Friday, June 26, 2015

On Having or Having Not with an Old Man and the Sea

Dear Ron ... I read Hemingway. 

I'm not sure why that gives me such a sense of accomplishment. I've read quite a lot of classics in my life. I'm not stuck on pop fiction or romance novels.

Somehow, though, this one really made me feel like I've earned a new star on  my reading log.

As I've written, I'm part of a Classics Challenge and this month's assignment was to read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Originally it was a Nobel Prize winner hence the reason I read TWO books. But I won't dwell on that .... just please make a decision about your reading assignments BEFORE I start next time Ron! :)


Hemingway is like no author I've ever read before. He's gritty. He's direct in his descriptions and observations. He wastes no words. He's blue collar authentic. He's not grand or elegant or affected in his language. He's just real. And, his life and writing have always intrigued me. Not sure why it took me so long to actually read something he wrote.

When it came time to select my book, I'd originally selected To Have or Have Not. I liked the title. I liked that it was a story about a man from Key West, which I'd recently visited. And it was written by a Nobel Prize winning author. When the assignment changed, I just returned to the library to pick up another Hemingway, since he won both. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man And The Sea. (I actually picked up Farewell to Arms as well, but only finished these two at this point.)

Overall, my key discovery about Hemingway is that his books seem to start in the middle. I started all three and felt like I'd missed two or three chapters. I actually flipped back to see if pages had been removed or I'd not noticed a forward. Perhaps Hemingway didn't feel a need for lengthy exposition. His writing simply went straight to the heart of the matter. This is a fascinating writing style but a little abrupt for me personally. 

In To Have or Have Not, I met Harry Morgan and various other let's just say shady characters. Harry starts out as a law-abiding deep sea fisherman captain who is taken advantage of by a client. This becomes the influencing factor leading him to a life of "crime." Well, it's more smuggling and murder and sundry disreputable stuff but it leads ultimately to his death. (spoiler alert, sorry)

The book is written using various narrators, which was a bit confusing for me. I was fascinated though by Harry's fall from grace and his passion for his wife. And as he reached his final moments , he was floating near a cruise ship of "haves" who didn't seem to be any happier for all their wealth or "good lives." Made me think and examine who actually was the Have in this story ...

Harry's key observation -- perhaps a commentary on grand social issues of his time -- "No matter how a man alone ain't got no blood fucking chance." That's how it was written. I didn't leave out words in my typing. Hemingway goes on to add: It had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken all his life to learn it. Overall, not a nice endorsement of the human condition or the life and times in which we live.

Onto Old Man And The Sea.  This was a quick read but one with lots of great stuff. If you are a guy who likes fishing, perhaps you'd enjoy it more. But, I appreciated it ... especially the fact that Hemingway has a very natural flow to his dialogue. Straight to the point. Simple. But a dialogue that gives a visual imagery and captures the characters quickly and fully.

This story is not a Melville Ahab issue. It's about a fisherman who has lost his luck. But he's determined to keep on doing what he loves to do, despite all that. So he goes out and makes the big catch ... only to lose it and his life in the end (another spoiler alert, sorry!) 

The story is told beautifully fundamentally through the old man's conversations with himself and the descriptions while he is out on the sea. From the beginning, Santiago (the old man) was struggling against defeat. I was cheering him on ... this old man refuses to be defeated. He is determined to make that one great catch ... find that one great fish. And he lands "the" marlin. Well done!!! 

Sadly for those who love happy endings, it doesn't conclude with him carrying home that marlin and getting his photo in the local paper. 

Several arguments suggest this book is about man's struggle with nature. But I choose to see it as the story of man's place within nature. Both Santiago and the marlin display qualities of pride, honor and bravery. And, perhaps Hemingway was trying to say that though death is inevitable, man -- and animals -- can refuse to give in to its power and instead fight 'til the very end. Squeeze the most out of every moment. And in this struggle, man and animal show their worthiness. 

On Hemingway ... he starts in the middle. He doesn't waste words. In Farewell to Arms, it took me to the third chapter to clarify the fact that Henry (the narrator) was actually an ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I. I KNEW that, but Hemingway didn't waste words giving me that information directly. His exposition is subtle and made me feel like I was part of the story and not just reading it. That was an interesting discovery. And I'm sure his choices weren't accidental.


I kinda think Hemingway writes more for men and his style probably appeals more to men. I plan to finish Farewell to Arms at some point. But for now, I'm happy to have finally read two of Hemingway's great works. 

I've visited his house. Seems only right to read something he wrote there ...
                                                                                                                       -- Jenni