05 July 2010

Good Ole Papa Hemingway

"No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in...I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough, they would mean many things." Ernest Hemingway on The Old Man and the Sea
(Gulf Coast marlin photo courtesy of my brother-in-law, Captain Mike Miele, a true fisherman)
When I made the decision to read books set in Florida to get me prepped for heading to Key West in a couple of weeks, I didn't realize that the majority of books that I would come across are primarily mystery books. I'm not sure what it is, but it sort of makes sense. There is just something about the Florida Gulf Coast and South Florida that evokes a certain type of mystery and suspense, that languid reflection in the midst of the lush green foliage...But, in preparation for the upcoming Hemingway Days in Key West, I diversified my reading of Florida mysteries to bring you, in honor of Independence Day, one of our greatest American writers and fisherman-- of course, none other than Mr. Ernest Hemingway himself. This week, I read two of his stunning classics, To Have and Have Not, and The Old Man and the Sea. I am embarrassed to admit that I haven't read a Hemingway novel since high school...

I read To Have and Have Not first and I was a little mixed on it simply because I liked one section of the book much more than the other. I enjoyed the second part of the book after the major event (sorry, no spoiler here) that occurs, solely because of the fluidity of the writing and one snapshot story of one boat owner after another in Key West. Written in the 1930s, it is set in Key West, and centered around Harry Morgan, a good man and fisherman who has to start running illegal products to earn some money in order to provide for his wife and three daughters. The first half is mostly around Harry and a few other cast of characters and their lives in Key West as Harry is trying to earn a living. The dialogue was characteristic of how I imagined Americans talked with each other at the time, and it's no surprise to me that Humphrey Bogart was cast in the central character of the movie, since Bogie was a regular blue-collar actor who could represent Americana like no other. The second half was more descriptive, imaginative, and was my *favorite part* -- I savored this section, drinking in each and every word. I usually dog-ear a book to note sections and passages that I love, and I noticed that the majority of the book that's dog-eared is the last half. It also was the section that made me read the words out loud, simply for the beauty of the language.

The Old Man and the Sea has become, hands down, one of my favorite books ever. And I mean EVER. I've always loved the water (even though I get a little bit nervous of dark and deep water -- hello, Jaws...), my father was in the Coast Guard and my sister retired from the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy, and my husband and my in-laws grew up on the water, and they love to fish. They understand the sport and the battle that goes with it, but I must confess that I never really understood the love of fishing that they have, and to be honest, I sort of felt left out. I always wanted to understand and learn about it, but I never really "got it," unfortunately. With the recent oil spill in the Gulf, though, I've been avidly thinking of the fishing community, how difficult it is and how they are managing to support their families right now. Reading The Old Man and the Sea helped to remind me that fishing is much more than what a stereotype may bring, and I'm happier to have spent the short time to read 124 pages.

Written in the 1950s, and set in Cuba, we've all heard of the story of the epic battle between an old man and a larger than life marlin. But settling into the words of this novella is truly a treat, and I began to even more so understand why Ernest Hemingway is one of the greatest American writers of all time. There are passages like the below that made me sit down, and read out loud, simply for the beauty of the scene, the words, and the images:

He remembered the time he had hooked one of a pair of marlin. The male fish always let the female fish feed first and the hooked fish, the female, made a wild, panic-stricken, despairing fight that soon exhausted her, and all the time the male had stayed with her, crossing the line and circling with her on the surface. He had stayed so close that the old man was afraid he would cut the line with his tail which was sharp as a scythe and almost of that size and shape. When the old man had gaffed her and clubbed her, holding the rapier bill with its sandpaper edge and clubbing her across the top of her head until her colour turned to a colour almost like the backing of mirrors, and then, with the boy's aid, hoisted her aboard, the male fish had stayed by the side of the boat. Then, while the old man was clearing the lines and preparing the harpoon, the male fish jumped high into the air beside the boat to see where the female was and then went down deep, his lavender wings, that were his pectoral fins, spread wide and all his wide lavender stripes showing. He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed. That was the saddest thing I ever saw with them, the old man thought. (page 50)

I couldn't read these words without thoroughly seeing the action right in front of me, as if I were there, the fighting male marlin trying to see where his lady was, Santiago and the boy bringing in the fish, without feeling complete sadness for the fish, but also feeling the true ownership of the fisherman to their bounty. Every single moment of the old man battling to catch the *big* fish throughout the novella, is filled with so many unbelievably recounted metaphors and moments, and I was swimming in glee with reading each and every page. What is the old man truly battling? Is he battling to catch the biggest fish of his life, is he battling the end of his declining years as he recalls his favorite memories? There was no effort on my part, as the reader, to fill my mind with the images conjured from Hemingway's words.

It is rumored that Hemingway's first mate, Fuentes, on Hemingway's boat, Pilar, was the subject of Santiago, the old man in the book. Although Fuentes undoubtedly provided several aspects of the Santiago character, there are also other stories that relate how Hemingway and Fuentes were out fishing one day off the coast of Cuba, and came across an old man who was fishing alone, and had been for some time. They offered him help, but the old man waved them off, to continue pursuing the big one -- which consequently caused Hemingway to begin to think of what can compel a man to continue the fight, no matter how long, to catch *the* fish. The Old Man and the Sea is only a little over 100 pages, and it should be all on the "Great Summer Reads" lists. It is a classic, and it is a good one. Hemingway will not let you down -- take a short bit of time to read this novella and become immersed in the life and poetry of fishing. It certainly is helping me get in the mood for Key West...and maybe I'll pick up a fishing rod one day? My husband will be happy, I'm sure...


  1. I haven't read Hemingway since high school. He was required reading then, which I think is kind of silly, because fourteen year olds are too young to appreciate his work. At least from my jaded perspective at this point in my life. ;)

  2. You are absolutely right -- a lot of the favorite classics are very tough to appreciate at a young age! I'm ecstatic to have read The Old Man and the Sea now when I can truly grasp his message. And I can't wait to visit his house in Key West in just a couple of weeks, it'll be great to see it again!!

  3. You're motivating me to read again! All I read now a days are chick lit books ;)

    I'm excited to read this!

  4. Thanks, Estela!! But don't get me wrong -- I love chick lit books, too! More to come for that! :)

  5. What a lovely write-up. And I love the Hem quotation you opened with. He set out to write a real boy and a real man and a real fish. My husband loves to fish, too, and I shared this book with him as a way to bridge the fishing-to-books gap.