Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

Dear Scott, Sincerely HL

Dear Scott,

I was looking at my calendar and realized I haven’t read anything written by you or about you since December of last year.  Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have if my reading group facilitator hadn’t chosen The Great Gatsby as the July selection.

So yes, I finally read The Great Gatsby, and I must say a better title would have been Gatsby’s Folly.  My critique is probably going to sound quite harsh when I say I didn’t find anything particularly great about the character of Jay Gatsby or the story in general.  Certainly nothing new or exciting.  While Gatsby is heralded as your most successful novel, it was more of the same themes you wrote about repeatedly in many of your other works.

For this reason, my opinion of your writing hasn’t changed.  If you’re interested to know what those opinions are, because we’ve never discussed them in our correspondence, you may read them.  (Under the Influence & F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories)  If your agent and editor were alive today, they should be fired for letting you get away with this.  Then again, kudos for convincing them and the public that they were reading new material.  Well played, I suppose, but really Scott, you had such potential and could have done better.

Some minor issues I have with the novel include your pet word problem (in this book it was violent), the ridiculous names you assign your characters, the clichéd racist comments and characters, and your overuse of –ly adverbs.  Perhaps the prohibition on –ly adverbs being taught to writers today would surprise you, and we might actually find ourselves on the same side in regards to the issue.

Another way Gatsby is no different from your other works is that right on cue you presented characters that attended Princeton, Yale, or Harvard, played football, were “old money” or “new money,” and pursued the “top girl.”  All things you wanted for yourself.  Quit writing so much of yourself into your novels and short stories.  It comes across like a pathetic, autobiographical cry for help.

To write novels that are supposedly commentaries on the 1920s yet accept no responsibility for the debauchery that took place is imprudent.  You weren’t an innocent bystander, Scott; rather you were a major contributor to the post-war era of exploring new freedoms and sexuality.  We both know if you could have obtained the wealth and power that would have made you equal in the minds of those considered “old money,” you would have jumped at the chance feet first.  If we’re to believe you meant your novels as warnings, then I must ask what kind of person doesn’t heed his own advice?  A fool, I’d say.

On the up side, you may be pleasantly pleased to know that your unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, is being made into a series for television.  Too little, too late, wouldn’t you say?  Still, your name is being kept alive on people’s lips, so at least the fame you always craved is there.

As for the collection of your unpublished short stories, I’d Die for You, I admit that my opinion toward you softened somewhat when I discovered the stories didn’t sell because per Scribner, “Rather than permit changes and sanitising by his contemporary editors, Fitzgerald preferred to let his work remain unpublished, even at a time when he was in great need of money and review attention.”  Finally, you’re standing up for your work and not just trying to turn a quick buck.

But let’s not end on a bitter note, shall we, Scott?  I keep reading your work in the hopes that one piece will redeem you in some fashion if for no other reason than to thumb your nose at Ernest who deserves it.  Besides, I don’t want to keep feeling sorry for you.  I’d like to find a way to extend you some forgiveness for ruining your own career.  With that being said, I’m probably going to buy I’d Die for You.  I fear you shan’t see a penny from the sale.

All my best to Zelda and Scotty.

Sincerely,

HL Gibson

Under the Influence

under-the-influenceAs a follow up to reading F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, I read his biography, Under the Influence, by E. Ray Canterbery and Thomas D. Birch. I assigned myself the goal of learning about the man as an author and a person for research toward a novel I’m working on.

As I suspected, my opinion of him hasn’t changed, and I’m seriously reconsidering the other Fitzgerald commentaries, biographies, and novels I had planned to read to gain a better understanding of him. The role to which he will be assigned in my new novel doesn’t warrant more than what I’ve already completed.

Under the Influence was well-written, highly informative, and laid a large portion of the blame for Fitzgerald’s failure at Zelda’s feet. It is well known now that Zelda suffered from schizophrenia and that her mental illness wreaked havoc upon their marriage. However, one must step back and analyze why Fitzgerald married Zelda in the first place.

Fitzgerald had lost the love of his life, Ginevra King, who represented two of his lifelong ambitions: wealth and power. Zelda, also beautiful and rich, seemed a means to an end where his desires were concerned. Then there was the fact that she was the rebound girl, and everybody knows you don’t fall in love with, let alone marry, the rebound girl. His actions make me question whether he truly loved either woman or was simply satisfying his need for a ‘top girl.’

I don’t blame Fitzgerald for not being able to predict Zelda’s illness, but he could have handled it better once she started displaying signs. Even before she was diagnosed, when she was unable to curb her outlandish conduct, instead of exercising maturity and control, more often than not Fitzgerald would join her in bizarre behavior. The biography presents him as a caring family man, but responsible family men don’t indulge bad actions.

While Zelda was a victim of a condition not of her own choosing, Fitzgerald was a prisoner of a condition of his own making. He alone was responsible for his excessive drinking and all the negative effects it had on his life, his family, and his writing. Throughout his life, Fitzgerald relied on alcohol to bolster his insecure nature, and it cost him both personal and professional relationships as well as reputation among fellow authors.

The biography reinforced my belief that Fitzgerald wrote himself into much, possibly all, of his work. His fictional characters reflect his ambitions, goals, beliefs, failures, and successes. One really doesn’t need to read the autobiographical Crack Up essays to obtain a clear picture of the man. Although I don’t care for his writing, I still find it sad that he squandered his talent chasing the idea of the American Dream, specifically the portion where he was steeped in wealth.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Short StoriesAnyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.

I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.

If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.

Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.

None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.

I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.

Before CK One, There Was Tabac Blond

Vintage Tabac Blond

Vintage Tabac Blond

The year is 1927. John Welles and his two best friends, Sam Feldman and Claude Willoughby, are planning a clandestine night on the town. Their destination is a speakeasy hidden on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. For the young medical students, the night will be both thrilling and disastrous.

Before John slips out for the night, he sneaks a dab of his Aunt Prudence’s perfume. This might seem like an extremely feminine thing to do until you become familiar with the scent he chooses to borrow.

One of my favorite subjects researched for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, was perfume from the early 1900s. It is how I discovered Tabac Blond. The perfume was perfect for Prudence, a rebel-before-her-time class of woman who smokes, and John, by the simple fact that he’s male. Let me explain.

Ernest Daltroff

Ernest Daltroff

Tabac Blond was created in 1919 by perfumer and founder of the house of Caron, Ernest Daltroff. The fragrance was intended for women who smoke cigarettes, the symbol of women’s liberation and Parisian chic. What made Tabac Blond appealing were the leathery top notes, usually found in men’s fragrances, blended with a feminine floral bouquet. The added scents of undried (blond) tobacco leaves and vanilla made it desirable to both men and women.

Many reviewers insist upon a decanting of vintage Tabac Blond complaining that the new version doesn’t present as well. I’ll have to take their word for it as I do not own either and have yet to experience them in real life. It is, however, my goal to do both.

Artwork inspired by Tabac Blond

Artwork inspired by Tabac Blond

If you’re a lover of rich, exotic, glamorous perfume, Tabac Blond may be for you. Don’t let the price tag deter you from your passion. Whether you purchase the new version or a vintage decanting, there will be a small investment. I believe this is testimony to the allure of the fragrance. Be warned, however: wearing Tabac Blond may encourage behavior such as wild dancing, excessive drinking, and dressing like a flapper or F. Scott himself.

Yesterday’s Perfume

Perfume Projects

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