I studied Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises at university, and remember being impressed by its pacy, sparky dialogue, though I struggled with its depictions of bullfighting (which is my personal bias to be put aside when thinking about literature, just as Hemingway’s love of bullfighting is his bias). I’m not sure if I can say I enjoyed it in the sense of getting pleasure from it, but I did like it as a story that says a lot about the Lost Generation of World War One, their disillusion and attempts to deal with it. I confess I didn’t dig out my notes and essays to gen up on it, and chose instead to begin the Hemingway that I hadn’t yet read.
The Old Man and The Sea. Oh dear. Oh dear, dear. It received the Nobel Prize and is often celebrated as Hemingway’s greatest work, but...it’s just not a Deb-book, I’m afraid – it’s a Heming-No-Way for me.
The plot is easily summed up: old man goes fishing, battles with and catches huge fish, struggles to sail home against the elements and loses the fish to sharks, returns home worse for wear but alive. Themes that are most discussed are: the strength of humanity against Mother Nature, the sea, fishing, masculinity, emasculation, Christianity, and many others.
But this book left me cold.
Firstly, I couldn’t relate to the characters or the plot (which I admit is my shortcoming – to be fair, if you like fishing, you’ll most likely be interested), and I couldn’t enjoy or empathise; but, then, I’ve never been into boys-own-adventure type books, so that should’ve tipped me off. For me, if I don’t care about the characters, I just. Don’t. Care.
Now, Hemingway is renowned for his writing style: short sentences, spare descriptions and economy of words. I understand that this is his attempt to get to the reality of the work, the authenticity of the experience; to tell the story true and not put himself into it. However, this just isn’t to my personal taste, and while I can appreciate it, I don’t particularly enjoy it. For me, the beautiful texture of language is missing; instead the narrative is bland, desiccated. (In Fiesta, the pacy and often punchy dialogue went some way to alleviating this; but in The Old Man and The Sea, there is little dialogue as it is more of an internal struggle and therefore story.)
Plus, in this book, he repeats ‘the old man’ so many times it drove me nuts! I do have a (big!) issue with unnecessary repetition (it should have Purpose to drive the narrative or style forward, and if it can be avoided, I prefer to), I admit, but if Hemingway had never named the man, it would’ve made sense to me in terms of showing him as simply a human being (instead of a persona) against the mighty ocean; but he does – the old man is named Santiago. Added to this frustration, I felt unnecessary words were also repeated – I didn’t record any examples in my Reading Journal, but it’s like saying, ‘The window was open. He looked out of the open window,’ which to me isn’t being economical with words at all, but clumsy and sloppy instead (the second ‘open’ certainly isn’t needed, but nor is the ‘of the open window’ as we, the reader, can infer this information).
Now, don’t let me stop you – you may well find The Old Man and The Sea to be both a thrilling adventure and an important treatise on humanity. Give it a go if you fancy, and you can try to convince me – but I doubt I’ll ever change my mind...!
Clearly, I am in a Heming-No-Way place at the moment, but I will give him one more go – so has anyone got any recommendations?!