Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man & The Sea

Cover of "The Old Man and The Sea"

A short while ago, I decided to take part in at least one reading challenge set by a couple of book reviewers that I follow, The Insatiable Booksluts.

To get started in their Toe-Dippin category, I have been looking to read a handful of Pulitzer Prize winning novels or works by Nobel prize winners.

Having cheated somewhat with the comfortable post-apocalyptic feel of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I decided that  my next read should be Ernest Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea.

Again I feel as if I am cheating somewhat, of all the available works that have won the Pulitzer or Noble prizes, this short novel from Hemingway has won both.

Still, a work good enough to win both prizes must be worth reading; and the story’s length meant that I could start and finish in the bath – a fitting venue for such a nautical read.

I’ve never read Hemingway before and only recently have I had him recommended to me.

I found the narrative style of The Old Man and The Sea to flow comfortably, easing me gently into the environs of mid-20th century Cuba.

Well paced, the story moves quickly from the poverty and superstition surrounding the luckless Santiago (our titular Old Man) and onto a tale of perseverance and philosophy.

Hemingway shows me a world completely alien to my late 20th century upbringing.

The young “boy” Manolin dotes upon his former mentor with a sense of filial responsibility to put my generation to shame; likewise Santiago, reciprocating with a decorum befitting a man of his age and station without shaming himself with overt acceptance of aid.

After 84 days of unsuccessful fishing, the Old Man ventures out an 85th time, alone; he rows farther out than is usual in hope of landing a “big fish”.

Hemingway opens up Santiago’s inner thoughts to us, as he searches the sea for the right signs; as Santiago’s lines are pulled by potential catches so was my interest in the tale.

Hemingway builds a tangible tension in the reader, plucking at it and thrumming in the same way as the taut line affixed to Santiago’s Marlin.

For a long night and day, Santiago does calm and careful battle with the big fish before finally defeating it and attempting to bring it home.

During the battle, Santiago’s thoughts are of the nobilty of the battle itself; he bestows a level of kinship and honour upon the fish.

Santiago seems to cope well with the ordeals he faces, seeming to anthropomorphise his adversaries; lending them human characteristics.

His left hand betrays him, the big fish is a brother and the sharks filthy thieves stalking Santiago as they would an elderly victim.

He even puts some thought to the feminine and masculine qualities of the sea, which has played such an important role in his life.

Hemingway shows us extremes of both strength and humility in Santiago; giving a clear message of what one can be capable of when one puts one’s mind to it.

Santiago is a definite hero, through his outlook and determination if not in light of any success.

Throughout the narration of Santiago’s ordeals and his eventual return home, I got a real sense of isolation, peace, determination, sorrow and resignation.

Santiago doesn’t really put his circumstances down to bad luck, in the way his fellow sailors semm to; he accepts the simple mistake made in sailing too far from shore without another to help him.

Ernest Hemingway & Henry Strater 1935

In doing so, it seems that his peers accept his efforts as a sign that his run of bad luck has come to an end.

Coming home empty handed is unlucky; returning home safely, with an almost entirely devoured Marlin dwarfing one’s boat is anything but.

There is far more in this short work.

I’ve only touched on the philosophical ramifications and will absolutely have to read through again and again before I process them properly.

All in all, I’m glad I picked this up.

Maybe I’ll try more Hemingway in future.


The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The RoadAs I mentioned earlier, I have taken up the gauntlet set down by The Insatiable Booksluts and accepted their reading challenge.

To start with I chose Cormac McCarthy‘s pulitzer prize winning The Road.

A seemingly easy transition from the kind of pulp literature I am used to, I figured that this tale of a post-apocalyptic journey would ease me nicely into the less comfortable literary faire that sits on the Pulitzer list.

It was also to hand as a work colleague had kindly lent it to me after a conversation about how much I hated the film No Country for Old Men.

As The Road has also been translated to film, I’d mentioned that I hadn’t read it and would prefer to read it before seeing the film – lest the films imagery taint the author’s own descriptive talents.

I started reading at 19:30, after a light meal of Lemon Chicken and Rice; I finished at 22:25, with just enough time to watch the first two episodes of the eagerly anticipated second season of Mongrels on BBC3.

Now three hours isn’t by any means a record for me.  I think James Herbert’s The Rats currently holds the record for me, with a total reading time of 51 minutes beginning to end; but maybe that’s just  Herbert.

Within moments of starting out, I was completely wrapped up in McCarthy’s prose.  The nameless lead and his boy moved from scene to scene, carrying me, the reader, like an unseen guardian – impotent to help with the predicaments they face.

McCarthy’s descriptive prose is subtle enough to leave a lasting hint of the devastation and desolation the two wander through.  A dank and dusty world of grey, black and white.

