What the hell did I just read?
Okay. Let me start over.
My knowledge of Ernest Hemingway prior to reading this can best be summed up by three things. First, there’s a claim (most likely apocryphal) that he once won a wager that he could craft an entire story in only six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Second, in response to William Faulkner saying, “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”, Hemingway said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Lastly, I think it’s generally agreed that he’s one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.
That’s an admittedly small amount of information on which an opinion can be built.
So I delved into The Old Man and the Sea with no small amount of rapidity.
And…..this book has me questioning my own intelligence. How does a seminal work by one of the most widely hailed writers of the century, winner of no less than a Nobel Prize, end up feeling so….devoid of life?
Hemingway has built a story on a man fishing, infused it with Biblical imagery, and used it to frame a broader view of man’s role in nature. I get it. The old man’s struggle to catch the marlin speaks to the kill or be killed worldview of Hemingway’s masculine philosophy. The fish is a worthy adversary, so it must either be conquered or the cause of the man’s downfall. But, like Jesus, the protagonists ultimate failure to return home with the magnificent beast is his redemption. It makes him a hero.
But there’s no life, here. The prose is empty and parsimonious, vacant the vitality of a work I deem infinitely greater: Moby Dick. Hemingway enshrouds his character’s struggle in bland recitation and distant description. I, ultimately, don’t care and am not thrilled.
Contrast this with the fervent rush of excitement for the blandest minutiae in Moby Dick, where even the description of the deathly pallor of the sea made my heart beat faster. Where Herman Melville thrills and seems overcome by poetry and a convivial use of the English language, Hemingway squanders our fascination before it even begins to percolate, and dryly intones the barest hint of interest in his own story. Where’s the beauty? Where’s the wonder? Where’s the emotion he so disdainfully accused William Faulkner of needing big words to convey? How can the greatest work by one of the greatest writers be so goddamned….uninteresting?
It’s not even bad. It’s just….not memorable or remarkable in any way that I saw.
Which leaves me wondering what I’ve missed that so many others saw?