Category Archives: Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors that I had always meant to read and yet somehow not quite got round to actually trying. Yes, I know. Gran used to go on and on about how amazing For Whom the Bell Tolls was and after reading Naomi Wood’s marvellous Mrs. Hemingway I was even more keen to give him a whirl at some point. As it happened Rachael chose The Old Man and the Sea for book group which I was both excited by (as I had meant to read him and it was a novella, so a quick intro) and wary of (because as we all know I don’t like books set on boats) before I started. Yet the whole point of a good book group is that it gets you reading things you mightn’t normally, and so I got on board…

Vintage Books, paperback, 1951 (1999 edition), fiction, 112 pages, bought by myself for myself

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders to another boat which caught three good fish in the first week.

The first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea pretty much gives you the premise of the book straight from the off. There is an old man, who used to be quite the fisherman we gather, who now lives alone and hasn’t caught a fish in ages. He used to have a young man help him who still visits, and gives a wonderful and touching start to novella, yet now the locals believe he brings bad luck and so he goes out by himself though less and less. Upon waking one day he has the feeling his luck might be changing like the tide (just to through a seaside metaphor in there, there’s a fair few in the book) and so sets out to catch a big fish, hopefully the biggest that he can.

This makes The Old Man and the Sea sound both like a tale of adventure and one of adversity, an old man in his slightly knackered boat, going out to catch a blooming big fish and show those youths he still has it in him. Indeed in many ways it is, and I liked that feeling despite my aversion to boats and sure enough pretty soon fell in love (I wanted to say hook, line and sinker – sorry) with the prose. With sentences like this…

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

Or this…

Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.

… How can you not? Sometimes, sadly no matter how wonderful the words, if you aren’t quite lost in a book it loses its charm and fairly soon after we had set sail I started to get rather disinterested. I think there were two reasons for this. The first is that whilst I spent a lot of time with the old man and occasionally in his head, as Hemingway flips between perspectives now and then, Hemmingway holds of telling you exactly what he’s thinking or feeling outside catching a bloody massive sea monster of a fish. He remainssome sort of unknowable figure with little characterisation therefore meaning I didn’t care about his plight or quest. The second issue was that no matter how much beautiful writing there was at the start, and indeed again at the end, it all seemed to be rather flat and monotonous in the middle making me somewhat bored. I can see how this may have been the idea, we had to wait patiently for ages while the old man does, yet there is a difference between being bored literally and being literally bored.

He was rowing steadily and it was no effort for him since he kept well within his speed and thethe surface of the ocean was flat except for the occasional swirls of the current. He was letting the current do a third of the work and as it started to be light he saw he was already further out than he had hoped to be at this hour.
I worked the deep wells for a week and did nothing, he thought. Today I’ll work out where the schools of bonita and albacore are and maybe there will be a big one with them.

That said when the old man finally encounters the big fish there are some rather exciting scenes where the old man must conquer both the nature of the sea and its other inhabitants. Be warned though, if you are a fan of fish for your dinner this may turn you, I haven’t fancied eating fish since I read it which was about two months ago. The Old Man and the Sea does encourage some interesting discussion; though we were divided about how much we liked it we had a really interesting conversation about whether this was a fable about adversity, as I mentioned above, or actually about greed – and it got slightly heated!

So did I like The Old Man and the Sea? Well, I am not really sure… kind of. If I was being very honest I think I would describe it as being an inoffensive and interesting-ish read. (It only won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, so what would I know!) I think the writing is wonderful, if sometimes a little lengthy even for a novella as it felt longer than it was. That said, it is certainly a book I won’t forget and not just for the fact I may never eat fish and chips again. As it was “Hemingway” I expected that I would be much more bowled over than I was and really needed more character and a little more back story. Maybe it’s not the best of his books to start with? Maybe I needed something meatier (rather than fishier – sorry again) to get my teeth into.

Who else has read The Old Man and the Sea and what did you make of it? If you fancy some more thoughts you can see Sanne of Books and Quills discuss it here, we seemed to be of a mind. As I am still keen to read more Hemingway where would you recommend I head next where I might have a little more success?

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