The Short Version: An old fisherman, down on his luck after a string of 85 days without a catch, sets out to sea again with the aim of catching a big fish. But when he snags a giant marlin, a battle begins that will take him to the edge of his abilities.
The Review: What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? It is a perfect novella. It feels handmade, in the way that the best furniture, the best instruments, the best physical objects often are. I’m mostly astounded that it took me 27.5 years of life before I read it.
I suppose what I found most interesting outside of the novel itself is the context of it – and context is, to a large extent, what The Ten Year Catch-Up is all about. The problems that I had with The Sun Also Rises – namely the artifice of the writing style, the sense that it was rather consciously crafted – are non-existent here: Hemingway has relaxed, internalized that storied writing style, and as a result it feels effortless. There are no glaring moments of “oh, he wrote something and struck it out” here – rather, the whole thing slips seamlessly from one moment to the next like waves rolling across the open ocean.
Perhaps it’s the tiny focus that makes Hemingway excel: this is, when it comes down to it, an incredibly simple story. One man, past his prime, heading out to battle the elements every day. It is in this stripping down – we barely know his name; he’s often referred to as the man or the old man, only rarely being called “Santiago” – that the story acquires its mythic standing, paradoxically. The reader knows this man, this old man, not because he is directly relatable but because he speaks to something that lives deep in the heart of every person. It’s human nature that drives him to keep going, to keep fishing, to keep fighting and while I ordinarily have some qualms about unabashed human nature (after all, that’s what’s gotten our planet to this breaking point – something that I daresay Hemingway would’ve been greatly concerned about, had he lived long enough to notice it), I find that Hemingway is writing about the very best of our nature in this book. Even as we urge Santiago to give up, to think of himself and his safety, we want him to win out, too. We want him to win out and survive, because the small triumph of one man can be enough to sustain all of us.
Hemingway’s odd sort of beauty is at its height in this book as well. Again, his unadorned prose is oft-discussed and oft-mimicked, to the point that any reader over the age of 13 or so will be hearing about “Hemingway-esque”, but it’s really amazing how infrequently the alchemy of that prose is discussed (or at least was discussed around me – and, having not read any Hemingway for school, I might simply have missed it). Find the passage when the old man first spots the marlin, as it leaps out of the water, and then find me a more beautiful passage in all of literature. It can be done, don’t get me wrong – but you’ll have to search. The awe that Hemingway feels for nature thrums through this book, even as he’s describing little more than an ocean and a boat.
Aside from the actual writing style, the other thread I’m already picking up in my reading of Hemingway is the sadness – the deep-seated sadness, perhaps colored by the fact that he committed suicide and that, to a modern reader, those signs are easy to be found. He was only in his early 50s when he wrote this book, but he has always seemed older than he really was – perhaps because of his time in the war, perhaps because he was always destined to have that melancholic streak and would’ve at no matter the moment in time. For all the roughness and brashness of The Sun Also Rises, that novel read like something written in a backwards glance, someone older remembering what it was like to be young – and here, it’d be easy to associate Hemingway with the old man. And while, yes, he died less than ten years after this book… 53/54 is not old. But it’s more than just skillful writing here: Hemingway’s soul knew something about the weight of a heavy life.
But by god if he didn’t create something truly beautiful out of that hardship.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Not a word out of place, not an unnecessary thought to be found. It is a perfect novel, or novella really. Potent, evocative, beautiful, and altogether human. There are novels that I love more than this one, but that’s because they speak to me in a personal and individual way – and very few of them at all are as technically perfect as this one. Mrs. Dalloway might be an equivalent novel, a “classic” that not only earns its moniker but that reshapes how you experience the world and how you encounter words. Books like this are far rarer than one might think. I am a little heartened, perhaps, to know that I can still be discovering them all these many years into my reading career.