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.
Mark Twain once said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read” and there are times when I couldn’t agree with him more! I love to mix up my contemporary reading with a few classics and, on the whole, enjoy this diversity but do find myself reading the first few pages of a classic with trepidation and a feeling of ‘am I really clever enough to attempt this?!’
And so to pick up a novel bearing the accolades of Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer Prize winner is an attempt to read literary gravitas. Add Ernest Hemingway to the mix as the author and the level of intimidation just sky rockets!
The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s last major completed work and has been a closely revered and studied piece of literature ever since. With so many different interpretations of this 99-page ‘novelet’ floating around the critical airwaves (a Christian allegory, a modern parable, a guide to masculinity/pride/life, etc.) I was gearing myself up for an endurance test of complex literature. I needn’t have worried. Hemingway’s writing is surprisingly accessible and the simplicity of language made it easy to relax into this exquisitely narrated tale.
The Old Man and the Sea is an unbelievably modest story revolving around the fishing community of Cuba and focussing on the old fisherman Santiago, who after eighty-four unsuccessful days at sea, sets out alone on his eighty-fifth, in a final attempt to make an impressive catch and prove that his luck is about to turn.
Hemingway’s story covers in detail an event that any other author would probably cram into one chapter of a much larger novel. This focussed timescale draws the narration and settles the reader in the boat alongside Santiago, feeling his composure and resolution of his quest. Our protagonist can be seen to be a clear representation of the everyman and how hard it can be to conjure up the courage to survive, as summed up in Hemingway’s poetic words: ‘a man can be destroyed but not defeated’.
Given the setting and protagonist, it’s not surprising that the narrative is riddled with fishing terminology and though it adds authenticity to the tale I found, at times, that patience was required to stick with the story. Following fishing lines and the positioning of the catch in relation to the boat and Santiago did catch me out a few times, forcing me to either skim or re-read but that was honestly the only problem I had with the book and it is a very minor one at that!
Hemingway’s novella fits in that beautiful minority of books that grows and develops long after the final page has been read. It lingers in your mind and in writing this review I have discovered just how affecting the story was. I’m not going to pretend that I was always completely riveted but the novelised representation of mind over matter and the conflict of pride against preservation was very moving. The crafted language and simple story makes The Old Man and the Sea a graceful, powerful novella which delivers a strong and enduring premise.
I also found this amazing stop motion adaptation by Marcel Schindler on YouTube. He draws the story in a beautifully simplistic style (indicative of Hemingway’s words) but, be warned, only watch if you’ve read the book or don’t mind having a preview of the events: