Monday, July 01, 2019

Burning Bright

Just wrapped up Pyre!


I enjoyed it a lot. Let's do a quick run-down.

MEGA SPOILERS

The Good


The characters. I really loved how varied they were, how distinct their voices were, their relations with one another.  You naturally make favorites along the way, which adds to the tension of some choices you have to make, but all of them are appealing in their own way.


Reactivity. It's really pretty astonishing how many permutations the game can go through, based on who stays and who leaves, and everything is coherent and makes sense. This is expressed in some really remarkable ways, too, with my favorite probably being how the lyrics of the final song that plays over the credits change to reflect what happened in your game.


Character creation. Unlike Bastion and Transistor, which had defined and detailed protagonists, Pyre lets you create your own Reader. You can select your gender, your background, your motivations. This is done in a really natural dialogue-driven way as the game unfolds, not on a standalone screen prior to the start. There aren't any visual changes associated with it, but the game honors your selections and it subtly affects the later dialogue.


Romance. Okay, "Romance" is way too strong a word for what this game has; "emotional connections" might be better. There's nothing near the depth or intensity you'd find in a BioWare game or similar. But the range of feelings and relations are really remarkable. As is my wont, I pursued a "Romance All The Things" path, clicking every dialogue option available to express interest in my fellow exiles. And... it's complicated! Jodariel acknowledges your interest and gently makes it clear that she does not reciprocate. Sandra becomes increasingly standoffish as you show interest, and in my case our relationship culminated in a really interesting state that kind of reminded me of my beloved Digital: A Love Story.


Music. I almost forgot to include this, just because I now take it for granted with a Supergiant game! It's really wonderful. As with Transistor, the vocals are especially well-done, both on their own terms and how they're presented in-game, with every voice tied to a specific character.


Art. Again, it's Supergiant so I'm not surprised that it's wonderful. It's a real treat to see how they change and evolve from game to game; the high tech Art Deco of Transistor looks nothing like the storybook cartoonish drawings here, except that they both look fantastic.


Environments. Particularly within the Blackwagon, I was amazed at the sheer quantity of interactable items that you automatically collect over the course of the game and how great they all looked together.


The Mixed


Non-failing defeat. The game really emphasizes that losing a match does not end the game, and that the story will continue, with different consequences, if you lose a regular or liberation Rite. I really appreciate all the work that must have gone into that, but I'm hard-wired to win all my battles in RPGs, so I would invariably reload as soon as my opponents won a match. That's on me! Not the game! But it still wasn't fun.


Themes. More specifically, my confusion over whether the game really has any themes; it probably does, but at the end of the game I was left uncertain whether we were meant to believe that the Rites were valuable, whether it was a noble tradition or not. There's constant talk of the enlightenment one receives from participating in them, and I'm not sure how to square that with the talk of injustice in exiling in the first place.


Talismans. On the one hand, they were really cool, with unique abilities that can drastically change your strategies, or just linearly boost your primary statistics. On the other hand, it felt incredibly limiting to just have a single slot, and I only used a tiny fraction of them over the game.


Economy. The gameplay is a basketball sports game, but everything else about it feels like an RPG, and that includes the frustrating economy. I found myself falling into the trap I do in every RPG: hoarding too many items, not spending money, saving consumables for "later" and never using them. That's on me, for the most part, but I have a particularly fierce love for the rare RPGs that get economies right, and this game didn't rise to that.


The Not-So-Great


Gameplay. I was kind of surprised at how much I was enjoying the Rites early on, but I became less enthusiastic as the game progressed. It's always frustrating when you're trying to do something and it isn't happening; in my case, that was usually me angling into my opponents' pyre from the side or behind, only to run past it and get banished before I could plunge in.


Difficulty. Closely linked to the above; I was playing the game on Normal and enjoying it a lot, and activating each Titan Star as it came online, but beyond a certain point I just stopped being able to do anything against my opponents, who can instantly pass and toss and move more quickly than I. I deactivated the stars, then dropped the difficulty to Normal. Again, this wasn't necessary - the game is designed to let you finish it if you don't win all the time - but I still selfishly resented not being great at the game.


