"It was considered a virtue," we read in The Old Man and the Sea, "not to talk unnecessarily at sea..." The same can be said about writing in literature. Nietzsche called it not showing all five fingers. Fine, but how many should we show?
Hemingway is lauded for his taut masterpiece, but his is not a unique art. Xenophon's account of Socrates makes Plato appear loquacious. Turgenev's Fathers and Sons makes us wonder whether Dostoyevsky didn't suffer from a similar affliction. Machiavelli demonstrated the virtue of taut writing by way of comparison: he condensed his entire teaching from The Discourses in The Prince.
What is arguably unique in Hemingway is his modernity, but the spirit of the times is less a virtue and more an attribute that even the greatest of imaginative writers fail to escape. Upon reflection, one cannot help but reconsider the extent to which Hemingway is really modern.
It is not only that we find classical simplicity in his prose. There is likewise the richness of content in each line. Nowhere is this more visible than The Old Man and the Sea.
The book has everything, from Homeric adventures akin to Odysseus's struggles on the sea to the religious mysticism of the greatest of the Catholic pustelnicy. How true to the Catholic heart do the Old Man's decades and promises of decades more sound! How compelling his solace in the heart of Mary.
Every line of this book is an ocean of books read and chewed on. Perhaps this is why so many of Hemingway's imitators fail? The narrative form is deceptively easy as is the minuta of detail. What is quite impossible to simply copy is a life of intimate communion with the written word. Hemingway famously claimed to be able to listen. We would do well to remember that it is possible to hear the dead by reading.
Norman Mailer had a sense of Hemingway's classical virtue when he wrote his fantastic nomination of Ernest Hemingway to run as the Democratic candidate against Dwight Eisenhower. Mailer of course mistook Hemingway's simple and manly activities for hobbies that would make him appealing to Middle America. He did not quite grasp that Athens was small town.
It is the same mistake made by those who read the Old Man as a sign of Hemingway's empathy for the little man. The Old Man was never little. The Champion remained so into old age and he is more a weathered Greek adventure than a forlorn modern.
The Old Man is not poor: we are.
The boy recognizes this and is driven by ambition to learn at least as much as sympathy to help. The only poor people are the tourists at the end. "I didn't know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails." The Old Man knew a lot.
The still beating heart of slaughtered turtles, the enduring love of a pair of marlin, la mar rather than el mar, "Hail Marys are easier to say than Our Fathers", the presence of mind to recognize a strange fish akin to a strange old man- the Old Man knew more than a lot.
Note: Cover photo from Arrow 1993 Edition/Personal collection