“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
I first read the opening lines from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, in 1963. My father had come home from the school where he taught English and handed me a brand new copy of the book. He said: “John, I think you’re going to like this. Give it a read.” I still have that book (pictured) and have read it many times since, and it is a text that never ceases to bring me great pleasure. It is the last book Hemingway wrote and quite different from any of his previous work. It has the stature of a book from the Bible.
Hemingway tells the tale of Santiago, an aging fisherman who, having gone for such a long time without landing a big fish, has lost all credibility in his community and all faith in himself. Fishing all alone one day, he does finally hook a huge marlin. After a fierce struggle, he defeats the fish and lashes it to the side of his boat, but he then has to battle the elements and ward off the attacks from predatory sharks that wish to feed off the fish. By the time Santiago reaches the harbour, little more than a carcass survives, though the head, the backbone and the tail remain as testimony to the immensity of his catch. The following day, Santiago’s fellow fishermen congregate around the skiff to applaud his achievement.
There are many ways to interpret this parable of persistence, but to me the novel has always been about Hemingway’s struggle as a writer, the struggle against writer’s block, the struggle to defeat the blank page and to land a big book that could stand alongside his earlier successes.
By coincidence, in August 2003 I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Passo Fundo in the south of Brazil during a weeklong literary festival. I chose to talk about the inclusion of women in literature, focusing briefly on the writings of Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys. On the coach trip taking various participants in the festival from the city of Porto Alegre to Passo Fundo, a Brazilian academic came up to me and introduced me to the writer, John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest. In the course of the week we spoke very little, but on the return coach trip we sat together and in a journey of three hours, we became very good friends and have remained so to this day. John wrote a magnificent memoir of his relationship with his father, Gregory, entitled Strange Tribe. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the Hemingway clan.
Following our first encounter, I did not see John again until I caught up with him in the first week of July this year when I travelled to the San Fermín festivities in Pamplona. But more of that further down the line.
Tomorrow I will post a story I wrote in 1996, centred on the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.