END SPOILERS

I did have a lot of fun playing this, but I doubt I'll return; it does sound like there's a lot of replay potential with the different team configurations and choices you can make, and some really major choices at the end, but the actual matches ended up feeling more like chores to me so I'll likely pass. That said, Pyre does reinforce my impression of the many, many things Supergiant does well, and I'm looking forward to playing Hades and whatever other games they have in the future. To their credit, they dramatically change each game: completely new styles, new mechanics, new stories. It's inevitable that I'd end up enjoying some more than others. Transistor remains the first in my heart, but I'm sure there are many people who will find Pyre the superior of the two games.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Non Stop

I'm addicted!



I got to see Hamilton again this week. This is the third cast that I've seen, and I still enjoy the show dearly: by now I don't think there are many elements that I haven't picked up on before, so I focus more on the individual performances, how each actor's portrayal adds to or changes my impression of a character and the overall show.

This is the new "And Peggy" touring company, which played a series of shows in Puerto Rico to help fund reconstruction from Hurricane Maria and is now focused on a long-term sit-down performance in San Francisco; unlike the first national tour's opening in San Francisco, the next city hasn't been announced yet, so they may continue extending their engagement here while demand remains high. Based on the enthusiasm I've seen for the show and the strength of this performance, I think they may remain for a while yet; there probably isn't the population here to support a run as long as Chicago's, but then again, folks are willing to travel to see the show. I chatted with a family of four who had driven up from San Diego primarily to catch the performance, and talked about how this was the only music all of them could enjoy listening to at the same time in the car.

My literal perspective on the show was different, too. I'd previously seen the first national tour from the center rear of the orchestra and the center front row of the loge, and the Chicago performance from the balcony. This time, I scored tickets in the "F" row, close to the stage right side but only six rows back. It was really cool to be able to see all the facial expressions of the actors in great detail, which adds a great dimension to many encounters; Alexander in particular will often pull a face or perform a little celebration at the end of a conversation. The tradeoff was that I couldn't see the actual floor of the stage and so the turntables were invisible, but of course you can still see their effect; as a result, a lot of the movement seemed more subtle, or else had more of a floating effect.

I mostly want to talk about the actors, so let's do that!

Every cast has a very different Hamilton. Julius Thomas, to me, seemed very relational: You really feel his deep affection for his friends, his love for Eliza, his devotion to Washington. With Michael Luwoye, I kind of felt like Hamilton was sacrificing everything to feed his ambition; not in a manipulative way, but no single relationship was more important to him than achieving his ideal of greatness. With Julius, I felt like it was more reversed: it's his devotion to his newfound friends that thrusts him into the revolutionary cause, his admiration of Washington that convinces him to pursue government. Julius's Hamilton is really appealing as a result, someone I like and don't just admire.

Donald Webber as Burr was amazing, a buttery singer and smooth mover and talker. I should probably stop writing "This actor was good at singing and everything" since that's true for everyone! I felt like this Burr was a little more... hollow, I guess, in a way that was really interesting. It's like he puts up this smooth and charming facade to hide that he doesn't have much going on inside. He emphasized the "Smile More" aspect of Burr, while the other actors I've seen put more focus on "Talk Less"; their Burrs are subtle observers who want to avoid attention, while Webber's Burr is a pleasant participant who skims along the surface and avoids deep entanglements.

The night I went, Morgan Anita Wood was the substitute for Eliza, and I thought she was great. The more I watch this show, the more I feel like Eliza might be the hardest role: as a character she's introverted and deferential, and she doesn't get as many opportunities as Burr to sing to the audience about what's going on inside her mind. She was played with a lot of vulnerability and sweetness, truly helpless under Hamilton's gaze.

As a side note, I think this was the first performance of the show I've seen where the three Schuyler actresses looked like they really could be sisters. I don't think that's at all necessary, obviously; a big part of the show's vision is its reinterpretation of historical people. But I thought that did add a fun visual element to the show, to have a more feasible resemblance among the sisters.

Sabrina Sloan as Angelica was a very different take on the role. I think the other Angelicas I've seen have emphasized the intelligence and independence; they feel emotion, but keep it buried deep. This Angelica does a poorer job at hiding her attraction to Alexander, which was awesome to see: it adds more dramatic tension to his relationship with Eliza, and it was really interesting to see Angelica as a more vulnerable woman with deep longings.

