Friday, June 24, 2016

Two Geniuses

The movie, Genius, which we saw tonight, refers in its title to the writer Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. His other two novels, The Web and the Rock, and You Can't Go Home Again, were published posthumously. I haven't read any of them. The movie has made me intent on reading Wolfe, though, although I'm not yet sure which novel it will be.

Wolfe wrote long, very long. The movie is about how a great literary editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, recognized Wolfe's genius--he had previously discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway--and in a torturous process taking months and then years, edited Wolfe's more-than-1000-page products to more accommodating 600+ pages each. They got great reviews and the second novel was a best seller.

The movie depicts Wolfe's tumultuous, regrettably short life and focuses mostly on his relationship with Perkins, who had five daughters and was a rather strait-laced Puritan type who commuted to New Canaan, Conn. Much controversy still exists over whether Perkins's editing did Wolfe justice. Wolfe himself did abandon Perkins, apparently resenting the frequent attribution of credit to the editor. The prolific late literary scholar, Matthew Bruccoli, brought out the unedited version of Look Homeward, Angel in 2000, claiming that it better presented Wolfe's true genius.

Whether Perkins was Wolfe's savior or weakened his style, Wolfe doubtless suffered more from his posthumous editor, Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers, to whom Wolfe delivered his last two novels before dying at Johns Hopkins in 1938. Aswell, it now appears from more recent scholarship, savaged Wolfe's very rough drafts and worse, inserted much of his own text into the novels. Wolfe's work has declined in popularity, it has been noted, although in 1958, Look Homeward, Angel was adapted for Broadway and played 564 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

All this aside, the movie is terrific. Colin Firth captures Perkins's personality as Jude Law does Wolfe's. The actresses Nicole Kidman as Wolfe's lover, Aline Bernstein, and Laura Linney as Perkins's wife, also add to the delight of the picture. Much of it was shot in Britain--in Manchester and at Pinewood and Shepperton, the two huge British movie factories. While the film does show the real train gates at Grand Central, incidentally, when they proceed past them to the platform, they are showing us, it would appear, some British train shed, perhaps Manchester's, but not the real inside of Grand Central's platforms. Just a train buff talking.

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