Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

I almost didn't meet Hemingway on his own terms.

I've read relatively little Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms in high school, a short story collection after that, and nothing else until this weekend when I read The Old Man and the Sea. An intentionally short novella, minimal cast, minimal action, and vivid in that spare way Hemingway could manage and a winner of one of the highest awards a book can get, the Pulitzer...and at first I was reading it like I was expecting a parody.

It's easy to parody Hemingway. I did it in 2011. Heck, I'm almost doing it in that first paragraph which has more "and"s than I usually write, though that is more aping than parodying. At some level I was reading the start of this book and wondering How did he get away with that? Which is shallow and unfair of me. I probably am more attuned to, say, Steinbeck than him, but I realized I wasn't trying yet to meet the book on its terms. So I started to read more carefully.

Here's where reading out loud helps. I remember reading large amounts of A Farewell to Arms out loud, especially the dialogue. Hemingway dialogue famously (infamously, if you like) rarely reads very naturally on the page, but the rhythms of it make some more sense aloud. (Also, because I was watching L.A. Law at the time, I imagined Catherine Barkley the nurse looking like Amanda Donohoe. You now know a little more about my tastes in women.) I read the opening out loud, as well as bits and pieces of later parts of the novella, like when I needed a reminder that only Hemingway words sound like his words. Heck, it's so short that it likely would have been easy to read the whole thing aloud.

The emotion of the piece does come through, even without flowery prose to help it. This book, for me, doesn't have the sad impact of another book that seems straightforward in its language but is setting you up for something emotionally devastating: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse 5. That book is sad to the point where it hurts. The Old Man and the Sea is more wistful-sad. And empathetic: the old man clearly cares for and respects the marlin he hooks.

Now I wonder if English professors ever assign their students to write The Old Man and the Sea from the point-of-view of the marlin. I thought that while reading it, and decided that would be the wrong way to explain the deep empathy of the book. Heck, that seems like a parody of schooling. I hope that doesn't happen. (Though damnit, I probably could write that. I have English Major skills! But no. That would not be fair. That would be treating this book as, at some level, a joke.)

It took some doing, but, as I try to, I met the book on its terms. Which is something that, say, a book like The DaVinci Code doesn't deserve. Parody something like that for all it's worth. And, meanwhile, I've read more. Time to read other books.
Tags: books

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