Rounding out the trio, Darilyn Castillo was an almost opposite Peggy/Maria to the one in the first national tour. That Peggy was bold and sassy, while this one is bubbly and sweet: much more the archetypal youngest sister, she's wide-eyed at the world around her and nervous but enthusiastic about participating in it. Likewise, the previous portrayals of Maria had seemed deliberately inscrutable: more sexy, and I was left unsure whether she (the character) was a good actress scamming Hamilton or a desperate woman putting up a strong facade. With Darilyn, though, I didn't doubt that Maria was scared, and needy, and in anguish over the course her life was taken.

(Lots has already been written about this, but the musical's handling of Hamilton's affair really impresses me. It would have been so easy to say "Our hero has been tricked by this wiley woman, what a poor victim he is!" The show doesn't let Hamilton off the hook: it shows the reasons why he did what he did, while making it clear that those reasons don't excuse his action. It really forces the audience to steep in the uncomfortable consequences and avoids giving him a pass.)

One returning face for me was Ruben Carbajal, who reprises his Laurens/Philip role from the first national tour. He was great! Out of all the shows I've seen, this was definitely the best at portraying the unique Hamilton/Laurens relationship; I was looking for it in all of the live performances, and this was the first time I really saw it. I think that's partly because the two actors have great chemistry, and it certainly helps that Ruben has had so many years to hone and perfect the role. His Philip is heartbreaking and sweet, and honestly this was a better physical matchup with Julius than with Luwoye, which visually was kind of funny since that Philip loomed over his dad.

Simon Longnight was also the best Lafayette/Jefferson I've seen yet. Listening to the soundtrack, I thought of this primarily as a role that demanded a fast and talented rapper, but I now think that it demands charisma even more, and Longnight has both in spades. He has a great presence as the Marquis in the first act, and really comes alive as Jefferson, from his splendid entrance through all his comedic business with Madison and his bottled scorn for Burr and his chagrined admiration for Hamilton. Internally, you also get a great sense for the forces driving him; I've previously thought of Jefferson as a dilettante, a guy who enjoys playing the game but doesn't really have any skin in it, but this Jefferson really does care about his home state and his way of life and believes he is battling for a worthy cause.

My visceral favorite character in the show might have been Hercules Mulligan, which is always a fun role but who Brandon Louis Armstrong knocked particularly far out of the park. This version felt especially profane and was a delight to watch, bobbing and bouncing and thrusting, carrying his beat with him wherever he went. (Yet another side note: While the overall lyrics are identical in every performance, there are some vocalizations that vary. In "Right Hand Man," I expect Mulligan to say "B'rah!" in response to Hamilton's statements; here, Armstrong says "Uh!" instead. Very different, and really perfect for this character, who feels simple and direct and fun.) And, like the other Mulligans I've seen, Armstrong manages a complete transformation into Madison in the second act. This version emphasizes the side-kick relationship with Jefferson, which is a fun dynamic; in the first national touring show, Madison almost seemed to outshine Jefferson, and the Chicago version seemed like a toady, so it was great to see yet another possible relationship here.

I'd been looking forward to seeing Isaiah Johnson again. Along with Ruben, he was the other returning actor from the first national tour, and might have been my favorite performer of that cast (alongside Emmy Raver-Lampman). Unfortunately, he was out the night I attended, but his substitute Vincent Jamal Hooper was fantastic. His Washington was more human-sized than the others I've seen; you get the sense of his fear of inadequacy, that he won't be able to accomplish what he needs to do and everything weighing on it. In this show I felt like the Hamilton/Washington relationship was more one of peers, where each man needed what the other offered, than the father/son vibe of other shows. Again, the physical aspect of the actors may have played a part in my impression; I think that in all of the other productions I've seen, Washington has towered over Hamilton, while here they have more similar builds and see eye to eye.

Finally, Rick Negron as King George was a much scarier and more menacing presence than Rory O'Malley had been. Rory's George was mostly comic relief, very expressive and goofy. Negron, though, feels coiled and compressed, dangerous, like an animal about to strike. It's still funny, especially in the later songs, but here the humor cuts the menace rather than the other way around.

