By Daniel Offen
Along with hundreds of thousands of other children I read The Old Man and the Sea as a part of my GCSE syllabus, I probably wouldn’t have touched it otherwise. The general consensus among our class was that it was a book about a man who was bad at catching a fish and not much else. The claims of our teacher that the fish, or the old man, or anything else, represented an attempt by Earnest Hemingway to talk about anything greater than fishing were viewed with extreme suspicion.
Just last week an old school friend told me over a disappointing Wetherspoon’s burrito (even given low expectations) that he’d generally enjoyed the books we’d read in school aside from The Old Man and the Sea because it was about fishing and nothing else, and he did not like fishing. He emphasised the point by slamming his fork down into his nachos in search of cheese but only sending tiny dry splinters all across the table.
Teenagers would have us believe that Earnest Hemingway is in effect a humble failed sports writer; his attempts to cover competitive fishing purposefully misinterpreted as religious allegory by charlatan intellectuals to obtain grant money. They imagine Hemingway getting increasingly frustrated as his simple accounts of events are ascribed meaning he’d never even considered. “Thank you sending me your report on the Champions League final Earnest, but you appear to have actually sent me a literary masterpiece concerning man’s competition with his inner beast. Could you perhaps write a little more on Carlo Ancolotti’s unexpected use of 442?”
The above image shows the general attitude towards literary analysis – the idea that writers might inject their work with subtext is seen as nonsensical. If a writer describes a thing, that’s what they’re doing, just describing a thing. Such detail is necessary because readers are incapable of imaging anything without being given the exact dimensions of every object they’re supposed to conjure up in their mind’s eye. Really, writers don’t generally bother laying out every dull detail of the world, simply because it’s barely relevant. The only writer who does is Dan Brown and he is, in fact, not a proper author at all. Instead, The Da Vinci code was instead a version of the Argos catalogue that got out of hand, subsequently cobbled into a book by a skilled editor.
Anyway, back to The Old Man and the Sea. I’ll do a quick plot summary, but honestly most of the information you need is contained in the title. An old man is having a dry spell, so he goes to try to catch one last fish and then catches a very big one, but it takes him ages. It’s a pyrrhic victory, with the old man, the name of whom I’ve since forgotten, returning with little more than a massive skeleton, which is useless because fish bones are irritating and barely even good for stock.
The great thing about simplicity in literature, or indeed art in general, is that is creates a vacuum of interpretation where the reader, starved of content, must formulate their own ideas of the text. This is more nuanced than, but comparable to, giving a restaurant patron only plain bread as a meal then insisting that they’ve actually been given a culinary masterpiece because “the true sustenance exists in the spaces between the food.”
Perhaps, though, Hemingway’s famously simple style is primarily the result of laziness, maybe he doesn’t use long words because he can’t be bothered to type them up, or look up what they mean. He does, often, seem to argue that his brevity is a particularly manly way of writing. It’s only women, who have nothing to say but so much time to say it, he implies, who can be bothered to use such long words. Men, who are too busy with manly pursuits like shooting animals, chopping wood and wanking, simply don’t have the time.
The Old man in the Sea is a triumph of this style, though. It’s such a slight book in terms of plot that if it were any longer it would be interminable. It seems odd to allow a book to be described as a masterpiece only because it’s so short that it never becomes boring, but short books are an enterprise of which I am massively in favour. Only unspeakable arrogant writers, like Victor Hugo and J.K.Rowling believe that their vision is so important it needs to be told at length. The most humble, and therefore best, writer is Eric Carle who’s masterpiece The Very Hungry Caterpillar said all that it needed to in about 12 pages.
And, really, does the Very Hungry Caterpillar, if you really think about it, say anything less than The Old Man in the Sea? It’s a similar story of ambition, hunger and rebirth. There’s a religious allegory in both. There’s a discussion of masculinity, though you need to look quite deep to find this in TVHC, whose gender is never actually revealed. The brevity of both is to their aid, never expanding on their themes to the point where they rule some out; they leave open a wealth of interpretation that would otherwise not exist. This in mind, I’ve decided to cut this article shorter than originally planned. True quality is not found in length, at least that’s what I always say, anyway.