six weeks, starting on my birthday, July 21st, in Valencia, and finishing it September 6th, in Paris. But it was really lousy and the rewriting took nearly five months. Maybe that will encourage young writers so they won’t have to go get advice from their psycholoanalysts. Analyst once wrote me, What did I learn from psychoanalysts? I answered, Very little but hope they had learned as much as they were able to understand from my published works. You never saw a counter-puncher who was punchy. Never lead against a hitter unless you can outhit him. Crowd a boxer, and take everything he has, to get inside. Duck a swing. Block a hook. And counter a jab with everything you own. Papa’s delivery of hard-learned facts of life.

Seriously, he’s sort of simultaneously a genius and a walking cariacature. I understand perfectly why those readers thought Ross was making fun of Hemingway; this kind of speech reads that way. I also believe he spoke it. And I like him even while recognizing that he was a blowhard, could be a jerk, and struggled to contain his overcompensating machismo. But I get why others don’t. This is sort of in line with that post I wrote.

I had a wonderfully fun time reading the essence of Hemingway in this perfectly pitched profile. Very enjoyable, and a quirky piece of journalism. Do look it up.


Rating: 8 glasses of champagne.

hemingWay of the Day: bravado in metaphor

It has been far too long since I presented a hemingWay of the Day! Lillian Ross’s Portrait of Hemingway provides good material, though. I just offered a teaser last week, and here we are again.

I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

This is classic: bragging, bravado, hypercompetitive attitude towards writing, all packaged in a boxing metaphor. Oh, Papa.

Teaser Tuesdays: Portrait of Hemingway by Lillian Ross

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I have read some good books lately – wait til you hear about Lily and the Octopus, oh man – but I’m not sure there’s anything as pleasing and comfortable for me as coming back to Hemingway.

Portrait of Hemingway
This profile was originally published in The New Yorker in 1950, and follows the man closely for two days. That’s it: an anecdote in the life. There is also a most interesting preface, but I will leave that for my review. These are the lines I wanted to share with you today.

He always woke at daybreak, he explained, because his eyelids were especially thin and his eyes especially sensitive to light. “I have seen all the sunrises there have been in my life, and that’s half a hundred years,” he said. He had done considerable revision that morning on the manuscript [of Across the River and Into the Trees]. “I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast – talk them or write them down,” he said.

I feel like that sometimes, too. His sentences are better, though.

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