Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Mass market, 127 pages, 1952
Reason for Reading: Even though Hemingway is considered by many to be a ‘man’s man’ type of a writer, I love everything I’ve read by him, especially my all-time favourite short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’
Synopsis: An old fisherman, on an eighty-four day streak of bad luck during which he’s caught nothing, finally hooks The Big One. But the man is old and the marlin is a strong and graceful foe; whose time has come to an end?
Why you should read this book: The Old Man and the Sea is a classic tale of man vs. nature, and the struggle of an old man to show that his life still has meaning. He needs to prove to himself that he can go up against the best and still win, or at least put up a good fight. Even if you know nothing about fishing, Hemingway’s writing is deceptively simple and before you even realize it you’re able to visualize perfectly what’s happening in the boat of the old man, and even why he uses certain fishing techniques. This isn’t just a127-page description of trying to reel in a fish, though; it’s also filled with memories of the old man, such as a 24-hour arm-wrestling match in his younger days, which makes it easier to see why it means so much to him to still be considered useful. He’s also not just trying to reel in the fish simply for the sake of winning; he sees the fish as having a beautiful, noble personality, and actually respects the fish for not giving in. Throw in some gorgeous descriptions of the sea and the animal life to the old man’s brave yet heart-breaking struggle, as well as the adoring and caring boy that the old man taught to fish, and it’s easy to see why The Old Man and the Sea was singled out in the citation declaring Hemingway the 1954 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, an award that celebrates an author’s entire body of works.
Why you should avoid this book: If you don’t like fishing, and you don’t like looking for the ‘deeper meaning’ in stories, I’d be pretty reluctant to point you towards The Old Man and the Sea, but one of the two factors should get you through the book reasonably happy. Other than that, there’s not much to complain about if you fall into the ‘love him’ camp of the ‘love him or hate him’ Hemingway-divide.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days 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 in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
He could not see the green of the shore now but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them. The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.
How simple it would be if I could make the line fast, he thought. But with one small lurch he could break it. I must cushion the pull of the line with my body and at all times be ready to give line with both hands.
‘But you have not slept yet, old man,’ he said aloud. ‘It is half a day and a night and now another day and you have not slept. You must devise a way so that you sleep a little if he is quiet and steady. If you do not sleep you might become unclear in the head.’
I’m clear enough in the head, he thought. Too clear. I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers. Still I must sleep. They sleep and the moon and the sun sleep and even the ocean sleeps sometimes on certain days when there is no current and a flat calm.
Also recommended: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
Also by this author: Across the River and Into the Trees; The Torrents of Spring; The Dangerous Summer; The Garden of Eden; True at First Light; Adventures of a Young Man; Death in the Afternoon; Islands in the Stream; A Moveable Feast; Across the River and into the Trees; For Whom the Bell Tolls; To Have and Have Not; Green Hills of Africa; Winner Take Nothing; In Our Time; A Farewell to Arms; The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories; The Nick Adams Stories; By-Line: Selected Articles and Dispatches; Selected Letters 1917-1961; Hemingway on Fishing; Men Without Women; The Sun Also Rises; The Snows of Kilimanjaro; The Short Stories.
Fun tidbit: Hemingway told an interviewer that he re-wrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied he’d gotten it just right.
Would I read more by this author? I would eventually like to be able to say I’ve read every single word Hemingway ever wrote. He’s just that kind of author.
Â© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007