Visually, I thought that the ensemble was a lot more varied than before; I'd remarked earlier, how I felt like I was seeing doppelgangers for Betsy Stuxness, Carleigh Bettiol, Thayne Jasperson, and other members of the original Broadway cast. Here, I'm sure the tracks are the same, but the body types and coloring seemed distinct. But I did notice upon reviewing the performance credits that there were quite a few substitutions in the ensemble, so I'm not sure if that's always the case for this cast.

So yeah, I had a great time! When I first saw Hamilton I was mostly concerned about whether the live performance could live up to my sky-high expectations from the original Broadway cast recording. Now, though, I'm going into these shows most interested in seeing all the ways the different casts can pull it off: fresh spins on each character, different moods being projected, reinterpreting their relationships and dynamics. I know this is a big part of what theater is all about, but I'm still astonished at the incredible range of variations you can get while still keeping every word the same. Honestly, I doubt that this will be the last time I see the show, and I think the material is so strong that it will provide even more opportunities for future casts to discover new gems inside.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Midnight Chili

I'm continually revising my impression of Roberto Bolaño. For years I was under the misapprehension that he had only written two novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, along with a lot of poetry. I thought the books were brilliant and a sort of lost opportunity, that his relatively early death had deprived the world of a long literary career. Much later I belatedly realized that he had actually written quite a lot of prose, it just took a while for it all to be translated into English. Now I'm more impressed at just how varied his books are: there are some common themes connecting them, but their structures are radically different. It kind of feels like he was starting from scratch each time, coming up with a new way of writing and inventing fresh challenges with every book.



This was further reinforced with By Night in Chile, a relatively slim book with probably the most obvious stylistic choice. The book is 120 pages and a single paragraph long - well, technically one paragraph that's 120 pages and then a second paragraph that's a single sentence. It's written in a stream of consciousness style. The narrator is Father Urrutia, a priest and literary critic on his deathbed, reflecting back on his life. Many years have passed and his memory may be failing, and he'll often admit that he can't remember certain details: who he was talking with on a certain day, or whether one incident preceded or followed another. He generally advances the story chronologically, but periodically jumps back to provide more context or forward to show how something ended, and often will digress to give his opinion on something.

I was strongly reminded of Joyce while reading this, which isn't an association I've made with any of Bolaño's other books.  One interesting difference though, is that with Joyce you generally become fonder of a character as you spend more time with their thoughts, understanding their motivations and thought processes. In By Night In Chile, though, the opposite effect occurs, as Urrutia becomes even less sympathetic as you hear more and more from him.

MINI SPOILERS

Urrutia is a mildly pathetic character from early on: he always seems out of place, awkwardly moving around in a large cassock, often tongue-tied. He seems ill-suited for his role; he fawns after people who are more famous than him, and betrays an unease bordering on contempt for common folk. Even they, in turn, seem to look down on him, trying to show respect for his office while not being able to take him quite seriously, accidentally calling him "Son" rather than "Father".

His position in the clergy gives him some standing and amount of respect, but he doesn't appear to have any religious feeling; he opines on culture and society and literature, but never has anything to say about faith or God or virtue. It seems strange that he's a priest at all, but that may have more to do with my unfamiliarity with the culture than anything intrinsic to the story.

Besides the formal structure of the story, this novel also seems unusual in that it's set in Chile. I have a very surface-level understanding of Bolaño's biography, but from what I know, he was a socialist Chilean who was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime and lived in exile for the rest of his life after his release. All of his previous novels that I've read have been set in other areas where Bolaño spent significant time: Mexico, Spain, other Latin American countries; Nazi Literature In The Americas may have had a chapter or two in Chile, but overall I think this is the first thing of his I've read that focuses on the country, which is an interesting lacuna in his overall bibliography.

Anyways, that's something that sort of touched off my radar that we aren't meant to be too enamored of Urrutia. Particularly in the later part of the book, it becomes clear that Urrutia sympathizes with the fascist movement that will propel Pinochet into power and support his reign. He doesn't seem especially ideological, but is most comfortable moving in those circles.

MEGA SPOILERS

While I started off this book thinking of Joyce, by the end I was more reminded of Nabokov's Pale Fire, another book where we follow the thoughts of a pretty unlikable person. In particular, there are some really odd incidents and scenes Urrutia recounts that... I mean, this book is fiction, so they totally could have happened within the book, but they seem so odd that I am left wondering if they did happen, even within the text.

