Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Old Man and the Sea

Recently, a friend had me watch Into the Wild, which tells the story of a real-life young man, Christopher McCandless, who went off into the wild to escape civilisation and eventually starved to death. The literature he reads is a running theme throughout the film, and not surprisingly, Hemingway makes an appearance. He crops up in many of-an-era road trip films and memoirs. 

I got to thinking that I'd never actually read Hemingway, and that I should probably change that. After all, he's held up as an icon of clean prose and something to aspire to in writing. If you want to get technical about it, there's an excellent article on What Makes Hemingway Hemingway?

The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics. - Hemingway

Not a quote I'm entirely sure I agree with, but the article certainly presents Hemingway's immutable laws in a way we can all understand.

So, the next question was where to start? I checked into a couple of forums and the two titles that kept coming up for newbies were The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises. I went with the former, partly because it was shorter, partly because it was read by Donald Sutherland, and partly because I was curious how you could make an entire novella out of trying to hunt a fish... a whale, maybe, but a fish?

The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordeal, a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Here Hemingway recasts, in strikingly contemporary style, the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss.

Written in 1952, this hugely successful novella confirmed Hemingway's power and presence in the literary world and played a large part in his winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I know getting it as an audiobook seems counterproductive to understanding Hemingway's style of writing, but when you read enough books and write enough books, you can actually see the punctuation float past most of the time. He definitely had a unique style. 

As with most classic literature, some of it doesn't translate brilliantly for a modern female reader living in Africa...

He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.


He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. 


"Fish," he said, "I love you and respect you very much, but I will kill you dead before this day ends."


You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

The last bit sort of reminded me about The Most Dangerous Game, at the beginning where they're talking about how the lion, or whatever it is they're hunting, lives for the hunt and wants to be hunted. A way of thinking that still exists for some today, but is growing further towards the minority of popular thinking. 

It is deceptive the way that he writes. Because the prose are simplistic, and the plot is a very straightforward one, you occasionally get ambushed by rather graphic moments, such as the sound a Portuguese man o' war makes when you pop it with the horny sole of your foot on the beach.

I've mentioned before that I like graphic stuff, but that I sometimes struggle when it's directed at animals, so this probably wasn't the best book of all for me to choose, as it's all about hunting down a giant fish.

Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too. 

But there were also some moments of introspection that were very touching.

"Age is my alarm clock," the old man said. "Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?"


He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.

That last one was interesting, because it's a superstition still held to by so many today, such as when you make a birthday wish or you hope you'll get a job, but you don't tell people you've applied or what the wish was because you fear that by speaking it, you'll jinx it. 

The story was less than two-and-a-half hours long, but I made a surprising number of notes. 

I now appreciate Hemingway's style and what people see in it. Most of what he said is what I teach both in creative and technical writing, where I place a lot of emphasis on economic use of language - shorter sentences, fewer words. Though it's interesting to see from the article above that short sentences became less important to Hemingway as his career progressed. I think this is true for most of my students, too. Once you've got the basics pegged, and you know how to form clear, concise sentences, then you can play with them. Then you get poetic, you create more complex sentences. Hemingway's style is very recognisable, but so are other writers like Divakaruni, Marlon James and Ann Radcliffe. People have written best sellers and award-winning novels in many styles, long before and long after Hemingway. I like his style, but I wouldn't want it to be the only thing I ever read. Simplicity is refreshing and easy to follow, but sometimes you want to be swept away on a full-colour panorama of a sentence. 

More interesting than I expected it to be, and a story with a lot to consider. I couldn't help thinking, due to the ending, that it probably wouldn't have been published today. Not in mainstream circles. Not a crowd pleaser. That's why I do enjoy classic literature. It can really knock you out of your day-to-day headspace, and Donald Sutherland was the perfect voice to bring it to life. 

If you enjoyed the breakdown of Hemingway's writing style in the article, you might also like this artwork made from analysing punctuation.

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