Isolation Read #38

Ever a sucker for brevity of expression, Hemingway seems a natural for my reading habits, however it is 30 years since I last picked up any of his works, and then the only one that stands out in immediate recollection is the short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber from The Snows of Kilimanjaro collection. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fiesta / The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon all in pretty rapid succession in my late teens, as well this novella. They left an overarching sense of ‘taking life by the horns’ machismo and death. I should probably go back an read them again to see what affect they have on a middle-aged reader, who knows that adrenalin and excitement are rare, unsustainable hiatuses in the unleavened monotony of everyday.

The Old Man and The Sea, is short and punchy, built on struggle, ultimately fruitless struggle: life as futility. You root for the old man, Santiago, as he tries to resurrect a fishing life that has grown barren – 84 days without a significant catch. How else is his life to be measured? He works, and he suffers as he tries to use all his guile to land the big fish that will save him. He puts up with hunger – eating raw some of the smaller fish he catches; thirst, eking out his one flask of water, despite being days far out at sea in glare of the tropical sun; injuries, as the line rips through the soft flesh of his hands. He talks to himself, he talks to the creatures of the sea, including the great marlin he wrestles with on the end of the line, to a small bird that lands improbably on his oar for a few moments and he talks to Joe DiMaggio, the baseball star he imagines as the greatest of men. He is a good guy trying to get by, in a difficult world but his ability to do so is fading.

I must hold his pain where it is, he thought. Mine does not matter. I can control mine. But his pain could drive him mad.

After a while the fish stopped beating at the wire and started circling slowly again. The old man was gaining line steadily now. But he felt faint again. He lifted some sea water with his left hand and put it on his head. Then he put more on and rubbed the back of his neck.

‘I have no cramps’ he said. ‘He’ll be up soon and I can last. You have to last. Don’t even speak of it.’

He becomes delirious and his mind wanders to recollections of his youth, to daydreams. He expresses fraternal respect and gratitude the great fish. And there are episodes of religiosity.

Hemingway’s prose propels the reader along: it is exhilarating but this is not casual running-off-at-the-mouth writing, nor is it a sort of journalism with ideas above its station, it is measured, honed writing of a high order. As in the quote above, there is some measure of Beckett in there as well.

Apparently it received a mixed reception on publication, it is now acknowledged as the last of Hemingway’s significant novels. In 1953, The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it was cited as contributing to the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to him in 1954.

You can read it in a couple of hours. What it says and how it says it, will stay with you a great deal longer.

(this edition has an awesome cover, as well)

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