I started feeling this way around the time Urrutia meets up with Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef. The cloak-and-dagger recruitment and mission were intriguing, and I was curious if he was being used as a courier or something. But... the mission he goes on is so deeply, deeply weird, basically just traveling to old European cathedrals and observing falcons being used to kill the pigeons who have been pooping on the churches. That's it. I guess he writes some reports. But... why? Who is funding this? What purpose does he serve? Maybe that was part of Mr. Etah's initial conversation in the coffee shop, which Urrutia tuned out. Maybe the junta was somehow testing Urrutia to see if he was amenable to their influence, but again, I fail to see how he could be useful to them.

So, what was going on? I realized much later that the names themselves were suspect: "Etah" is "Hate" spelled backwards, and "Raef" was "Fear" reversed. Those seem like ridiculous, invented names. (I'm now curious what those characters were called in the original Spanish.) If Urrutia is concerned about his legacy and accusations against him, he might be trying to spin together some alibi, giving an innocuous account of his time traveling in Europe to conceal a more sinister mission. Or... much like Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, maybe he's just imagining this and inventing it all. Though he does make a point of commenting that he posted his newspaper columns from abroad during this time, so... I just don't know! It's very odd.

It gets even odder, though. Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef reappear after the putsch and recruit Urrutia to instruct Pinochet and his top generals on Marxist theory. Which... what? Why? The idea of this dictator sitting in a classroom, doing assigned reading from this mumbling priest, debating Marx, is just absurd.

I feel like Farewell sort of draws a line under that when Urrutia confesses with him. That scene is a little hard to parse - what exactly is Farewell thinking? - but to me, it sounded like he was extremely skeptical and suspicious of Urrutia. Taken from the outside, though, what happens is that Urrutia makes a ridiculous claim, Farewell challenges him to provide details, Urrutia cannot, Farewell asks him again, Urrutia cannot, Farewell presses him more, then all of a sudden Urrutia gives this big and detailed story. Which, maybe you can say that Urrutia was just nervous or whatever, but to me it seems like he was lying: stalling for time, then coming up with a story.

Which, if it's true, is pathetic, but maybe in a weird way kind of endearing? Like, you get the sense that Urrutia is a failed artist: he's a critic who wants to be recognized but cannot produce great work himself. But he is (maybe) telling stories here, inventing something out of his life. It's self-aggrandizing, sure, making himself out to be connected to important people. But it's still a form of artistic creation, which, at the absolute minimum, is better than actually supporting fascism.

END SPOILERS

So, yeah. I'm left with a lot of questions - I suspect there are a lot of things in there that I may have overlooked, so I'll likely do some additional reading and see if there are theories about What It All Means. Then again, it would be very much in keeping with Bolaño's corpus for there to be ambiguity left in. With all the variations in his style and settings and stories, I feel like the most constant thing in his work is an absence, a sort of unnamed and unseen presence that lurks at the heart of his novels, and that might be the case here as well. I'm not sure if I'll ever know exactly who Father Urrutia was, but I won't forget him soon.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

He's Literally On Fire

I've continued to amble through my Steam backlog, making some gradual progress. I abandoned my second playthrough of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I was having a lot of fun, playing as a Malkavian with the Clan Quest Mod it felt like a new game. I eventually ran into a game-breaking glitch in Romero's cemetery mission; that's just a side-quest so I could easily have skipped it, but I'd already done my favorite parts of the game and decided it was a good time to set it down.


I also spent some time with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and can immediately see why it got such fantastic reviews. The sound design of the game is incredibly strong, both on its own technical terms and in how well it integrates with the story. You're playing as a Norse woman apparently afflicted with psychosis, and throughout the game you hear all these voices regularly whispering to you and commenting on your progress. It's actually very similar to a Malkavian playthrough, but these voices are a lot more helpful! The art design is also amazing, very raw and impressive, where you feel like you're on the threshold between a grim realistic world and a supernatural one. I gave up after getting frustrated with the combat; the early fights were fun, but I just couldn't adapt to the bigger fights where multiple enemies gang up on you, and the in-game punishments for failure were stressing me out.