Some of the more visceral scenes were not as shocking or disturbing as they were probably intended and in this regard I blame the hundreds of hours spent playing Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, where scenes of cannibalism and torture are the norm.

Whilst it is worth reading The Road for the scene setting alone, it is the interaction between Father and Son that really hooked me in.

I’m not a parent myself but McCarthy had me feeling that sense of paternal protection from the get go.

Most interesting of all is the disparate points of view between Father and Son, in particular the way that the Father tries to protect his Son from viewing scenes that the child has grown up with.  The Father seeks to protect his son from the more severe and charnel scenes of change in his world; the Son has never known a different world.

McCarthy also caused me to question the contemporary definition of Good and Bad.  The Father and Son see themselves as the Good Guys but as the story evolves, the Son’s infant understanding of Good and Evil in terms of black and white are contrasted with the Father’s shades of grey.

This manifests at its best in the Son’s silence, as he presumably mulls over the perceived wrong-doings of his Father; a silence broken when his Father gives honest justification of previous actions. As the relationship unfolds we see the Son understanding the reasons behind his Father’s actions but I’m left with the impression that the Son disagrees.

All in all, I enjoyed The Road.  It’s a little maudlin but thought-provoking at the same time.

Definitely worth spending a few hours on.

I’ll certainly not turn my nose up at other offerings from McCarthy and I will definitely seek the film out now but I think I’d like to try something more cheerful for the next challenge.

Accepting a Reading Challenge

I like to read.

That may be an understatement.

I’ve never considered reading a challenge but, instead, seem to devour books, beginning to end, with an alacrity that hints at addiction.

I read less these days because I find it difficult to manage that addiction.

necroscopeI remember one late December in my mid-teens, collecting the entire Necroscope series (5 thick tomes), from Huddersfield‘s Greenhead Books (now split into a charity shop and a shoe shop).

I locked myself in my bedroom for three days (two nights) and read them end to end.

It shocked me.  I’d always been able to read shorter novels in good time but I’d never dedicated so much time purely to the pursuit of reading.  My earlier exposure to such classics as Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings or Herbert’s Dune had taught me to savour each chapter and take time over the books I read – but Brian Lumley‘s original quintet of pulp horror and psychic heroism broke those chains.

Many people say that certain books are “un-put-downable” – for me, most books follow that description.  Of the few books I have encountered that I have been able to easily put down, many have ended up launched as bumf, dross not worth the paper they’re printed upon.  (Stephen King’s Tommy Knockers and the first Sookie Stackhouse story by Charlaine Harris – I’m thinking of you here).

So the concept of a reading challenge actually, well, challenges me… a number of levels.

Firstly, whilst I would say I am particularly well read, I do tend to opt for trash fantasy, pulp horror and science fiction.  Avoiding the kind of novels that my absolute idiot of an English Teacher forced upon me at GCSE.

I accept I had an abnormal reading age compared to my peers, I remember the protests my infant school teacher made when I insisted on us reading Gulliver’s Travels
in class.  I just didn’t understand that my peers were happy with Meg & Mog – I certainly wasn’t.

If only we had been offered The Shadow Over Innsmouth or Warhound and the World’s Pain instead of The Cay and Cry, the Beloved Country.

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I seek comfort in tales of heroism, sword and sorcery out of some kind of childish rebellion against the trivia spoonfed to me over two decades ago, at school.

Things improved at college, I had a wonderful lecturer in German who introduced me to Brecht, Süskind and Kafka; for the first time, not only did I understand why I should broaden my literary horizons but also that there really were no boundaries.  She also taught me how to properly review a book, something that nobody had bothered to do throughout my whole academic career.

Secondly, as hinted at earlier, I rarely find time to read properly these days.  I either schedule a short amount of time in and therefore don’t really enjoy it or I start and find it difficult to stop.  Many a grumpy day at work has been the cause of a reluctant three am break in a really good book.

And so, it is with some sense of caution and excitement, that I take up the gauntlet set down by a pair of book reviewers that I follow: The Insatiable Booksluts.   You can find full details on the challenges they have set by clicking on the image below.

Join the challenge!

To make this properly a challenge for me, I’m going to actually try their first two challenges, “Toe Dippin'” and “Full Frontal”.  I’d like to try my hand at “Jet Setter” and “Genre Buster” as well but we’ll see how I do with the non-standard offerings in the Noble Laureate and Pulitzer sections first… and there’s always the “Extra Credit” challenge.

I’m actually well set up to start with as a work colleague has lent me the pulitzer prize winning The Road.  I’ll read it shortly and post a brief review up here as a way of proving my progress towards the challenge.  I’ll try tag the reviews under “Reading Challenge” or “IBC” or something like that to make them easier to collate; I’ll also try to remember to title them in some way so as to allow the posts to be ignored by people who don’t really care about my reading habits.