Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Men Without Women

I’ve just read the collection of short stories Men Without Women. I’m not often drawn to short stories but they suit Hemingway’s style – he says so much with so few words. I have to admit sometimes the stories were so subtle I had to re-read them a couple of times, but it was certainly worth it.

My favourite stories in the collection were two of his more famous works: Hills Like White Elephants and In Another Country. Both have a sadness to the relationships between men and women that seem incredibly poignant. In Hills Like White Elephants the story is entirely based around what isn’t said. The couple sitting having a beer before catching a train have an involved history and are struggling with how to move their relationship forward. There is truth and love, jealousy and emptiness; it is like a battle between them to see who can care the most whilst making the other as unhappy as possible.

In Another Country is a touching story dealing with war heroes, cowardice, guilt and grief. Big themes for a seven page story! The feeling I have when reading Hemingway’s writing is that he fully knows his subject. It was something I thought when I read The Old Man and the Sea too. Unlike other writers, he doesn’t smack you in the face with how much he knows, or how much research he has done. Instead there is just an underlying authoritative tone, where I was quite willing to accept anything he said as truth.

Brilliant, but not quite as epic as The Old Man and the Sea.

Fish, he said softly, aloud, I’ll stay with you until I am dead

Designed by Chris Wharton

If you’d asked me to read a hundred pages about fishing, I would have laughed. But Ernest Hemingway’s hundred pages about fishing are like nobody else’s. The Old Man and the Sea is a literary work of genius where Hemingway shows himself to be a master of his craft. In A Moveable Feast he talks about the work involved in writing, making sure every word counts: this story is the proof of it. I can’t imagine anything that would improve it.

The old man is a fisherman in Havana who has gone eighty five days without catching a fish. A bit of a laughingstock, he sails in search of the ‘big fish’ he feels fated to catch. The story is mostly told by the old man speaking aloud to himself, and the fish, and is very descriptive about the tides, the lines, the bait. I was surprised at how interesting it all was – I love being by the sea but fishing is never something that has struck me as interesting before. I think it’s a testament to the skill of the storyteller. If you (like me) have never thought of fishing as beautiful before then imagine reading about it in language like this:

He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

A lot of his writing is informative, very matter of fact, so how does it come to be so beautiful? Perhaps it is the way the story becomes representative of grander ideas, like heroism and the grief that comes with destruction. The man and the fish are treated as equal and respectful adversaries. The old fisherman is quite philosophical:

It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

I really enjoyed this book because of its weightiness. Fishing is the old man’s life but also his burden. The struggle to kill the big fish is necessary but full of sadness. Nobody can write like Hemingway. NOBODY! Try reading this book and not being moved. This is my favourite part:

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.

Hemingway’s writing has a quality to it that really moves the reader, whether describing Paris in the 1920s or a Havana fisherman. I’m looking forward to reading more Hemingway to try to pin down the indescribable: I love his writing, I just don’t understand why.