It’s time for another update on my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. For those of you following along at home, the first book I tackled was Oscar Wilde’s fascinating 19th century novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Next up is Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea.
Having not read much of any Hemingway outside of For Whom The Bell Tolls, which was based off his experience in the Spanish Civil War, I was past due to catch up with his better-known material. My wife encouraged me to read this as it’s one of her favorite books, and I can definitely see why. Hemingway was known for his tight sentence structure and there is no better example of such writing than this novel. Once again I don’t want to spend much time on the plot or influence of this book but let it suffice that this is a book about struggle. Struggle against that major goal in your life, struggle against your own personal demons, or struggle against some external force. The pure brilliance of the novel is that by keeping the story simple, Hemingway allows each reader to take away whatever he or she can regarding their own life. This helps lead into the first major writing lesson I found in this work.
First: Keep it simple. This adage is quite familiar to those who have read Hemingway’s work for years, but it especially rings true in this book. It can be said that not a whole lot happens in this novel, but what matters is how it is told. Through the simple language the reader feels they are right next to the fisherman in his boat, witnessing his travails in hooking the marlin and his strife in fighting off the sharks that attack it once it has been killed. Similarly, the author brings you right inside the internal and external monologues of the main character Santiago as we witness the conflicts roiling his soul in his attempt to land the biggest fish of his life. This is a writing technique that I hadn’t really considered and is one I hope to possibly use in the future. Hemingway had me hooked from the first pages of this novel, and I read with rapt attention all the way through the ending, which does not disappoint but offers a bold shot of illumination as I considered this book through the prism of life itself. This brings me to the next huge lesson as a writer I pulled from this book.
Second: Using a novel to tell a deeper truth about life. Hemingway’s final published work has been analyzed to death and read by countless children and adults who have found their own meaning in the fisherman’s battle to hook the marlin. All I can really speak to here is what I took away from the story, which is that each one of us has our own “marlin” in our lives that we are constantly pursuing. How many of us have sought a goal such as this and caught up to it, only to find “sharks” arrive to tear and drag away the carcass? Due to a lack of preparation, Santiago finds he has very limited tools to help him both keep the line going and fight off the sharks as they try to steal his prize. How many of us have felt the same disappointment in ourselves that he did, vowing to do better next time? The sheer force of the elementary language causes us to view this story as a metaphor for our own lives, and is written in such a manner that anyone can take away a parable that fits their own struggles. That is a major accomplishment for any writer, and proved without a doubt this man deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature the year after he published the work that would draw him international renown.
As with Wilde’s novel, this is another one I would highly recommend for any writer who wants to see a near-perfect example of the use of language to tell a deeply complex story. Once again we can learn volumes through the text itself, and while Hemingway was no stranger to offering advice to other writers, it is through his own work that we can learn the most.
Up next on the agenda for my year of living fictionally: Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Played Post Office. Or as my wife would put it, an example of “reading for pleasure” and a forcible ingestion of a type of genre book I would normally never take a second look at. Of course, this was before my time working at a bookstore and learning about the value of various niches. Stay tuned for another essay on that book as we carry on - and as always feel free to toss me your own recommendations for later in the year.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.