So I moved on to something considerably lighter: Pyre! This is the latest game by Supergiant, the San Francisco studio that also made Bastion and (one of my all-time favorites) Transistor. Right off the bat I was struck by the gorgeous graphics: cartoony, hyper-saturated backgrounds, full of life and movement. The characters are all wonderful too, there are a ton of them and they're deeply varied, from the unbelievably cute drive imp to the hulking and glowering demon to the mesmerizing Scribe who lives in the orb. And, just as I'd suspected, the music is terrific, perfectly matching and driving the mood of the game, and often dipping into more vocally-focused pieces that seem like they belong on an album but work perfectly to drive the game forward.


MINI SPOILERS

The structure of the game reminds me a bit of The Banner Saga, yet another impressive game that I didn't finish because my failures were depressing me. You're going on a journey, with a large collection of people coming with you. Along the way you make various choices, in dialogues and by choosing destinations; these have consequences, but in Pyre those consequences are more like "You found a shiny rock!" or "Person X feels less hopefuly" than "Everyone you care about dies and it's all your fault."


The main gameplay element in Pyre, though, is three-on-three basketball games. Yeah, I know, I'm surprised too! I was not a fan at first; I picked up Pyre specifically because I was hoping for a tactical combat game, and was nonplussed at this real-time game of tossing around a ball and dunking it into the opponent's goal. As I've gotten more into it, though, I'm loving it more and more. It's backed by a solid character progression system, where you earn XP, level up, learn new abilities and can equip and upgrade items. Party composition is important, with many strategies viable but offering solid traditional approaches like a slow and powerful defender alongside fast offensive strikers. You can synergize strategies and builds between characters, building on each others' strengths and weaknesses. And the series of fights are incredibly dynamic: each opposing team has their own special abilities and strategies, and each "court" you play on has its own distinct features, whether holes or rocks or whatever. All that leads to a lot of strategy for each fight: you can have your own go-to approaches, but you don't just repeat the same techniques over and over again. Instead you'll study the ground, who you're up against, and think through the best folks on your roster to see you through.


It's looking like this might be a very long game; there's an in-game book you read, and I'm currently still in Chapter 1 of that, out of what look like around 10 chapters altogether. I'm pretty hooked by now, though, and I imagine I'll see it all the way through to the end. If so, I'll write up a full review post at the end. In the meantime, a quick summary of my current approach:

I now have about 8 potential party members. When choosing a lineup, I'll disqualify anyone with a temporary penalty. If possible, I'll try to select three people who have green inspiration/resting XP pending, which helps me shuffle everyone from match to match. Within that group, I'll generally choose my two highest-level people (not necessarily highest XP, but with the most abilities), and also my character with the lowest total XP; that gives me a strong core to win the match, while ensuring I'm leveling up my bench as well.

I don't think I'm great at the game, but so far I haven't lost a match (hopefully this post won't jinx that!). I'll either keep my biggest-aura person, like Jodi, near my own pyre to defend, or else have them sprint to the center, grab the orb, and immediately toss it to one of the faster folks; the latter approach can be nice on maps with lots of obstacles, since a big aura can make a chokepoint.


My faster guys will usually walk as far as they can to the east, then sprint or fly their way to the pyre. Each does relatively low damage, but I equip them with an item that does a flat-value damage boost, so e.g. Rukey is now doing 24 damage per dive instead of 10. I have been mulling that strategy, though. If things are going well, I'm usually constantly outnumbered 2-3. If I was focusing on my bigger players, I think it's more likely that my opponent and I would trade scores back and forth, but I would be taking more points each time and would have a 3-2 advantage for each score.


In recent matches I've started to experiment more with casting my aura to help clear the field of opponents, as well as tossing the orb around when a striker is under pressure instead of risking a dash. There are a lot of special mechanics, too, with many characters having completely different moves and behavior. I'm digging the game, but I also feel like it's the sort of thing I need to play daily, otherwise, I'll lose track of how everybody works.

END SPOILERS

I am enjoying the time to dig into this game. Like lots of folks, I'm looking at Q1 of 2020 with a huge degree of anticipation and dread. Between VtMB2, Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 all dropping, it'll be an overwhelming time. For now, I'm grateful for the chance to hang out in the Downside, getting to know these colorful characters and help them win basketball games.

