A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A funny thing happened on the way to the hatchet. I was chomping at the bit to rip apart Hemingway. His testosterone fueled novels are filled with manly men combating nature and women who weren’t to worry their pretty little heads about anything. In short, just the thing to rile up this feminist environmentalist. The Scribner’s paperback praised him as the author who “did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer of the Twentieth century”. I scoffed.
Though I’ve read most of Hemingway’s work, it’s been years ago, so I grabbed a pile of them at the library and skimmed through them, looking for deadwood to sink my ax into. I have liked some of his writing, such as the Nick Adam short stories and Farewell to Arms, but the rest just irritated me. However, I made a startling discovery; Hemingway did not quite live up to his machismo reputation. Yes, there was the lengthy bullfights in The Sun Also Rises, but there was also the thwarted desire and the almost Psalmic conversations of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Other insightful stories of how war affects people, both physically and mentally, impacting not only individuals, but families and relationships. While there was plenty of big game hunting and fishing, there was also kindness to incremental animals; horses on border patrol, a dog in a battle torn village, a feline in the sweet short story The Cat in the Rain. Most surprisingly, the women weren’t two-dimensional bimbos, but layered, often strong characters, individually drawn. The manly men treated them with affection and respect, not condescendingly. My hatchet job was splintering before my eyes.
And then I reached for The Old Man and the Sea.
Here was the machine gun prose, the sparse plot, the strong and silent type. All of the stereotypical Hemingway hallmarks. An old fisherman goes out in his boat alone and catches an enormous swordfish. The reader suffers every miserable moment of his capture in excruciatingly boring detail; how many times the fish swims around the boat, how many times the man pulls on the line, how many birds fly by. It goes on for more pages than you can imagine, until you are ready to scream. This paen to lost youth and virility is just filled with macho baloney, “..pain does not matter to a man.” the old man says. But apparently it does, because long paragraphs are given over to whatever is aching at that moment. In between, he eats raw fish, recalls boxing matches of his youth and thinks of lions. I understand it’s all reeking of symbolism, but it’s done so obviously that it’s irritating.
This is considered Hemingway’s masterpiece. I’m not sure why, unless it’s because it feeds into all of those comic book fantasies of male book reviewers. Perhaps they are feeling insecure in their masculinity as they sit before a keyboard instead of out there battling nature? It’s not like any other of Hemingway’s work, before or after and definitely not up to the standards of the rest. There isn’t the complex plots of his later novels, nor the rich character arc of his earlier ones. Even his short stories are more developed than this novella. It’s such a departure from his other books, that I wonder if it’s not a half-baked idea he had on one of his drunken binges? It’s unfortunate that it’s so often used in schools to introduce students to Hemingway, because nearly everything else of his is so much better. Is it to inspire those students to become Hemingway wannabes like Cormac McCarthy? It was a big fish. It was a thin book. It was a dull book.
Scribner orig. 1952 127 pp. ISBN 0-684-80122-1