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Four Course Meal

The other book I read during my vacation was A Moveable Feast. As with Death Comes for the Archbishop, I've read the author before but not this particular book. Unlike the other Hemingway fiction I've read before, this is more of a memoir, focusing on Hemingway's life in Paris in the post-WWI years.


Probably the single most surprising thing to be about this book is just how gossipy it is. He writes a lot about the other famous expats he knew in the city, like James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. One early chapter recounts a lengthy conversation between him and Stein wherein she addresses his homophobia, including a run-down of various homosexual writers and what they think of each. Stein herself has some rather shocking opinions on the relative merits of lesbian encounters versus gay encounters.

Stein recurs in multiple chapters, and you get a sense for the role she played as a locus of literary life in the city: she knows many people and meets with them and spreads her opinions. As presented by Hemingway, she and many other real-life people come across as likeable but flawed. He ultimately comes down on her for being overly obsessed with her own career, noting that she would praise people who supported her and disdain those who did not, regardless of the quality of their own work. Over the course of the book it becomes clear that Hemingway values skill above all else: he's willing to forgive all sorts of slights and eccentricities if someone is (in his view) a very good writer, and he will cruelly attack even people who are kind to him if he dislikes their work. Hemingway seems to view this as a noble and good way to live life, and as presented in the book it feels more honest, but... I dunno. Personally, I'd rather spend my time with people who are personally fun and nice, and not judge people primarily by their output. Maybe that's why I'm not a famous author!

The most amazing section of the book recounts his friendship with Scott Fitzgerald. These passages are really, really funny: Fitzgerald himself is a charming but helpless man, and the scenarios they get into are bizarre comedies. A lot of the humor revolves around automobiles. Fitzgerald is convinced that cars don't need oil, and that all the French mechanics who are desperately trying to get him to add oil to his car are all trying to cheat him. He has bought a nice Peugeot, but Zelda convinced him to remove the top, and so every time it starts to rain he needs to pull over and park it somewhere dry. On their epic road trip, he and Hemingway thus end up downing bottle after bottle of wine while waiting for the rain to clear, then continue their journey, only to have it start to rain again an hour later and repeat the process. Hemingway also points out his own foibles, noting in retrospect his ridiculous belief that the best way to handle Fitzgerald's alcoholism was to serve him white wine, rather than abstain from alcohol altogether. There's a sadness that hangs over these sections of the book, and you can sense the larger tragedy of Scott and Zelda's lives, but sentence by sentence it can be really funny. After finishing this, I'm now curious to read The Crack-Up and see things from Scott's perspective.

The edition of the book I read is apparently a bit different from what was originally published. The initial book was never finished and didn't have a title, and was posthumously published by Hemingway's final wife. His heirs later re-examined Hemingway's last edits and work on the book and came out with this new version. Based on the introduction, it sounds like it's a bit kinder to Scott and has a different focus on Ernest's relationship with his first wife Hadley. Some chapters and passages have been cut entirely, which at first glance seems like the opposite of what you would want from an updated edition, but do reflect the last guidance we have from Hemingway. This seems very appropriate for this particular author; this isn't a book about writing, but he does write about writing in it, especially in the later chapters, and he continually emphasizes just how important cutting is. In Hemingway's opinion, the quality of a novel can be judged by the quality of the content you cut from it. If you're cutting out very good stuff, then it's going to be a very good book. Because of this, the subtractions do seem like a positive addition to the originally-published manuscript.

Of course, that also means there's a lot of stuff that I'd like to know more about. I'm particularly curious about "The Rich," who make a late and sinister entry in the book, ruining the skiing refuge of the Hemingways and somehow associated with, though not responsible for, the dissolving of his first marriage. There are a lot of specific things that I'm sure I could find out through Wikipedia, but stuff like that is probably lost forever.

Overall, this book didn't resonate with my surroundings in the same way Death Comes for the Archbishop did - cosmopolitan Paris isn't exactly the same as wilderness in the Colorado Plateau. But it was fascinating in its own right, humanizing many of the literary giants from my high-school English classes and making them relatable: poor, happy, passionate people looking for love and trying to create something good.